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Jefford on Monday: Beyond best

Andrew Jefford compares fine wine pricing to Paul Pogba's £89 million transfer to Manchester United and explains why he's throwing in the towel on his former wine-purchasing ambitions.

At some point over the last year, I realised something had changed in my relationship with wine. I didn’t want the best any more.

This may sound crazy to you. How can one not want to taste, enjoy and own the wine world’s summits? Let me explain a little more.

The best wine is now unaffordable

Notions of ‘affordability’, of course, are relative: that’s obvious. Personal circumstances are all, and a particular price for a bottle of wine is either affordable or unaffordable in relation to one’s wealth as a functioning economic unit (as an individual or a family). In the interests of journalistic transparency, I‘ve made an annual disclosure of earnings on my own website from 2011 onwards – so by consulting that you can, if you wish, approach what follows with some relevant figures to hand.

I first bought ‘the best’ in 1983, when I purchased a case of Pichon-Lalande 1982 for £9 a bottle, equivalent to £28.71 in 2016 figures (allowing for inflation). It was wonderful wine, and at that price I never had qualms about drinking it: bliss.

How fine wine prices have risen since the early 2000s


liv-ex fine wine prices, jefford

Liv-ex data shows fine wine prices have more than doubled in many cases even since 2003. Credit: Liv-ex Cellar Watch data

I have subsequently bought ‘the best’, but the prices have risen steadily. Pichon-Baron 1990 at £30 a bottle (£60 allowing for inflation); Bâtard-Montrachet 1995 from Sauzet at £69.50 a bottle (£117); Ch Margaux 1996 at £97 a bottle (£164); La Fleur Pétrus 1998 at £45.62 a bottle (£72.54); Lynch-Bages 2000 at £40.15 a bottle (£61.03).

Per bottle prices for the latest releases of these wines vary from around £100 a bottle for Lynch-Bages 2015 to £400 a bottle for the Ch Margaux 2015; and a young vintage of the Sauzet Bâtard is going to cost at least £200, so we can say that the prices of ‘the best’ have certainly accelerated ahead of inflation.

Meanwhile, when inflation is taken into account, my current earnings are about 27 per cent less than my two best earnings years (2000 and 2008), and those earnings now support a family of four. I only mention these circumstances to point out how the affordability of ‘the best’ can easily be obliterated, which is why most of the purchases above have been re-sold: wines like these are now just too costly for us to buy or valuable for us to drink. Typical?

‘For the best wine to be truly affordable, you’d have to be in the top three percent of UK earners’

Perhaps surprisingly, any income of over £60,000 per year puts its earner in the top seven per cent of the UK working population (2013-2014 figures, the latest available), so I am already much better paid than most of my compatriots, as well as an immensely privileged individual in a global sense.

Yet for ‘the best’ wine to be truly ‘affordable’ for those with children to support, I think you’d actually need to be in the top three per cent of UK earners; in other words earning more than £91,300 per year before tax, or earning at least that much as a couple. Ideally, you’d be a one-percenter (£159,000 per year +): those people own 21 per cent of the UK’s wealth — but must surely own a much, much larger percentage of all the country’s top wine.

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The best is overpriced

If a particularly commodity is high-status, sought-after and limited in supply, then ‘the best’ will always be disproportionately more expensive than other quality categories of that commodity, by virtue of nothing more than its rarity.

Paul Pogba, jefford

Is Paul Pogba 89 times better than a one million pound footballer? Credit: Manchester United FC.

Footballer Paul Pogba (who moved on 9 August this year from Juventus to Manchester United for a record transfer fee of £89 million) is not 89 times better than a professional footballer whose fee is £1 million, or infinitely better than a player who moves on a free loan. He is better by an incalculable number of small increments, and he justifies his fee because those slight incremental improvements are very hard for the managers and owners of football clubs to locate in a single individual. Wine is no different. The best must necessarily — by any value-for-money standard or (if you prefer) objective assessment of quality increments — be overpriced. If affordability of ‘the best’ is a consideration (as it will be for 97 per cent of Britons), forget it.

The best isn’t interesting

Let me be clear: I don’t mean that great wine cannot offer sublime drinking pleasure. Of course it can, and if any of my one-percenter friends offer me a glass of Cheval Blanc or Musigny, I count myself fortunate and revel in the experience. I would love to be able to drink these wines at home, informally and thoughtfully, a few times a year.

Such wines tend to be tasted reverentially amid conservative surroundings, though; they are often (in my opinion) over-aged by their owners; and it requires no great intelligence, originality and tasting ability to single them out for praise, or lavish them with points. Because of their status, they are often accumulated and served en masse at ‘pinnacle events’ (grand, showy horizontals or verticals) where full, profound and leisurely appreciation and enjoyment of their qualities is impossible. In other words, tasting great wine can often be a pre-programmed, ritualised experience. It may be exquisite, but it isn’t necessarily interesting.

Whereas if you sit down with an old friend in a restaurant in Heraklion, and he suggests you try a bottle of Yiannis Economou’s 2006 Liatiko, and you discover that it looks and tastes like some kind of kinky, low-acid cousin of Barolo, and its aromatic sweetness (sniffed amid the restaurant scents of burnt sage and grilled octopus) makes you think for some reason of Byzantium, and its savoury qualities and lush tannins bond perfectly with the roast goat and bitter foraged wild greens which the Egyptian-Filipino waitress has just brought you … well, all of that is interesting. In twenty years, I may well be dead. I want as much interest as possible in my tasting life before I die.

The best is somebody else’s decision

Sometimes I adore ‘the best’ wines which I’m served; sometimes their strengths seem to me to be gestural and button-pushing; on rare occasions I think they’re an out-and-out swindle. But the point is that they are always someone else’s definition of ‘the best’: in essential, a committee verdict by the world’s one-percenters, working in co-ordination with a few centuries or decades of tradition.

After forty years of thoughtful and questing wine drinking, I now know the kind of thing I like to buy for my own drinking — as opposed to the much broader spectrum of wines which I would hope to appreciate professionally. If it’s red, I want some kind of palpable and detaining tannic presence (based on skins or stems, of course, not oak or powder) and textural wealth; I don’t relish unripe, prominent or exaggeratedly structural acidity; I’m looking for a certain sobriety, challenge or allusiveness of aroma and flavour, and sometimes a strange sort of viscerally appealing comeliness (which Merlot can provide in Pomerol, for example, or Cabernet in Napa). If it’s white, I want some discretion and subtlety, a closeness of grain, a little teasing aromatic intrigue. The non-fruit flavours we call ‘mineral’ are usually welcome.

Purity and limpidity are outstanding virtues in wines of either colour (more of this in a later blog). Originality of flavour is preferable to banality, though on its own it does not guarantee merit. I don’t want too much fruit in wines of either colour; I don’t want any palpable oak at all; I don’t want violence of flavour, garish balances, or the lack of drinkability which goes with these things. I don’t want wine to smell like cider or beer.

These are my tastes; yours may be quite different. But whatever they are, you can probably eliminate three-quarters of all the wines commonly considered ‘the best’ in different categories by arriving at a calm understanding of your own preferences, and by hunting them down wherever they might be found. Given my set of tastes, it’s not difficult, for example, to find wines which deliver much more profound satisfaction than many of the world’s ‘bests’ by hunting round for outstanding sub-€25 bottles in Alsace, Bordeaux, South-West France, Roussillon, the Southern Rhône valley, Italy, Austria or Germany. And when ‘the best’ is your decision – then it really is the best.

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