CHEAP OR CHIC?

Is a good wine all in the taste or is the label equally important?
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The Independent Culture
It Seemed like a good idea at the time. Gather five people (four civilians and one professional) with extensive experience of tasting. Get them to try 20 wines, at different price levels. Objective: see if they can guess the price of each wine. Hidden agenda: discover some low- priced wonders that outscored their pricier rivals.

Using my database of Independent on Sunday readers, I assembled the team at Bibendum, 113 Regents Park Road, London NW1. They consisted of Julio Grau (age 40), a chemist by training who now works as a fund-raising researcher for the Royal Opera House; Dr Robert Asher (49), GP, a veteran of an earlier tasting; Andrew Leonard (30), consultant in thoracic medicine; Nick Graham (39), project manager for British Airways; and Emma Davis (27), public relations supremo for Majestic Wines plc.

We used Bibendum's wines, with representatives of 10 major grapes and styles, costing from pounds 4.50 to pounds 19. There were two wines in each category, with price differences ranging from 50p to pounds 13. My team had the brief of evaluating, scoring, and guessing a price for each. They also noted what they would want to pay, if that differed from the guessed price. That was the plan, and they carried it out with remarkable diligence.

But our project proved much more difficult than I had imagined. If all wine tasting is a personal experience, evaluating cost and value takes subjectivity to extremes. There are just too many variables hindering precision. For one thing, evaluation of price is inevitably affected by personal preferences and buying habits. In many cases there were striking differences between estimated price and the price they would want to pay if buying the wines themselves.

Another problem was that tasting 20 bottles gives what Robert Asher called "a snapshot" of their qualities rather than a well rounded picture. Example one: the whites were too cold when we tasted them first - so they probably showed up worse than they might have. Example two: a few of the wines were ready for drinking, but several need more bottle age. Example three, and most crucial of all: wines change over time after their corks have been pulled. You have probably observed how a bottle changes in the course of a dinner party.

Trickiest of all is the problematic nature of good value in wine. For instance, an pounds 8.50 chardonnay doesn't seem cheap, but when it comes from Burgundy, it's rare to find anything cheaper that doesn't taste insipid. On the other hand, an pounds 8.50 chardonnay from Chile would be expensive: the base level there is more like pounds 4.49. Should you take the region of origin into account when judging value, or just the quality of the wine? And should you make allowances for immaturity? Questions, questions. And I'm not sure we answered them fully.

The difficulties of the project were borne out on the evening of the tasting, when my wife and I sat down to annihilate a few lamb cutlets with remnants from two of our tasting bottles, the Hermitage and Mature Margaux. By that time both bottles had been open for 12 hours, and they were stunning - as all wine should be - with good food. The Hermitage had opened out to reveal a wonderful depth and complexity which made my wife Emma remark: "This is what real wine tastes like." Of the silken Margaux she admired "the smoothness you only get with expensive wine. It's like the difference between still and sparkling water." Those qualities will not last forever, but while they do - watch out! Buy a bottle while stocks last.

The overall pattern in my panel's guessing was of under-pricing: they thought the wines cost less than they do. It would be thrilling to claim that this revealed uniform over-pricing in the wines tasted, but I don't think it's that simple. There may be something more complicated and messy at work here, a conflict between perceived value and real economic value. Making superior wine costs more, and the producer has to be paid for the extra expense. Wine-making costs more in some places, because labour and other unavoidable costs are higher. Costs will also be higher for wines made in smaller quantities, with further upward pressure exerted by the laws of supply and demand. All this means that while well informed drinkers can have fixed ideas of what a particular wine should cost, immutable realities mean they'll always have to pay more.

With that battalion of qualifications and mea culpas armed and combat- ready, here are the wines and a distillation of comments. Make of it what you will ...

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