Fine wines: Not to be sniffed at

It's easy to find decent wine for under a fiver. So why are more and more people spending £20 a bottle? Ed Caesar reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

At the outbreak of the Second World War, diners at Simpson's-in-the-Strand enforced a strict boycott on all things German. All things, that is, except their beloved hock (Rhineland white wine), which they continued to quaff with unpatriotic abandon until supplies ran out halfway through the conflict.

The British, it seems, have always had a particular affection for wine, and never more so than in the past decade. Inexpensive selections at supermarkets, media interest, and the availability of produce from every corner of the globe has made wine even more popular.

And now, in 2005, Britain's relationship with wine has developed once more. We are, says Majestic Wine - whose financial figures show 18 per cent profit this year - spending more and more on "fine wine". In Majestic alone, sales of fine wine - categorised as wine costing over £20 a bottle - have increased 43 per cent. But who's buying it?

"Maybe it's a special occasions thing," says Vicki Wonders, manager of the Docklands branch of Majestic, "but we're selling cases in which seven or eight of the bottles are everyday wine, but three or four bottles are fine wine."

Majestic, which only sells by the case but will allow customers to "mix and match" their wines, has installed fine-wine counters to deal with this surge of interest in high-quality vintages. While the average price of a case of wine in the Docklands branch is £100-£120, around £8-£10 a bottle, a case of Château Léoville-Las Cases St-Julien from the fine- wines counter will set an oenophile back £600. Bottles of it are flying off the shelves.

"People are learning more and more about wine," says Wonders. "And as they learn, they are prepared to spend more. It's part of a trend where everyone's trading up. Our sales of £7-£10 wines are also up. Previously, perhaps, those people would have been buying under £7. If you understand that the first £2 of every bottle of wine is spent on taxes, then you understand that a £3 bottle is, by definition, not going to be great quality. Every pound you spend on top of that initial £2 is improving the quality, although price isn't an exact reflection of quality."

"These days, you get what you pay for," says The Independent's wine critic Anthony Rose, developing this theme. "You should expect an increase in quality from a £10 bottle to a £20 bottle. Having said that, the increase in price does not always reflect a commensurate increase in quality. You don't double the quality by doubling the price. You are paying a premium for more limited production, or a special issue, or the iconic status that the producer has accorded the wine."

Our appetite for expensive wine has, nevertheless, ballooned. But Tim How, the CEO of Majestic Wine, is keen to sound a note of caution. "We're keen to increase interest in the fine-wine market, but generally, when people trade up, they do so by very small amounts.

"We're still dealing with a market that heavily emphasises value. Our average bottle sale is up very little, from £5.46 to £5.54. People can be encouraged to spend a pound more, perhaps, and sometimes to experiment with an expensive bottle, but it takes time."

The Independent's straw poll at the Canary Wharf branch of the Nicolas chain showed that London's highly paid financiers think nothing of spending £20 on a bottle of wine. When asked what was the maximum sum they were prepared to spend on a bottle, and whether their wine spending had risen or fallen over the past year, the suits revealed largesse. The lowest maximum price for a bottle of wine was £10, from a 26-year-old junior banker "although I might spend a little more if I was trying to impress my girlfriend's parents". One 47-year-old broker said that there would be "no real limit - £100 perhaps?".

Most people plumped for £20-£30 for non-sparkling wine, but would be prepared to spend much more on champagne. There was, however, little to suggest that anyone was spending radically more than they had done in the past. Conspicuous consumption is hardly a new thing in the financial world.

David Onolfo, manager of the Canary Wharf branch of Nicolas, said that most of his customers spent more than £10 on a bottle of wine. "We've sold out of much of our burgundy at the moment," he says, pointing at the space on the shelf. "It is very popular. And you can't get a nice burgundy for under £10."

Outside the moneyed enclave of Canary Wharf, however, not everyone is drinking double-figured burgundy. In supermarkets nationwide, decent bottles are still available at heavily reduced prices. It is because of that accessibility and affordability that wine has enjoyed such a renaissance over the past 10 years, and the wine industry is being careful not to overplay this recent trend for a better class of wine.

Twentysomethings worth the outlay

2001 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva

Around £28.50, Selfridges, Tanners (01743 234500), Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh (0131-556 6066).

A brilliant modern chianti with a touch of cabernet sauvignon producing a sumptuous, dark cherry fruity rosso.

2002 Lequin-Colin Chassagne Montrachet, 1er Cru Morgeots

£22.50, Stone, Vine & Sun, Winchester (08450 614 604).

Stylish, intense white burgundy, whose minerally qualities are enhanced by racy acidity and a nutty character.

Fernando de Castilla, Antique Amontillado

£19.99, Wine Rack, selected Threshers.

This amazingly complex and rich dry sherry looks more like a brandy than an amontillado sherry, and the quality of the product justifies the elegant presentation.

2001 Pommard, Domaine Comte Armand

£32/£24.98 bottle/case, Berry Bros & Rudd, London SW1 (08709 004 300; www.bbr.com).

This super-fragrant Pommard red burgundy with its vibrant raspberry fruitiness in a stylish framework of elegantly applied oak highlights the clarity and quality of pinot noir.

2000 Marqués de Vargas Reserva, La Rioja Alta

£25.35, £23.45 bottle/case, Jeroboams & Laytons shops, London ( www.jeroboams.com).

A classy modern reserva rioja displaying powerful aromas of vanilla and the rich, vibrant quality of black fruit.

Anthony Rose

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