Feel free to splash out on special wines - just make sure you don't put cult status in front of common sense

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to chuckle over the prices that some people are willing to pay for Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. While few New Zealand Sauvignons cost more than around £13, Cloudy Bay fetches prices that roughly double that: (£227.95 per dozen from Seckford Wines, tel: 01394 446 643, for instance, with an £11.75 delivery charge per consignment). Just one bottle will set you back £26 at Berry Bros & Rudd (tel: 08709 004 300, www.bbr.com).

And will your money be well spent? Ha! Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes an outstandingly good example of New Zealand's best-known grape variety. But the prices charged for it long ago lost all relation to the wine's intrinsic merits.

Extraordinary quality in its early years made possible one of the canniest marketing efforts in wine history, creating the perception that it is made in small quantities when it is not. It has become a cult wine. And there are suckers with the money and desire to buy it. God bless 'em. But give me either of the two New Zealand alternatives to the right, or the odd man out which just happens to be a lovely, interesting wine at a fraction of the price.

What does this whole idea of "cult" wines mean? Well, it means something having to do with scarcity, and if you want truly scarce then you can look at the boutique wineries of California, principally of the Napa valley. Here a handful of wineries make stuff in quantities so small, and with demand so high, they have waiting lists to get on the waiting lists.

As it happens, some of these wines are exceptional. Those from Grace Family Vineyards, Araujo and Harlan are particularly good - Bordeaux-type blends of world-class quality. Uvine.com, the excellent online wine exchange (average price paid is £225 a case), is currently offering wines from three of the cultists, and the prices make Cloudy Bay look like a can of lager and a packet of crisps.

Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, the cultiest of the cults, is selling for £3,000 for a three-bottle case. I've never tasted it, but I have tasted wines from Colgin, and they're heady stuff, selling at Uvine for £4,200 a case of 12. Please note that these prices do not include shipping. Christopher Burr, head of Uvine, notes wryly that, "the wines are not exactly running out the door".

I'm all in favour of splashing out from time to time on an exceptional bottle. Life's too short not to. And if you ever spend £40 to £50 a head on a meal you've forgotten about the next day, splashing out on wine should rank high on your list of consuming priorities.

For £26, you can buy very good and exceptional bottles from France, Italy, Austria and Germany. To take just three examples: £26.45 will buy a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet 2001, Etienne Sauzet, from Lay & Wheeler (tel: 01206 764 446, www.laywheeler.com); an even £26 will buy the Châteauneuf du Pape 2001 of Le Vieux Donjon from Yapp Brothers (tel: 01747 860 423, www.yapp.co.uk); for £20 to £28, you can pick from most of the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau valley in Austria, one of the world's great wine regions (check out Noel Young, www.nywines.co.uk, tel: 01223 844 744).

If you want to creep up even a little bit in the direction of those Napa valley wünderkinder, £50 or £60 will gain you access to most of the world's best wine. Great Burgundy and claret, both hugely expensive areas, are within your reach here. Or you can spend £26 on a bottle of Cloudy Bay, a perfectly good wine that happens to sell for far more than it's really worth. It's your choice.

Top corks: Three clear alternatives

Blind River Sauvignon Blanc 2003, Marlborough £9.99, Oddbins Made in similar fashion to Cloudy Bay, with barrel fermentation adding complexity to the tinned pea and tropical fruit flavours

Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley 2003 £10-11, widely available From this unimpeachable producer, a veritable fruit salad of tropical, melony and vivacious gooseberry flavours

Les Grandes Vignes du Roy 2003, Côtes- du-Rhône £7.75, Adnams (tel: 01502 727 222) Odd wine out. Great example of old world know-how. Fresh but deep