Regular readers may recall that, some weeks ago, this column spoke about the insatiable Californian appetite for "cult" wines made in the Napa Valley. If you are not a regular, here's the essentials: low supply, high demand and the prodigious wealth generated mostly in Silicon Valley combine to produce outlandish prices for Napa's rarest wines. The wines themselves may or may not be wonderful. The money they fetch is definitely amazing.

Regular readers may recall that, some weeks ago, this column spoke about the insatiable Californian appetite for "cult" wines made in the Napa Valley. If you are not a regular, here's the essentials: low supply, high demand and the prodigious wealth generated mostly in Silicon Valley combine to produce outlandish prices for Napa's rarest wines. The wines themselves may or may not be wonderful. The money they fetch is definitely amazing.

Well, that was then. This is now. In early June, several new price-records were set at the 20th annual Napa Valley Wine Auction. For instance: $500,000 (around £330,000) for a six-litre bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 1992, and $270,000 (£178,000) for a 10-year-old Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

Not all of the money that poured out for these wines came from Silicon Valley. Dee Lincoln of Plano, Texas, shelled out $270,000 for eight magnums of Dalla Valle's Maya Cabernet Sauvignon (a great wine, by the way), which she's planning to list in her chain of Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouses. "This is a wonderful wine that goes wonderfully with steak," she said of her Maya purchase. At that price, it had better be.

Before you gnash your teeth at these insanities, you should remember that this was a charity auction, and that the money raised went to good causes in an area that harbours huge inequalities of wealth. Also, a good chunk of each purchase could be claimed as a tax deduction. Failing that, just burst with envy. Or dismiss the buyers as crazy. I'm undecided myself.

But one thing I do know is that these prices say a lot about the role of psychology in determining what people will pay for a bottle of wine. To most wine drinkers, a bottle of Screaming Eagle is not worth £41,000. Indeed, to most drinkers, no wine is worth £40. But to the .0000001 per cent of the population that disagrees, mind-bending prices are a positive virtue. These are the people who pay £2 extra for Cloudy Bay, bypassing other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs of equal merit. They think wine is better when it costs a lot.

I think wine is better when you pay too little for it. And there's plenty of summery whites that fall into that category. They begin with a trio from Hungary, which often excels at low prices that would signal danger in a lot of other countries. Riverview Sauvignon Blanc 1999, Sopron (Safeway, £3.99), is a zippy and pungent summer star from Hungary's excellent Neszmely co-op, while Bin 66 Hilltop Gewürztraminer 1999 (Sainsbury's, £3.99), also from Neszmely, somehow succeeds in getting a nutty quality from this Alsace grape rather than the standard-issue lychees. Third up is Matra Springs 1999 (Waitrose, £2.99), an unorthodox blend (Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat) producing a peachy summer glugger that's as attractive as you're likely to spot at this price. All these wines would look reasonable with an extra 50p on the price-tag.

However, you're in a different league altogether with Chardonnay Esprit de Combelle 1998, Vin de Pays des Cÿteaux de l'Ardÿche (£5.99, Bordeaux Direct, 0870 167 6262). Creamy lemon and pineapple flavours, wonderful fresh acidity and a soft, comforting underlay of warm oak. New World Chardonnay, watch out. When I first tasted it I thought the price was £8.99 - which seemed slightly excessive but just about tolerable. When I learned the true number, however, it became clear that this was not just a lovely wine but a notable bargain. Which means, I suppose, that they won't buy it in Silicon Valley.

Comments