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The great chateaux conspiracy

The dearest wines with the most famous labels must be the best, right? Wrong, writes Yvette Cooper
EVER sloshed down a glass of posh wine, unable to tell the difference between its fine bouquet and the pong of cheap plonk? Blaming it on your unsophisticated taste buds, ashamed perhaps of your lack of discrimination, you may even have preferred that pounds 3.99 bottle from the supermarket to the offerings at 10 times the price. And you may indeed have wondered quite what explains those astonishing variations in price as you cruise through the crus on the off-licence shelf.

Wonder no longer. Three French economists have been poring over the sediment of 519 bottles of Bordeaux, and they have published their findings in the latest edition of the Economic Journal, published today. Those suspicions were right. It seems, according to the new research, that the price of a claret has indeed very little to do with taste, and very much to do with the label on the bottle instead.

The price of a quick quaff from Bordeaux, the world's largest wine-producing region, varies substantially. Skip through the 13,000 chateaux and co-operatives that churn out the wine, wander between the 54 appellations and the prices spin from 10 francs to 10,000 francs. Wine experts agree that the quality and the character of the different wines varies widely too, from the petits chateaux everyday clarets which can be drunk within 18 months of harvest, to the slow maturing types that need several years in the cellar.

For the economists - Pierre Combris, Sebastien Lecocq and Michael Visser - such variety was essential: it allowed them to measure what they called a hedonic price function. In other words, they examined how the price of a bottle of Bordeaux wine depended on its other measurable attributes - including vintage, area, traditional ranking of the wine, smell and taste.

Sadly for the academics, rather than take a glug from every bottle themselves, they left the tasting to juries of professional wine experts. Blind to the label, the price and even the appearance of the wines they were sniffing, juries described and assessed every one of the 519 different wines. Suppleness, fatness, acidity and flatness; all these details and more were recorded for each wine, allowing the academics to build a list of "sensory characteristics" to sum up taste and smell. Finally the juries, still blind, accorded an overall quality grade to each wine.

When the economists compared that grade with the individual sensory characteristics, the relationship was rather obvious. The wines that the juries felt were well concentrated, or which had an intense aroma, tended to get higher grades.

So far, so straightforward. But when the economists looked for a relationship between the price of the wine and these sensory characteristics, they could hardly find one. Forget all that fatness and harmony - the factors apparently so important to the professional juries. They may make the wines taste nice, but they have very little impact on price at all. According to Mr Combris and his colleagues, the factors that affect quality and those that affect price are very different.

So what does influence the price tag? Tradition and labelling. The economists also measured for every wine they studied a series of "objective characteristics" that any consumer could discover just by looking at the bottle. They found that these observable attributes had a powerful effect on the price.

But one "objective characteristic" had a huge impact on the price, but bore no relation at all to the quality assessment of the juries: the Medoc ranking. In 1855, the top 59 chateaux in the Medoc region at the time were ranked according to the prices their wines fetched. The most expensive were the Premier Crus (first growths) followed by the Deuxiemes, Troisiemes, Quatriemes and Cinquiemes Crus. Outside these 59 so-called crus classe are the entertainingly named crus bourgeois, as well as a myriad of unclassified minor chateaux.

One-hundred-and-forty-two years later, such rankings still count for something. The Premier Crus chateaux such as Latour and Lafite still fetch the most cash today. Mr Combris and his colleagues discovered that rank still has a significant impact on price. However, it has no measurable impact at all on the quality as measured by the blindfolded juries.

Because wine buffs a century and a half ago were prepared to pay large sums for the best Bordeaux, it seems we are swallowing the same wines today, and the same price patterns too, regardless of how much quality may have changed.

The economists attempt to explain our apparent stupidity. They point out that consumers have imperfect information. Tasting a wine before you pay up is rarely an option. Reading the experts' reviews is time-consuming. How much easier it is just to read the label and to accept the classifications made by consumers a century and a half ago.

But something in this tale doesn't make sense. Why don't all these wine drinkers cotton on? Why pay so much more for a Premier Cru when there's a strong chance, according to the Combris research, that the taste just won't live up to the price. Moreover, the chances are one of those cheaper bottles at the other end of the shelf could be just as nice. Admittedly, the first time a keen wine buyer goes out shopping she might be rational to judge the wine on the basis of that old Medoc ranking. But if the quality really does bear little relation to the label once she pulls out the cork, why on earth doesn't she learn from her mistakes and steer clear of expensive wines next time round? The persistence of these steep price differentials on the basis merely of outdated criteria seems hard to understand.

Perhaps the research by Combris et al underestimates the persistent link that exists between the kinds of wines consumers genuinely like and those old Medoc rankings.

But there is another possibility - less flattering to wine drinkers. Maybe consumers are still daunted by the weight of tradition, and the wish to be seen bearing an exclusive palate. Trapped by a conspiracy of snobbery, shoppers may be paying far too much for exclusive wines. If so, wine connoisseurs should take heed of Mr Combris and his colleagues; they are shouting from the crowd that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg