A Question of Taste

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A few years ago I went to a lavish wedding in San Antonio, Texas – the sort of event where caviar and foie gras featured as well as fillet steak, all in quantities designed to sate an American larger than mankind has yet to witness. It was not the food that was most memorable, though. Rather it was the physical appearance of a close friend of the bride’s parents – an appearance so unusual it distracted me from the serious task of finding the bar.

He stood out not because of his shape, fashion sense, or skin – but because of his hair. He had woven the few remaining strands on either side of his scalp into a creation not unlike the extraordinary dome on Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sofia. The effect was masterful: a complete covering for a baldpate, a bulbous, perfectly sculpted, gleaming peak for an otherwise unremarkable Texan form. Imagining the skill involved in creating this after every shower, I asked an equally intrigued wedding guest, “how?” Smiling, he responded, “I think you’re asking the wrong question. Surely you mean ‘why?’”

I was reminded of this exchange only last week at a London party, faced with an object so eye-catching and monstrous that the only question, on this occasion too, should have been ‘why?’ The focus of attention was Angel, a Champagne endorsed and promoted by R&B chart botherer Mariah Carey, complete with a solid silver label inset with crystals, a felt capsule, a platinum paint effect, and a starting price of over £600 for the Brut NV (that’s the entry level blend in Champagne’s complex hierarchy). Had there been a project called ‘Pimp my Champagne’, this would have been the result; it was an unusually successful experiment in making a combination of expensive materials look cheap.

The Champagne itself was good, with all the hallmarks of high quality fizz: a golden colour, persistent bubbles, bready richness and a long, refreshing citrus fruit finish, all ensuring you’ll want another glass. But at £640 through the Champagne’s website, and £750 in one of the few nightclubs in which Angel will be sold, again, the question can only be: why?

Because there is a market.

Just as someone will buy a Maybach motor at over £300,000 – when instead you could have a Mercedes S-Class with every conceivable extra, a pied-à-terre in central London, and enough change for dinner at The Fat Duck – people will pay almost £1,000 for a single bottle of Champagne, even though, in its place, they could have several bottles of something equally indulgent, such as something from Roederer, a Cristal perhaps, or a few cases of their much cheaper and arguably better value vintage offering.

While I can to some extent understand paying the extraordinary premium for a longstanding Champagne brand like Cristal, its history rich with Russian tsars and, more recently, pop stars (although I’d still opt for a few bottles of Roederer Vintage), Angel is an unconvincing addition to the very top tier of the Champagne category.

Why? Because it hasn’t earnt its upmarket status by adding anything sufficiently new or better to the peak of the luxury pyramid. It is merely trying to exploit the good work done by its predecessors.

Now, if you want to drink a high quality product and enjoy that smug feeling that comes with the knowledge that you’ve found it yourself and paid a fair price, you might want to head to Chelsea’s inaugural Fine Wine Fair. Here, when it comes to sparkling, try a brand such as Bouvet-Ladubay from the Loire, which is renowned for its prize-winning performances in blind tastings against Champagne’s most famous names. The product is both unassuming and beautifully crafted. And when you see the price, you’ll be asking how, not why.

Patrick Schmitt is the editor of The Drinks Business, the leading publication for the wine and spirits trade.

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