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Points means prices - Neil Beckettcommenting on fine wine

Published:  18 January, 2007

I'm a bad salesman,' announced Nol Pinguet, Gaston Huet's son-in-law, who has been in charge of the great Vouvray estate for the past 30 years.

Many of the best salesmen, of course, say exactly the same thing. But this admission, from somebody who accurately describes himself as un homme d'instant', had the same smack of sincerity as his wines.

It followed his description of the 1990 Le Haut Lieu Moelleux Premire Trie, of which he noted: You taste the botrytis; you don't taste Chenin; you don't taste Vouvray.' Before that he had categorised the 2000 vintage as difficult' - nothing but Sec and Demi-Sec; the 2004 as very difficult' - nothing but Sec; and the 2003 as excessive' - only Moelleux. The 2005 vintage he described as very good but for me not exceptional'. What a refreshing change after all the hype, and some of the grossly inflated prices, for 2005 Bordeaux.

Seeing the prices for some of these alongside those for the Huet Vouvrays is a striking reminder of how weak the correlation between price, quality and value has become. The average price over several years may have been a sound basis for the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, but hype, novelty, rarity, The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator were not the forces that they are now. Of course the best 2005 Bordeaux are magnificent; of course the market can support the sky-high prices. And as long as they're expensive because they're fine, and highly sought-after for that reason, then all well and good - that's the market. But a growing number of producers seem to think it's the other way round. For them the high price isn't consequential - it's essential. They attempt to outstare their neighbours, to see who will blink first, and charge 10 a bottle more if they last longest; or on the back of a Parker score they set a price 100, 200, 300 a case more than they could otherwise sustain. In these crude terms, does anybody really think Loville-Las-Cases is three times as good as its Loville neighbours? Or Latour three times as good as Las-Cases?

Image has always been equally important in Champagne, but the tendency to equate price and quality (that way round) seems to be getting worse there as well. A press release for Dom Prignon 1996 Ros trumpeted it as the world's most expensive Ros': if that were really its most notable quality, I wouldn't want to know. I've paid, and would pay again, more for a bottle of Champagne than that one costs (220), but certainly not because of its price.

By contrast, the 2005 Huet Vouvrays start at 8.30 a bottle ex-cellar. And however you define fine', these wines qualify. If you take longevity and stylistic variety into account, they share, with Riesling, the top prize among white wines. There are few great sparkling Rieslings, whereas the greatest, mature sparkling Vouvrays can rival the best of Champagne. Even then there is a choice between Mousseux (at six bars, fully sparkling) and Ptillant (at three bars, lightly sparkling). Moving on to the still wines, there is Sec (averaging around 5 grams/litre of residual sugar), Demi-Sec (around 17g/litre RS) and Moelleux (often no more than 30g/litre RS and 10-12% ABV). The Moelleux wines differ with the vintage, depending on whether the sweetness resulted from botrytis (as in 1947 and 1990) or passerillage (as in 1959, 1989 and 2005, when the grapes shrivelled on the vine without noble rot). From a single vineyard and vintage, there may be two different Moelleux. The finer is designated Premire Trie, regardless of whether it was harvested on the first or a subsequent pass through the vines. In passerill vintages

there may still be a small quantity of nobly rotten, rich Cuve Constance. In 1980 there was even a Vin de Glace - 1,000 bottles salvaged from a sudden frost on 11 November. Barely drinkable for many years due to its high acidity, this curiosity is at last coming into its own as a dry, white truffle-scented, still penetrating, scintillating wine - at 11.90 a bottle ex-cellar.

Despite Pinguet's reticence, 2005 seems to be a successful vintage for his Vouvrays. One sign of this is that it allowed him to produce the full range most expensive - Cuve Constance at 52 ex-cellar per 50cl bottle - is a fraction of the price of the top 2005 Bordeaux. The 1921 Le Haut Lieu Moelleux, rated by some who have tasted both wines to be on a par with the famous Yquem of that year, now costs more than 500 per bottle. But the sublime 1924 has been available recently for 150, and that's twice what it was 10 years ago.

Anybody tasting these wines will be convinced. But the challenge remains, for all those who trade in or write about fine wines, to communicate their qualities in terms other than points and price. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever drank fine wine for under 500 a bottle.