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Wine: let taste and not price guide you

Why pay more for Cape Point or Steenberg than for Zonnebloem or Bellingham?

Oscar Wilde’s much quoted adage about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is true for wine, above almost everything else.

Wine’s dual existence – commodity and fantasy beverage – largely contributes to this ambiguity. When wine is delivered in bulk from one producer to another it has a price (quoted per litre) based on very broad criteria. Is it super-premium, premium or standard quality, has it been oaked, what is its projected longevity. The merchant who bottles and labels it, takes it from the realm of industrial wine to a consumer beverage.

If it goes under a well-known brand label, its perceived value rises immediately. We expect to pay more for Cape Point or Steenberg than for Zonnebloem or Bellingham. By the same token, we would happily pay extra for either of these high volume brands than for Agterkliphoogte or Verlorenvlei. In reality, there may be no difference at all between the contents of a branded bottle of wine, and a no-name brand: conceivably the same bulk supplier might have despatched wine from the same tank to several producers.

There’s a lot of research which proves that when people have been told a wine costs more, they believe they can actually taste the difference. In fact, brain scans show that there is a specific area in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that is responsible for feelings of pleasure. A recent neuroscience/neuromarketing study revealed that changing the price of the wine increases the activity of brain circuits in this area.

This raises a key question about wine assessments: if the taster knows – or thinks he knows – anything about the wine, its price point, where it comes from or who made it, he will immediately approach it with a measure of pre-judgement. What you get then is not an objective review or score of the contents of the bottle, but an outcome mediated by brand attributes. A wine perceived (though astute marketing, carefully selected endorsement) as good will necessarily score better than a product with a compromised image.

Wine drinkers don’t need any guidance if what they want is the image they associate with a particular brand. This is one of those occasions when “I know what I like” is all the consumer needs to make a purchase.

If however they wish to know (perhaps ahead of an expensive acquisition) whether a wine is good, well-made and appropriate for their purposes, they need a professional opinion on the wine quality, not the packaging method. The only possible way to achieve this is by blind tasting. That way you get to know the true value of what is in the bottle – and, coincidentally, what it costs.

*Michael Fridjhon is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded international wine judges and wine writers. Visit his website at


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