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Cheers to a $30 wine: Why price isn't always proportional to quality Add to ...

This will sound strange, I know, but I often wonder: What do economists drink?

To become one, you don’t need to know squat about grapes, of course, but you do need to know something about beans. As in money – prices and value.

My favourite economic concept is the law of diminishing returns or, as bean counters often call it, the law of diminishing marginal returns. It governs pretty much everything, including wine.

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A quick summary for those who slept through high school: The more labour or money you put toward something, the more you tend to get in return.

Eventually, though, you hit a point where every added bit of effort (or expense) gets you a smaller incremental gain. I sometimes think of cycling as an analogy. Pedalling hard builds up speed quickly.

But once you reach a good clip, the air friction becomes so strong that you have to risk a coronary to add just a click or two to your speed.

Curiously, economists typically speak of diminishing returns in connection with producers, not consumers. But the law applies to shoppers, too – nowhere more than in the wine market. The more you spend on a bottle, the better – generally speaking – the quality. Past a certain price, however, each additional dollar gets you less added bliss.

When I’m playing armchair economist, I like to ponder the tipping point (if you’ll excuse the beverage pun). My best guess is $30. For me, a well-chosen $30 wine often delivers three times the thrill of a typical $10 quaffer. But $60 rarely brings me twice the joy of a great $30 bottle.

By all means, spend $60 or even $300 if you’ve got the dough and want the best of the best. Just know that you’re not drinking two or 10 times better than the rest of us salaried schmoes. You’re paying a huge premium for a marginal gain.

If you quickly scan the scores and corresponding prices below (most items are available in Ontario except where indicated), I think you’ll notice a pattern.

Landing a 90-point wine is pretty easy when you’ve got $15 to $30 to spend and shop carefully. Climbing the ladder to 92 or 95, though, could cost you hundreds more.

Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne (France)

SCORE: 95 PRICE: $269.95

For a brief moment, this venerable Champagne smelled to me like a really good cream-of-mushroom soup dusted with herbs. It was love at first sniff. On the palate, expect a rich texture and nuances of buttered pastry, roasted nuts, lively lemon and a very long, balanced finish. It’s my kind of Champagne (at, regrettably, not my kind of price). It sells for $255 in British Columbia and $273.75 in Quebec.

Château Pontet-Canet 2008 (France)

SCORE: 95 PRICE: $129

What a splendid effort from the 2008 vintage of this fifth-growth red Bordeaux. Good fruit purity and concentration are complemented by traces of mineral and earth. It starts smooth, then astringent tannins tighten their grip in the second act. Cellar it for two decades or more if you can or decant it and serve it with rare beef or lamb chops. The B.C. price is $188.

Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Shiraz 2008 (Australia)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $34.95

The name is grabby and so is the colourful label graphic of a woman toting a rifle, hunting dog by her side. Yes, it’s from Australia. The winemaker took good aim with this one, too: rich plum, blueberry, chocolate and vanilla balanced with fine tannins and solid acidity. Try it with lamb or game.

Concha y Toro Winemaker’s Lot 115 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Chile)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95

California cabernets this good tend to cost northward of $40, but we’re in Chile here. Full-bodied and succulent, it combines juicy blackcurrant, black olive, vanilla and dark-roast-coffee flavours in impressive harmony. There’s even a hint of Bordeaux-like minerality here. Perfect for steak or roast beef.

Cave de Roquebrun La Grange des Combes Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2009 (France)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95

Classic savoury characters of the southern Languedoc region come through in this well-balanced bistro red. Plum, dark chocolate, lavender, blueberry and cracked pepper mingle beautifully. Try it with duck confit or lamb shanks.

UnConventional Wisdom Naysayer Cabernet Franc 2009 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.99

A new sister label of Okanagan Valley fruit-wine producer Elephant Island Orchard Wines, this is an auspicious first leap from tree to vine. A blend of mostly cabernet franc with some merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this is a full-bodied red that dishes up velvety plum, chocolate and forest berries framed by good acidity and spicy oak. Try it with rare beef. Available through www.itoldyouso.ca and at select retailers in Vancouver, Victoria and the Okanagan.

Mooiplaas The Bean Coffee Pinotage 2010 (South Africa)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95

Another unusual name here, but this one fits well – bean as in coffee and cocoa. In fact, it sort of tastes like coffee-flavoured chocolate ice cream with a dusting of bacon bits, though it’s intriguing and more pleasant than that must sound. Good on its own, but keep this ice cream away from the kiddies.

Duca di Salaparuta Passo Delle Mule Nero d’Avola 2008 (Italy)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95

Sicily’s big signature red grape, nero d’Avola, finds juicy expression here, with fresh blackberry joined by a subtle cough-drop note – in a nice way. Pork or duck would make for a good canvas.

Palacio de Sada Crianza 2006 (Spain)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.95

Medium full-bodied and dusty in texture, this mouth-watering Spanish red is made mainly from grenache, with a small quantity of tempranillo and cabernet, and leans heavily toward the woodsy, earthy side of the fence. It should be nice with roast beef or roast lamb.

Alamos Chardonnay 2010 (Argentina)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95

From the quality producer Catena, this full-bodied white veers into candied-fruit terrain but finds the mark with balanced acidity, nuances of forest floor and flowers and a whiff of toasty oak. The B.C. price is $14.99.

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 
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