Vintage Value or Is It Just Hard to Swallow?; Is Any Bottle of Wine Worth Pounds 800, Even When Sold at One of Britain's Most Exclusive Restaurants? Peter Elson Reports

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Byline: Peter Elson

WHEN Sandraand Colin Mitchell celebrated their wedding anniversary at the Michelinstarred Petrus restaurant in London's Knightsbridge there was a slight mix-up over the wines.

They ordered a pounds 160 bottle of Chateau Margaux but the wine waiter suggested a less fruity vintage and offered to pick for them.

Unfortunately, they didn't realise the highly- regarded 1966 Margaux he chose cost pounds 800 abottle. Not wishing to complain, they paid up, but the press havehada field day since the story leakedout.

Can the untrained palate savour the flavour of an pounds 800 vintage tipple or is the price not the only thing that's hard to swallow?

Jon Atkinson, a director of Scatchards wine merchants of Liverpool and Hoylake, says: ``I think pounds 160 for a bottle of Chateau Margaux -or any wine -is more than most people would pay for a bottle of wine in a restaurant, unless it was a very special occasion. Even then, they're more likely to buy champagne.

``It is very difficult to quantify wine in monetary stages; a jump up to pounds 800 does not make it five times better than a pounds 160 bottle. There is no slide-rule formula. Up to pounds 10 you get what you pay for, but I don't think there will beadiscernible difference between a pounds 160 and pounds 800 bottle of wine.

``You would not be able to pick a wine for pounds 800 off a retail wine merchant's shelf, this is something special from a restaurant cellar and priced accordingly.''

Buying wine at Petrus, Britain's only Michelin three-starred restaurant, will greatly increase price: you are paying for the ambience.

Different restaurants have different pricing policies and people can feel very passionate about this, believes Mr Atkinson. Restaurant customers can regard two or three times a supermarket price as outrageous, whereas happily accept pounds 2 for a shot of vodka, which gives the restaurant pounds 44 return on an pounds 11bottle.

``House wines are not really good value for money, but the standards have improved dramatically. There is no excuse now with modern wine making techniques to be served bad wine.

``The most I've ever spent for drink in a restaurant is pounds 85 for a bottle of champagne, which I knew was selling for around pounds 80 in Oddbins where I then worked. So I thought that was a very good price, but usually I'd spend no more than pounds 20 for wine. ``Rarity also increases price so there will not be that many bottles left of this Chateau Margaux,laid down in 1966. ``This not as collectableas the `61, `70, `82 or 2000. The Millennium is interesting as not only does the date make it a collectable,but coincidentally it was a perfect year climatically and there was quality across the board.''

The emergence of New World wines havemadeadifference to people's appreciation, reviving and expanding the business. Cleverly marketed and widely distributed, the vineyards devised a distinctive labelling system of wine types that the old world wines are now having to emulate. Mr Atkinson says: ``England has fine potential as a wine-producing country, but it is not taken seriously. This is particularly true of our sparkling wine production, but there are no tax concessions so the industry can't get off the ground.''

COLIN Manning, general manager of Liverpool's award winning 6 0 Hope Street Restaurant, says: ``It's like everything in life, the more experience you have, the easier it is to distinguish what is a good wine.

``It also helps to have an inborn talent as well. What makes one chef better than another, or one person's more discerning pallet? …