At least once a year, I buy and drink one expensive bottle of prestige champagne for my wedding anniversary. I spend at least £100, which is at least quadruple my usual wine budget for a single bottle, and go to an independent wine shop to buy it. I sometimes even drink it with my wife.
It's one of the few times of the year that I behave like a normal wine customer. At this kind of price range I am buying with very little first hand experience, and am anxious to get something that is going to be value for money. This is where the luxury experience of prestige champagne becomes absolutely crucial.
Here's what we've had over the past four years: Dom Pérignon 2002, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1999, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004, Dom Ruinart 2002. In each case, my main purchasing cues were that I trusted the brand, that the packaging looked good, that my wife would like it and that it was the right price - by which I mean, not cheap.
Of course, I wanted it to taste good too, but that was not my primary motivation. I trusted that each of these marques would have to produce top quality wine in order to maintain their brand position - and of course, I have tasted them before, recognise the names and know they are well reputed producers - so admittedly, I have an advantage over many typical champagne buyers.
As it happens, they did all taste very good, but that wasn't the most memorable thing about them. For each bottle, I can remember where we were, what we were listening to, what we had for dinner - it was the overall experience that mattered most. The power of the champagne brand is all-important here, conferring feelings of luxury, quality, history, exclusivity and above all, specialness - all of which it has to promise through the packaging and brand name alone.
If I had purchased something based purely on my own wine knowledge, it would have been something like 'an obscure grower making a great value zéro dosage at £40' or 'one of the top Franciacortas' or 'the only champagne to use 100% Petit Meslier.' But regardless of how objectively delicious and interesting these sorts of fringe bottles might be, they would never have matched the feeling we got from buying a top shelf champagne brand.