Sex, money and Cristal 2009

Does enjoyment increase when you know something is expensive? The luxury sector would say so. High-priced goods confer a feeling of exclusivity and prestige on the owner. Ostensibly, the products themselves may be no better than a cheaper alternative, but their expense is a key part of their desirability, along with luxury packaging and exclusive marketing.

There is even a name for such items: Veblen goods (which I first read about in this Jamie Goode blog).

Take the INEZ, above. It's plated in 24-carat gold and comes in a satin-lined wooden box. The price is £10,000. And it's a vibrator.

They must think their customers are - well, wankers. Does paying such a premium increase the pleasure it bestows? Sadly, I have no satin-lined box of my own to test it in, but I'm going to guess it does much the same job as one costing a fraction of the price. 

Last night was the launch of the new vintage of Louis Roederer's luxury champagne, Cristal. The event took place on the 34th floor of The Shard, in the Shangri-La hotel's Sky Bar. A specially commissioned piece of art called Heart Beats of Cristal was on display. The audience comprised influential wine trade players, arty types and professional socialites.

Cristal is by no means the most expensive champagne on the market. In fact, at £143 for the current 2007 vintage, it is much cheaper than some luxury cuvées - and would be affordable to a much larger section of the population than those who spend ten grand on sex toys.

However, it is clearly important for the brand to have a premium image. They want Cristal to be associated with exclusivity, aspiration, luxury and quality. And for most people who buy it, that brand power is far more important and valuable than what it actually tastes like - and I fully admit to experiencing this feeling myself.

On this occasion, however, I wasn't paying.

As soon as I arrived, I sat down and wrote a tasting note on the back of the invitation.

I scored it 17+ out of 20 with drinking dates of 2018 to 2029. Now, a few years back I tasted several older vintages and scored them highly (especially 2004 and 1999) - so I know that Cristal can be excellent - but taken in isolation, the 2009 wasn't. It wasn't rubbish either - but it fell short of the sort of expectations associated with expensive luxury champagne. Yes, it may well improve in the bottle. Yes, it was served extremely cold, which probably dumbed down the aromatic range.

Or perhaps it simply isn't as good as those other vintages I tasted. Cristal was produced in eight vintages in the 2000s (only 2001 and 2003 were excluded; 2008 has not yet been released). Surely not all of them will be equal in quality. Perhaps the 2009 is proof of that.

Then again, does that even matter? Because the point of the launch wasn't to analyse the wine, it was to experience the luxury aura of the brand. Besides, it has already got high scores from other well-respected critics.

But for my money, Cristal 2009 is a champagne that does much the same job as one costing a fraction of the price.