When I hear ‘cult wine’ I reach for my revolver

I was walking around the recent Annual California Wine Tasting in London the other day and one particular bottle caught my eye. I had heard about it before, and had seen it in a couple of high-end wine shops over the years, but never drunk any. I also recalled seeing some high scores from critics in magazines. I walked over and asked if I could taste it. The lady behind the table kindly poured me a sample, and I was quite excited to finally try it for myself – “you’re going to love it” she said. And then she uttered those dreaded words “…it’s a real cult wine.”

Whenever I hear ‘cult wine’ as part of a sales pitch, my heart sinks. All too often it means that it will be overworked and overpriced. There are many wines from around the globe which have built up a ‘cult following’, however in my mind that is something quite different; it tends to be through a combination of three factors:

  • Quality
  • Scarcity
  • A unique, unusual or impressive style

If there is a really good wine on the market made in an unusual style, it is hardly surprising that it will prick up the ears of wine lovers, who will want to give it a try. Unique or unusual styles tend to divide people into those who really love them and those who really don’t, which can lead to a dedicated group of followers. Most highly individual wines I have tasted are made by artisan producers rather than large commercial wineries, so it is not surprising that wines with such a cult following are made on a small scale. Fashion and/or clever marketing can be supporting factors.

When I hear about this kind of wine, I always try to hunt down a bottle; even if they turn out to be a bit weird or wacky, at least they are rarely boring, and they tend to give you lots to talk about. There is one important factor, however, not included in the list above that can strongly add to a wine’s following, and that’s a big score from an important critic – especially Robert Parker from the Wine Advocate. A score in the high nineties however can have a huge effect on demand, and if a wine is already made in very small quantities, this can and often does send the price soaring. It is this that will turn a wine with a cult following into a ‘cult wine’. By cult wine, I mean a wine made in small quantities, often only available by getting onto a mailing list, with very high prices, often bought with investment, rather than drinking, in mind.

The PR created by a very high score can cause demand for a small production wine to vastly outstrip supply. This can create a huge disconnect between price and quality. What once may have been a great £20 or even £50 bottle of wine is now the same quality, but stratospherically expensive. Cult wines are typically priced from around £150 per bottle, but can increase to many times this amount. It can be hard to know which famous names with big prices deserve it, and which don’t.

When I managed The Sampler in South Kensington, we had one eight-bottle Enomatic machine reserved for very top labels that were changed at least every two weeks. I tasted all of the bottles that went into this machine for any faults when loading it, so had the good fortune of tasting hundreds of such cult or iconic wines over the years, whether from France, Spain, California, Australia or elsewhere. There would often be clear differences in quality between different producers in the same region with similar price tags. I would naturally expect all wines priced at this high level to be excellent, but some would be very disappointing. This could be due to a number of factors: a badly stored bottle, an underperforming property in an otherwise good vintage, but often I suspect it was hype pushing up the price. Not to denigrate the tasting skill of any particular critic, but the ‘high score’ factor is the fastest way to create a cult wine, but also the most unreliable. It is often on the basis of one bottle, being tasted by one individual, at one moment in time.

That moment is all too often in a huge line up of wines being tasted and rated, one after the other. It’s not the excellent yet subtle wines that stand out at a time like that, it’s the big, striking ones. What’s more, some of the most important US wine critics seem to have a natural preference for this powerful style of wine. So that’s often what can be expected from a cult wine that has been elevated by a critic’s high score. What’s more, it’s easier to convince some wine drinkers that they are exceptional, because they make a strong and immediate impression. Unsurprisingly, many wineries, particularly those on Parker’s watch, purposefully make this bombastic style in the hope of garnering scores that bring home the bacon. But when it comes to wine, bigger isn’t always better.

Extremity of experience can of course be worthwhile, memorable, and fun. Andrew Holod (@gosandrew) nails it succinctly when he tweeted “an extreme experience helps frame/define an edge of possibility” and I would agree. To feel your way to the outside perimeters of what is possible in a given field gives context to all future experience within that field. But once these perimeters are understood, there is little need to feel them out over and over again. There are brilliant ‘big’ wines that happen to sit at the outside edges production but offer much more than power and strength alone, and rightly deserve their place at the top. But joy and interest come from the character of the wine, not its amplitude.

It is always the big, burly try-hard versions rather than the quieter or more challenging wines with a cult following that are actively pushed by salesmen and women when I hear the world ‘cult’ as part of a sales pitch. Those wines that have slowly built a devoted band of admirers are the ones you generally need to sniff out yourself – and often the ones that prove to be the most rewarding discoveries.


Some high-scoring cult wines which I’m not yet convinced by:

Screaming Eagle, Napa, California

Yes, it is a very good Napa Cab, but is it worth £2,000 a bottle? No way.

Abreu Cappella, Napa, California

Very high scores, and typically around £400-£500 a bottle; heavy and overdone, far from pleasant drinking.


Some high-scoring cult wines that deserve the hype (if not quite always the prices):

Kongsgaard ‘The Judge’ Chardonnay, Napa, California

Caymus ‘Special Selection’, Napa, California

Henschke ‘Hill of Grace’, Barossa, Australia

Dominio de Pingus, Ribera del Duero, Spain

Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero, Spain

Château Pétrus, Pomerol, Bordeaux

You’d be hard pushed to find any of the above for less than £150 per bottle – some are many times that.


Some wineries with cult followings of dedicated wine lovers that can be found for £25 – £50 per bottle:

Nicolas Joly ‘Clos de la Coulée de Serrant’, Savennières, France

Equipo Navazos ‘La Bota’ sherries, Spain

Gravner, Friuli, Italy

Castagna, Victoria, Australia

Dard et Ribo, Northern Rhône, France

Château Montus, Madiran, France

Domaine Tempier, Bandol, France

Corison, Napa, California


And for those who missed it, here is the Downfall of a Californian Cult Winery video. It’s another one based on the Hitler/Downfall meme, but don’t let that put you off, it’s very funny and worth a watch:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lIvGuCPZOc