Farewell to welsh rarebit: our changing taste
Looking at some old London restaurant menus we were given recently made me realise that if time travel were possible I’d not be spinning the dial back fifty years. Back then, starters really were confined to Orange Juice, Half a Grapefruit or Egg Mayonnaise, even at the finest tables.
Mains weren’t much more exciting. The only thing I slightly mourn is the passing of the savoury. In vain have we tried to revive a taste for Devils on Horseback or Welsh Rarebit. Sadly, today it’s sticky toffee, or a double espresso and the bill.
So much for the food. The wine is much more interesting. Not in range, which is confined to France and Germany. Columbus might never have sailed. Nor Cook. Spain, Italy & Portugal must have been cut off by fog.
Only the pan-European theme of Chez Auguste in Old Compton Street drove it to offer any sense that other countries even tried to make wine – with a list including Chianti (white or red), Sweet Orvieto, Dry Tokaj and – piece de resistance – specially imported Anatolian Sauternes.
Wine price inflation
But if the generally slim choice is shocking, it’s the prices that really intrigue. Not only the fact that Liebfraumilch (especially premium brand Blue Nun) fetched way more than Chateauneuf-du-Pape or premier cru Sauternes (and not the Turkish kind either).
I’m looking at the Hilton’s wine list for 1961. And what catches the eye is the narrowness of the price range: 38/- for Blue Nun; 55/- for Bollinger NV; 65/- for Chateau d’Yquem 1949. Not a half. A bottle. The most expensive thing on the list is Chateau Margaux 1949 at 82/6 (that’s £4.13 in today’s money).
Of course, it’s not today’s money, is it? But when I googled up inflation over the 50 years since 1961 I discovered it amounts to 1,796% or roughly 18x. If you apply that multiplier to the Hilton’s 1961 wine list, what’s fascinating is that while some things – non-vintage champagne, Loire whites – have gone up in price roughly as you would expect, in some cases the gradient is much steeper. For instance, that Chateau Margaux 1949, adjusted for inflation would now sell for £80 (£96 if you allow for 20% VAT).
In fact, at Gordon Ramsay Chateau Margaux with the same bottle age will set you back £1200 today. That’s not 18 times more. It’s 291 times more than in 1961. On the same metric, Yquem has gone up by 200x and Krug Grande Cuvee 77x.
Forget the price tag, seek out the good stuff
So, London in 1961 might not have been a great place to eat, but wines that are now stratospheric were much more affordable then. But those icon wines are not 20x better now than they used to be, they’ve just been catapulted into exclusivity by the luxury brands that own them. So don’t fret about what you’re missing, leave them to the bankers and search out some of the many wonderful wine-makers we’re lucky enough to have today.