If you ever see a recommendation for a "great value Valentine's Day wine" you know you're dealing with an idiot. And most likely a single one. There's no such thing. We might call it "Idiot Signalling Theory". Because they're clearly unaware of the most important insight into Valentine's Day wine. Which is "Costly Signalling Theory".
It's a commonplace that wine recommendations are powered by an algorithm adding "quality" to "pounds spent" and spitting out "great/poor value". It's also bunk. Wine lovers are never Homo Vinonomicus, least of all on Valentine's Day. They're peacocks and peahens. Engaged in complex head-nodding, tail-shimmering rituals. Champagne producers know this to their advantage. As do diamond sellers. And - contrary to popular opinion - it's to your advantage too.
The story of diamonds and deBeers is well-told. Especially Frances Gerety's famous strap-line "A diamond is forever". Less well-known is the origin of the "two month's salary" rule when buying an engagement ring. It seems a bit arbitrary, but is anything but. deBeers knew it was two to three year's dating costs for the smitten engager. So the engager isn't only signalling their affection. They're also excluding themselves from the dating market for long enough to become older, less desirable and potentially left on the shelf. It's not just a ring. It's one hell of a statement of commitment.
There's a more basic level of commitment too. Last week I met a young woman who seemed surprised at the "two month's" rule. "My boyfriend says it's just a month" she insisted. I'm sure he does. And I'm sure he insists he's only being careful with the pounds too. But bear in mind that one month's salary takes him out of the dating market for as little as a year. Now read that last sentence back in the voice of David Attenborough. And imagine the next scene of "Life on Planet Wine" where the abandoned mother is in her now-tatty nest, giving birth. Alone. Then look across to your gibbon of a one-month's-salary-engagement-ring boyfriend, sitting on the sofa, eating Dorito's, scratching his bits, watching the bikini-clad women on Love Island and tell me that deBeers weren't onto something.
"Good Value Champagne" is an oxymoron. Used by morons. It's not meant to be "good value". It's about display. It's true, sometimes the display is pointless "look at my WAD" vulgar flashiness. But in truth it's more often the reassurance that comes with reputational sunk costs. "I'm going to spend more on this than is necessary, to show I can, and that I'm not going to go off and mate elsewhere". Most wines we enjoy day-to-day are flight feathers. They're useful, practical and worth the effort. Champagne is none of these things. It's the peacock's tail of wine. A glorious, shimmering declaration of "I'm using up resources with abandon to show I can, and reassure you I'm not going anywhere."
So what should you buy? Curiously, it needn't simply be the most expensive Champagne out there. It's true Costly Signalling Theory suggests that you do well to buy something that others don't have the resources to buy. But you can also signal your willingness to sink costs into time and effort. To signal hat you have selected a wine that someone with less access to what's in fashion wouldn't have the taste to choose.
Like Cuvée D by Champagne Devaux. It's £100.00 worth of Champagne for £40.00. Still enough to make your wallet smart. But not enough to invite bailiffs. It's available from (the reassuringly expensive) Hedonism Wines and Planet of the Grapes. Along with various independent wine shops. It's also a critics' favourite. Allowing you to shimmer a peacock's tail of expertise and taste, if not necessarily the perma-tanned Eurotrash display of Flavio Briatore types with their Jeroboams of Cristal.
Not that Cristal is poor value. It's just not the "value" that most of us will ever know. 2002 Louis Roederer Cristal "en magnum" was crowned Supreme World Champion at The Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships in 2016. And I tried it. It's a stunner. But it's also around £500 if you can find it. For almost-as-good-in-the-same-vein try Louis Roederer Carte Blanche NV. Roughly £40 from the Whisky Exchange, Selfridges and others, it's softer, gentler and more seductive. A much more affordable shimmer of the peacock's tail.