Does price equal quality?
Question from Alice: Does price really dictate the quality of the wine?
In a nut shell: Always, never and sometimes. This is such a hard one to answer because wine enjoyment is so objective. What tastes amazing to me might taste rubbish to you and vica versa. This I cannot answer with a yes or no so you’re going to have to read the ‘clam shell’ where I’ve listed all the factors that bump up the price of wine (which the cheaper bottles lack) and then you can decide for yourself if these qualities are what you like in a wine. But the bottle line – if you enjoy drinking your staple $10 red then why stop because it’s not a ‘quality’ bottle. What a heap of codswallop! If you enjoy it then it’s a ‘quality’ bottle to you and that’s all that matters!
In a clam shell: If we’re to talk about the factors that bump up the price and ‘quality’ of a wine then unfortunately your $10 bottle is probably not going to cut it in terms of the textbook definition. That’s not to say that you should stop drinking that $10 pearler – if you can’t taste the difference between your $10 bottle and a $150 bottle you are VERY lucky! Embrace this for as long as you can. I want to be you!
So why does wine vary in price and what factors make expensive bottles, well, expensive?
Let’s start with where the grapes are grown (or if we want to be technical the terroir). Terroir is a French word meaning the combination of the climate, soil, terrain (meaning elevation of the slope) and the unique work of the winemaker that makes the grapes from one particular region taste different to the grapes from another.
The location where the grapes are planted can massively bump up the price (and quality) of the wine. Let’s take Burgundy in France for example. This region is absolutely perfect for growing Pinot Noir. So perfect in fact that some would say there is no better place on earth to grow Pinot grapes. The climate (sunshine, rain and temperature), soil (limestone, chalk and clay) and terrain couldn’t be better for nurturing these babies. The best plots in Burgundy sell for around $9.5 MILLION EUROS PER HECTARE (WTF?!?) so if you’re drinking wine from Burgundy the plot of land is, in part, to blame for the hefty price tag. It’s probably worth mentioning here that if you grow a particular grape (let’s say Pinot Noir) in the wrong climate you’re going to get an ordinary wine. If the climate is too hot it’ll taste jammy and if it’s too cold it’ll taste more vegetal than fruity (yuck). Then you have the work of the winemaker and usually at these super-duper wineries in Burgundy they employ super-duper winemakers who cost a bomb to get on the books.
The most pricey wines are generally from single vineyards (meaning that all the grapes that go into the bottle come from the same location) as opposed to wines that are from grapes grown at many different vineyards. Wines from single vineyards are good because they taste of the terroir and are not diluted with lesser quality grapes from lesser quality vineyards where the growing conditions aren’t quite right. Cheap wines are mass produced with their grapes coming from anywhere and everywhere which dilutes the unique flavours and produces a generic drop.
Some people don’t like wine that has been aged in oak barrels but some people (meeeeeee!) love it! If you don’t like the characteristics of an oaked wine (toasty, nutty, vanilla flavours) you’re in luck because unoaked wines are generally cheaper than oaked wines. But unoaked wines are generally more astringent than oaked wines too which isn’t so great for anyone’s taste buds.
Oak barrels are porous which allows tinnie tiny amounts of oxygen in while the wine is ageing which softens those harsh tannins (that chalky mouth drying feeling you get when you drink a young Cab Sauv) and creates a smoother wine.
Oak bumps up the price tag of the wine because oak barrels are expensive! Most pricey wines are aged for a minimum of 12 months in new French oak barrels which can set you back around $2500 a barrel! If you like the taste of oak aged wine but not the price tag drink wines aged in American oak as oak barrels from the US are around half the price of French oak barrels.
Once the wine has been bottled it’s aged (put in a cellar and left to its own devices). Cheaper drops are generally release after about 1.5-2 years. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as some wines are made to drink very soon after bottling but heavy reds will always benefit from a little time in the cellar. When you age a bottle of wine the astringent qualities become softener and smoother and those ripe fruit flavours turn into dried and baked fruit flavours (yummy yummy). Expensive drops are cellared for around 5-10 years before they are released which means lots of storage space (in a temperature and humidity controlled environment) which means more real estate which means more money.
Prestige and Reputation
Just like Tiffany and Co. can charge more for a diamond than Zamels (because people are willing to pay) so too can Penfolds charge more for their Grange than Pepperjack. It’s all in the name and its reputation. Developing wine nations (like Canada, UK, Brazil, Romania and Greece) can produce outstanding wines but because they don’t have the reputation of well-developed wine nations (like France and Italy) they can’t change the same price. You follow?
Wine packaging plays a part in the price of your bottle too. You can go for a standard bottle with a simple label or you can pick wine in a genie bottle with a label designed by Brett Whiteley and it’s going to cost a little more.
So how do you get a quality wine for a cheaper price?
Now that you know what makes a ‘quality’ wine (according to the wine judges) the key is to find those expensive characteristics in a cheaper bottle and you’ve got yourself a winner.
- Avoid wines from famous wine regions with the Tiffany reputation and go with wines from lesser known, up-and-coming regions like Canada, UK, Brazil, Romania and Greece or wines from the New World like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, United States, Chile and Argentina.
- Match your grapes with the right climate or your climate with the right grapes. In other words, make sure that the grapes in the wine you’re drinking have been grown in the right climate. If you’re unsure of what grapes grow best in what climates I’ve written a post about it here (if you want to start with the grape and match the region) or here (if you want to start with the region and match the grape).
- If you like aged wine, age it yourself. Buy the wine you plan to age on the day it’s released and then cellar it yourself. If this excites you here’s a post on what wines you should cellar and what wines you should drink now.
- Don’t match