Every so often, a new article will make its way around the internet claiming that a scientific study has “proven” there’s no difference between cheap and expensive wine. The typical example references a group of “normal” people who are given blind tastes of various wines and are unable to tell which are more expensive. Sometimes the group’s favorite wine ends up being the least expensive. While the results of such studies may be accurate, the conclusions they draw are overly simplified and don’t take the nuances of wine and human nature into account.
In this article, we will discuss personal preferences, quality, and price. As you will see, these subjects are related, but distinct from one another.
It’s often repeated that “the only thing that matters with regard to a wine is whether or not you like it.” This phrase implies that the quality of wine and the enjoyment of the wine are the same, and that both are totally subjective and dependent on personal taste. In reality, it is possible to create a set of criteria with which to judge the quality of a wine. These determinations do not – and should not – dictate enjoyment.
Think about how this idea applies to the subject of food or music. I, for one, occasionally enjoy fast food, cheap candy, or cheesy songs. I don’t claim that these things are of exceptional quality simply because I like them. On the other hand, there are some pieces of music and foods that I can recognize for their excellence without personally enjoying them. Should I condemn braised lamb or Bruckner symphonies simply because they are not to my taste? The simple fact that people enjoy inexpensive wines as much as expensive ones does not mean that they are all of the same quality.
Next, we will discuss some criteria that will help define the characteristics of a high quality wine – aside from the simple question of personal taste.
There are many lenses through which one might judge quality in wine. Here are a few ways in which a professional might assess quality:
- Individuality: Does the wine express a unique geographic place or vintage? Does it taste just like every other wine, or is it distinctive?
- Complexity: How many flavors are in the wine? Some bottles will have only a few berry or apple notes, while others have aromas of dried fruits, stones, earth, mushrooms, baking spices, leather, tobacco, or even cat pee. Does the wine smell one way, but taste different in your mouth? What about the finish? Are there flavors that you didn’t get before swallowing? The more there is to say about a wine, the more complexity it has.
- Intensity: Is the wine difficult to smell? Does it seem muted somehow? A wine has intensity when the aroma saturates the whole room as soon as you open it and overwhelm your senses when tasting. Intensity is to wine as volume is to music.
- Length: This term essentially refers to the wine’s aftertaste. How long do the flavors linger in your mouth? A longer finish is considered a marker of quality.
- Balance: A well-balanced wine is one in which the structural elements of tannin, alcohol, acid, and sugar are proportional to one another. A poorly balanced wine would be unpleasantly sour, sweet with no tartness, or have a burning alcohol sensation.
- Typicity: Even if you like a wine, it should have something in common with other examples from the same region. A Cabernet from Napa would lack typicity if it was thin and pale – even if it was delicious.
Other Price Factors
Wine quality and consumer preferences aren’t the only factors that influence a wine’s price. Here are some other factors that might raise the price of a bottle.
- Viticulture and Vinification: Some wineries use labor intensive vineyard practices like organic cultivation or hand harvesting while others use inexpensive pesticides and mechanical harvesting. Some wineries ferment in huge stainless steel tanks, while others use small, expensive, new oak barrels. The variables of growing grapes and making wine are too many to discuss here, but, suffice to say, the price of producing wine varies enormously depending on the choices made in the vineyard and cellar.
- Vintage Variation: Some growing seasons produce wines that are better than others due to weather, pests, vine diseases, natural disasters etc. A particularly good vintage can increase prices on wine, due to increased demand. At the same time, a small vintage can increase price due to a decrease in supply.
- Yield: Some vineyards have significantly lower yields than others, due to natural conditions or the choices of the winery. Lower yields generally produced more flavorful wines, but also smaller supplies and thus, higher prices.
- Branding: Some brands are famous and well marketed. These wines command higher prices than their competitors.
- Fashion: There was a time when Merlot was among the most popular varietals in the country. After the movie Sideways came out, people began drinking Pinot Noir and abandoning Merlot. The price of Merlot fell and the price of Pinot Noir rose.
- Equipment and Supplies: When a winery invests in new buildings, barrels, fermentation tanks, expensive bottles or corks, the cost of production goes up, and often the price does as well.
- Labor: Labor prices vary greatly around the world, and can have a profound influence on wine price. Labor in California, for example, is about ten times more expensive than in Argentina.
- Age and Potential for Further Aging: Some wines improve with age for many years. As the bottles mature, they become more rare and collectible, thus making them more expensive. Additionally, some wines have the potential for further aging, due to their tannins and acid levels. These wines can command a higher price, as they make a good addition to the cellar of a serious wine collector.
- Ratings: Reviews and ratings from experts, critics, and wine publications can influence the price of a particular wine, either positively or negatively.
- Specificity of Appellation: Certain geographic areas, or “appellations,” can have a great deal of cachet and mass appeal. These bottles will tend to fetch higher prices. Examples of this phenomenon would include the regions of Barolo, Margaux, Rutherford in Napa Valley, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
- Taxes and Tariffs: Wines in different regions and countries are subject to different rates of tax and tariff. This can have an effect on the final price of a bottle. Wines from Europe, for example, are subject to additional tax when imported (as opposed to domestic wines), which adds additional cost to the price of a European bottle.
In conclusion, the price of a bottle wine is determined by a complex variety of factors. Quality is only one factor involved in influencing cost, and personal taste can range up and down the scale of both style and price. The important thing to remember is that it’s up to you to decide when a bottle of wine is worth the price and when it isn’t. You shouldn’t let anyone else tell you that the wine you’re drinking is too inexpensive, or that it isn’t worth its high price. Fortunately, there are endless wine labels to explore in a vast variety of price ranges. The hunt for the perfect bottle at a great deal can provide almost as much pleasure as the wine itself.