If you’ve tasted a lot of wine, you’re probably keenly aware there’s a vast difference in the range of styles and, perhaps, even quality. Undoubtedly, you’ve also noticed there’s a huge difference in the range of price. But how much does the wine price really relate to the quality of a wine?
Most people who have attended wine tastings can recall trying a wine that was very enjoyable, but with a huge price. What was so special about that wine? Are all expensive wines good? And, are all inexpensive wines not good?
Before we explore the qualities of a good wine, I’d like to explore some of the factors that contribute to the price of a wine. Some of these factors directly relate to wine quality; others do not.
Yield refers to how many grapes were harvested from the vineyard – usually measured in tons per acre or tons per hectare. A common practice is the cutting-off of developing bunches of grapes. This tends to increase the concentration and complexity of the remaining bunches of grapes. This, of course, leads to a smaller yield and drives up the price of the wine. The age of the vine affects the yield as well. The older the vines, the more complex the flavours, but the smaller the yield.
Hand-harvesting Vs. Machine-harvesting
Technology has certainly changed the way wine is made. Nowadays, many producers use machines to harvest their grapes. Many argue that hand-harvesting is superior. And they make a good point. A machine can’t tell which grapes are the best and which grapes should be discarded. Machines are also not nearly as good at picking out leaves and even bugs. Obviously, harvesting by hand is far more expensive. It’s more time-consuming and takes a lot more people.
Size of Operation
Larger producers make money with quantity. These wineries are more likely to use machine harvesting.
Grade of the Land
Grade refers to the slope, or inclination, of land. Typically, greater inclination is good for grape vines. It means that vines won’t have direct sunlight all day long, which can cook the grapes. Also, more inclination usually means better drainage, and little possibility of flooding. Of course, steep inclination means a lot more difficulty in working in the vineyard and, especially, more difficulty in harvesting the grapes. Vineyards in the Mosel region of Germany have some of the steepest inclination you will find.
Barrels made of oak, or sometimes other woods, can be very expensive. This can definitely affect the price of the wine, especially if the winery is using new barrels for every wine. Reusing barrels, or using stainless steel or concrete casks, can dramatically reduce the cost of producing a wine. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of quality. Using “second run” barrels or casks of some sort imparts less “woodiness” to the wine. It has been argued that the flavours imparted by new oak barrels cover up the true flavours of a wine.
Organic or Biodynamic
Organic or biodynamic practices definitely raise the cost of producing wine, mainly because these practices mean more labour and often some loss of crop to pests and other blights. Also, if a winery decides to make it official and become certified organic, this can be a lengthy and expensive process. Sometimes the cost is ongoing as there can be annual fees involved in being certified organic or biodynamic.
Have you ever noticed that the style and weight of the actual glass bottle that holds wine can be quite different? Big, heavy bottles can make a wine seem more expensive and luxurious, but that extra material costs money. It’s really nothing more than clever marketing. There is no actual advantage to having a more expensive container for the wine. Actually, there’s a growing trend to reduce the amount of material used, for environmental reasons.
You may also have encountered wines with painted – not paper – labels. This process certainly increases the bottom line. You may also see artwork displayed on a bottle. Often artists are paid a fee to permit the use of their art on a wine bottle. This may be aesthetically pleasing and may have some appeal for a collector, but it will affect the final cost of the wine.
Taxes can affect the price of wine both at the winemaking stage and at the point of sale. Wines made in countries with higher taxation usually owe some of the cost to tax.
Conversion Rate of Currency
If your country’s currency stretches far in another country, that usually means you can acquire products from that country at a reasonable price. This is true for wine.
How far did this bottle of wine have to travel? It does affect the cost. Though shipping wine great distances has a long history, you can spare some of the shipping costs by purchasing wine from regions closer to where you live.
The popularity of a wine won’t affect the cost of producing the wine but it definitely affects the final price of the wine. It is a business, after all. Winemakers want to get as much for their product as they can – and who can blame them? When a wine becomes popular enough, it can pass into the realm of becoming a “commodity wine.” These are wines that are known by name around the world. Sometimes they seem to have an almost mythical quality about them and the prices they command only add to that perception.
If you’ve ever purchased a wine that you saw in a full-page ad in a magazine, then you helped pay for that ad. Expensive marketing can definitely help sell wine, but it is of no advantage to the consumer.
Now that you know the main factors that affect the final price of a wine, the next step is to decide what you are willing to pay for. What matters to you? Is it important to you that your wine is certified organic, hand-harvested, from a small, family-run, winery?
These factors can certainly affect the taste of the final product, but ultimately, what matters is the taste of the wine. For that reason, I’d like to explore the qualities of a great wine:
Perhaps this seems like a small part of what wine is about, but sight is the first sense we use when judging wine. Experienced wine tasters may judge the look of a wine differently: signs of age in a wine, such as a little brown in the colour, may be appealing to an experienced taster but not to a novice. However, nothing about a wine’s appearance should repulse you in any way. If a wine looks “thin” (as in watery, lacking colour) that could be a sign of low quality.
A wine’s aroma should be pleasing. Besides that, a wine’s quality is judged by the complexity of its aroma. More expensive wines should have more complex aromas.
Obviously, a wine’s taste is important. Just as with the aroma of a wine, the flavours should be pleasing. Likewise, the other factor that contributes to the quality of a wine is the complexity of the flavour. A quality wine should not taste simple and one-dimensional. There should be many distinct pleasing flavours.
This refers to the extent to which aromas and flavours remain after you have swallowed the wine. The better the quality of a wine, the longer the finish.
There are people who prefer simple wine to complex wine. If this includes you, you are very lucky because the wine you enjoy should be very affordable. Typically, the more experience someone has tasting wine, the more complexity appeals to them. But, no matter how sophisticated your tastes, you should be able to find a wine you like at a price you can afford. It might not be the wine you drink on special occasions, but it should be enjoyable enough for your regular wine consumption.
My advice is to pay attention to what other consumers are saying about different wines, specifically those who have a palate similar to yours. More importantly, trust your own palate. Try new wines. Pay close attention to what you’re tasting. Learn what you like. For me, I’m always on the lookout for that next great wine, and I always appreciate good value.