What’s the difference between cheap and expensive wine?

Two-Buck-ChuckEvery so often I get a question about the difference between cheap wine and better wine: “What’s the real difference? Why spend $25 when I can spend $2.50? Seriously, it’s just fermented grapes. Isn’t it all the same?”

No. And despite the articles and taste tests of experts where the $2 wine in the $200 bottle wins a blind tasting, there is a difference between shit wine and good stuff. Those tests are in pressured environments, with artificial conditions (peer pressure), and play off the idea that people are really susceptible to suggestion (which we all are, since we’re human).

I’m telling you, even if you don’t know how expensive a wine is, when you taste something that is well made, there’s a big difference between that and plonk.

I’m totally willing to buy that, like everything in wine, tasting quality is something you learn as you learn more about wine. You may be at a place now where you can’t taste the difference. It will come with time and more tasting.

Regardless of what you can or can’t taste, there are some serious, concrete differences between mass produced wine and boutique wine that may be of interest. These are farming, winemaking, and flavor factors that make a big difference in quality and price. So even if you can’t taste the difference now, maybe this will at least provide an explanation of the price difference between good wine and cheap wine and give you an appreciation of why some wineries charge more for their wine.

1. Since all great wine starts in the vineyard, the best vineyard sites are prized, limited and the grapes from there cost more.

Let’s take wine out of the equation for a second. Let’s bring this to tomatoes.

Ever been to a local tomatoesfarmer’s market? There are usually multiple people selling tomatoes. One week you buy tomatoes from a farmer whose wares look awesome and whose tomatoes are half the price of the vendor next to her. But when you slice the tomatoes open and taste them, they are acidic and too earthy for your liking. They lack sweetness and aren’t so juicy. So when you go back you spring for the more expensive ones. It ticked you off a little to have to pay double for a tomato, but you decide to do it anyway. When you cut open that tomato and taste it, the heavens open and angels sing. This is the best tomato you’ve ever eaten. You would pay 4 times the price of the other tomato for this experience.

IMG_2371.JPGWhat’s going on here? It’s the effect of terrior and the brilliance of the farmer in picking the right fruit for the right place on her farm. Growing on the right spot, the tomatoes are heavenly. Growing on a less good spot, they suck. Grapes are the same way. So expect higher quality, better fruit to go into expensive wine.

If someone grows grapes on crappy sites where grapes don’t gain maximum flavor and structure, the resulting wine is going to suck. If they grow it in a place with the right sun exposure, soil type, drainage, and slope, you get unbelievable grapes. And you can’t have great wine without great grapes. Period. So some of the expense of better wine is from the cost of growing on coveted, often hard to farm sites that make kick ass grapes.

2. Winemaking has another huge effect. If you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t use the right equipment (the right kind of barrels, the right type of maceration, fermentation) the wine isn’t going to be as good.

Never is this more clear than when you’re touring around a wine region trying the wines. The wines of the area are from similar vineyards and sometimes from the exact same ones, but in the hands of different winemakers they taste completely different. The winemaker’s decisions can make or break a wine.

IMG_0917.JPGSo even if you’ve done a great job in the vineyard and you have beautiful grapes that have outstanding potential, you’re by no means done — it can still all go to pot. Trust me, I’ve seen this happen. In the hands of an overzealous, tech-loving winemaker, beautiful grapes can transform into a wine that tastes like a mouthful of vanilla and butter with no hint of the natural goodness that came from the land.

Top wines have balance between acid, tannin, alcohol, and sugar (or lack thereof) and they are either reminiscent of fruit or of the land in which they grew. They aren’t oak bombs. They don’t taste like butter (although they can have the texture of velvet). They aren’t high alcohol without a balance of tannin or acid. A skilled winemaker understands the grapes s/he has to work with and uses techniques to highlight the deliciousness of the grapes, not to transform the wine into something completely different from the grapes they worked so hard to grow.

Are barrels expensive? Good ones are. Is storing wine and allowing it to mature expensive? HELL YES! I’m a business dork, so I always think about inventory holding costs — not cheap. Do you sometimes have to painstakingly make a bunch of different lots form different areas of the vineyard and then blend them? If you want good wine, you may.

When you pay for good wine, you’re paying for the great judgement of the winemaker.


3. Ultimately the taste, aroma, and texture of the wine are dead giveaways that you have something special.

redwineglassIf you read the blog or listen to the podcast, you know that I’m quick to call BS on stuff in the wine industry that I think is ridiculous. But I promise you that as you have the opportunity to taste better wine, you will taste the differences between cheap and expensive glasses. The velvety feeling of high quality Pinot Noir, with just the right balance of fruit, acid, and light tannin. The ripe fruit flavors combined with a spicy earth and bright acidity of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The bacon, black pepper, and black plum notes against the bright acid and noticeable but not too rough tannin of a Northern Rhône Syrah.  These experiences stand apart from the less expensive wines that are just fine, but not memorable.

The more you drink the more you realize that there is a taste difference. I’ve watched the faces of friends light up when they taste a truly great wine versus the stuff they usually drink and it’s a different animal — they get it. I remember my own experiences of tasting fine wines for the first time and knowing that there was a big difference between what’s possible and what I normally drink on a nightly basis.

You have to know what to look for, but when you do, drinking great wine (on special occasions, because what normal person can afford to every night?) is so rewarding and such a wonderful treat.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree that there’s a difference? Write a comment and let me know!!!

  • kevin

    Thanks! I’ve used the produce analogy as well. I only buy corn from one vendor who sources it from a region whose terroir is right for corn and it tastes so good in season. We also only buy apples, and especially strawberries from specific farms for the same reason. Once you have sampled good wine, you begin to recognize the differences in inexpensive wine. I’ll try to serve better wines to my in-laws and out-laws during holidays for that reason. Except Aunt Nameless, who just likes alcohol……sorry Auntie…..we love you, but you’ll only get cheaper wine!

  • Angela Cowan

    I’ve recently gotten more interested in wine and how they are produced when I noticed the Organic Wine section and wondered why on Earth there would be a requirement for that – I thought all wine was “organic.” I started looking into it and discovered that there are all kinds of chemicals that can be added during the processing that is most likely part of the process of all mass produced wine. But, that isn’t saying that expensive wines don’t use pesticides, fungicides and chemicals either – I suppose they could and do. So, now I really want to make sure I’m at least not buying cheap mass produced wine, but I’d also like to limit the amount of chemicals I consume, so I’ve been experimenting with some organic wine.

    • FUABCN

      Watch out for that dihydrogen monoxide. People are astoundingly ignorant and irrational about “chemicals”.

    • Elizabeth Schneider

      No and not all wine is vegan either, surprisingly (they used egg whites and sometimes fish bladders to remove proteins and make the wine clear in color). There’s a movement for ingredient labelling in wine but it hasn’t gotten much traction. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon has done a lot of work around this. Here’s a link if you’re interested: https://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/about/ingredient-labeling/

      And expensive wines absolutely use pesticides and chemicals. Your only guarantee that they don’t is if they discuss it on their web sites. Also, many vineyards around the world actually farm organically but given the prohibitive costs of certification, they can’t get the distinction. It’s important to read up if it’s something that matters to you!

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Mahbub Morshed

    Well, if you will send some bottles, then I suppose I can answer to the questions lol!