We’ve all been there – wandering the aisles in search of the perfect bottle for that night’s festivities. You land in the middle of your preferred section, be it red, white, or rosé, and you look around for something that pops out. Maybe something you haven’t tried before? Perhaps you start at eye level, and gaze down to the bottom shelf in search of a bargain buy that will hopefully taste great and impress your friends. The whole time you’re thinking, “Is an expensive bottle of wine really worth it?”.
This process is not a science. Why don’t we simply reach for a $10 bottle and call it a day? Well, whether it’s a bottle of wine or a pair of booties, we assume that a higher price means higher quality.
If that’s correct, then that bottle of Château Cheval-Blanc 1947 that sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars must be, like, a billion times better than the $12 bottle of Cab from Trader Joes.
But, is that true? Does expensive wine always taste better?
The short answer is no. Expensive wine doesn’t always taste better. However, it’s slightly more complicated than that.
There are a whole bunch of reasons why a bottle of wine has a particular price tag. First, the basic costs – the grapes, the production materials and labor, the bottle itself, the cork, and the label – need to be covered. Winemakers also need to factor in administrative and marketing costs, and unless they sell directly to consumers, distributors and retailers will also take a cut.
There are also, shall we say, some less tangible reasons why a bottle might sell at a higher price. For instance, if a winemaker or winery has a reputation for greatness or a particular vintage is expected to be superb – the pricetag can reflect the wine’s perceived value.
Spending a Little Extra on Quality
While you might not detect a huge difference between a $20 bottle and a $60 bottle (and might actually prefer the $20 option – we’ll get to why that is later), it’s pretty likely that spending $20 (compared to $4) will get you a more enjoyable glass of vino.
Remember that after the grapes are grown and collected, a winemaker still has many decisions to make, and certain parts of the winemaking process can absolutely affect the wine’s quality. Here’s what to look out for:
Wines aged in oak tend to taste smoother. Oak barrels allow a small amount of oxygen to reach the wine, and that oxygen rounds out the tannins. The oak itself imparts some flavor to the wine that wasn’t there before. Ever see vanilla or baking spice in the tasting notes? That’s the magic of oak.
Giving wine more time to age can also improve the taste, particularly for red wine. Wines that have been aged longer tend to have softer tannins and lower acidity. Over time, fruit flavors start to taste more like stewed fruit.
What do these additions cost? French oak is more expensive than American oak, and makers of fine wine prefer to use new oak for each batch. Expect to spend an additional $2-4 per bottle for oak barrels, and an additional $1 for aging.
Terroir refers to the place where wine is made – the soil, climate, and geography. The reason terroir is important is that these geographical factors can affect the wine’s taste.
This may come as a surprise, but winemakers believe that the best tasting grapes grow in the most adverse conditions, like on the side of a steep hill. As a result, winemakers actually try to limit the size of the yield (the number of grapes grown), rather than trying to grow as many grapes as possible.
While this practice leads to better tasting wine, it also creates scarcity. The prestige of a particular growing region (say, for instance, Burgundy) and the limited quantity of the wine made there will drive the price up. Expect to pay at least $5 extra for a more specific terroir or geographic classification.
Word to the wise: up-and-coming New World regions with great terroir produce some excellent wines that you can get for a steal.
Why You Might Actually Prefer Cheaper Wine
While people tend to agree that a $20 bottle will taste better than a $10, for wines above $20, it really depends on who you ask because taste is subjective. It’s not just that wine enthusiasts prefer more expensive bottles. People who are newer to wine tend to think that more expensive wine actually tastes worse. Surprised? We sure were. Let’s take a look at why that is.
A Spoonful of Sugar…
First, affordable wines tend to be sweeter than expensive wines. This doesn’t mean that sugar is added. Residual sugar is present in wine when the winemaker cuts the fermentation process short. There are different reasons why a winemaker might choose to do this, but when wine is made from lower-quality grapes, residual sugar can improve the taste.
Popular brands like Apothic Red and Ménage à Trois have 12-15 g/L of residual sugar (or half a teaspoon of sugar per 5 oz glass).
Sweetness in wine can come through to our taste buds as richness. This might be why cheaper wines performed better in a blind tasting study among people without wine training.
It All Comes Down to Personal Taste
There’s reason to believe that the less you know, the more objective you can be when it comes to the taste of wine.
One study found that people rated “expensive” wines higher than “cheap” wines – even though, in reality, all of the wines in the study retailed for the same price. What’s up with this finding? According to researchers, “the brain expects expensive wine to be better quality, so people judge the flavor as better — even if it actually tastes the same as a cheaper bottle.”
Here’s another fun fact: wine experts – sommeliers and wine reviewers – are more likely to be supertasters, meaning that they taste food more intensely than others and, therefore, might have different preferences than the average person. While a sommelier may sing the praises of a wine that’s been aged to perfection, you might prefer ripe fruit flavors to delicate, earthy notes.
The key is to get to know your own preferences. There’s no objective rating system for wine – can you imagine? We can’t even decide if that dress was blue or white – so it all comes down to what you like. And the best way to determine which wines you love is to try a bunch and pick what you like.
In Vino Finito
Now you know the answer to the question, “Is expensive wine really worth it?” Just because a bottle of wine is more expensive, doesn’t mean you’ll like it. Above the $20 mark, opinions on wine are all over the map. If you’re new to wine, it’s actually pretty likely that you’ll prefer less expensive bottles. How lucky is that?
If you’re looking to drop some extra change on a high-quality bottle, keep an eye out for oak aging and a more specific terroir – although New World regions make some excellent wines that you can get for a bargain price. You can also look to support independent producers who use sustainable practices.
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