Are Expensive Wines Better? This may be the wine question I’m most frequently asked by consumers. The question is broad, so a simple “yes or no” answer doesn’t work, but the short answer is “usually.”
As with any other product, some inexpensive wines over-perform and some high-priced bottles underwhelm. The overall quality of inexpensive wines is better than ever. But expensive wines also continue to improve.
What does “better” mean?
By “better,” some people mean more appealing to them. If someone doesn’t like oak, or high-acidy, or the tannic structure of Cabernet Sauvignon, they won’t like wines that feature those aspects, no matter how well made.
People’s preferences are also affected by what they drink habitually and how much experience they have with a broad spectrum of wine. To someone who drinks inexpensive wine, fruit juices, mixed drinks, or sodas, a dry, savory, structured wine will be very unappealing. Such wine drinkers will prefer wines that are smoother, sweeter, and fruitier. And complexity isn’t an important attribute for them. There are excellent, expensive wines that meet these requirements. But, on a percentage basis, that profile is more common in inexpensive wines.
Some people love high-acid wines, some folks can’t drink them. Some people appreciate texture and a touch of bitterness, others can’t abide that.
Personal preferences are just that. Blanket statements about quality based on them don’t hold water. So, it’s more useful to judge “better” using objective criteria: intensity, color, complexity, balance, typicity, representation of place, and other attributes of a great wine. These characteristics can be, more or less, quantified and compared in a standard and objective way.
On Average, More Expensive Wines Outperform Inexpensive Wines in Terms of Complexity, Balance, Typicity of Region and Variety, and Memorability.
Lower priced wines are generally targeted at casual wine drinkers. That leads to the wines being smooth, fruity, fairly simple, and on the sweet side. And, since most consumer shopping in this price band are more interested in consistency than the complexities of terroir or vintage, wineries tend to create blends. These may be somewhat reflective of a region or variety, but aren’t detailed portraits.
Even if producers of less expensive wines had the same aspirations, they would usually come up short. Top vineyards tend to be small and can’t support huge volume. And minimum price is dictated to by cost, which is substantially higher for top wines. Excellent fruit and attentive, polished winemaking cost more. (Note that attentive does not necessarily mean interventionist.)
Here are just a few of the factors which affect the cost of making wines.
One of the biggest costs for wineries, especially these days, is labor. Being more attentive throughout the entire winemaking process requires extra labor. This includes activities in the winery and the vineyard. I’ve been told that, in the Prosecco wine region, each acre of vineyard land requires 200-300 hours of manual work per year. Labor usage will be even higher in many other regions, some of which also have substantially lower yields.
In the vineyard, labor is used for pruning, leaf-pulling, evaluating vine health, spraying, and green harvest. Organic and biodynamic vineyards often require extra labor hours per vine. And, of course, harvesting by hand rather than machine is inherently labor intensive.
The price of vineyard land goes up substantially with quality, scarcity within a given area, and reputation. Planted vineyards in Paso Robles or Willamette Valley start at around $35,000/acre. Prices begin at $70,000/acre in Napa Valley and can easily run four times higher for prime land. Or you can buy a massive vineyard with a 12-acre residential estate near Bakersfield for less than $13,000/acre.
Yield is measured in tons of fruit per acre. Top quality vineyards might be limited by the winery to 3 tons per acre or less, in order to produce fruit that is perfectly ripe, concentrated, complex. In contrast, a vineyard used for mass market wines may yield fifteen tons per acre. That results in thinner wines which are less intense or interesting and which may show unattractive green flavors.
Fine wines, especially red wines, often age in barrel to soften and gain complexity. The percentage of new oak in a wine varies. French oak barrels are more expensive than those from Hungarian or American oak. A new, French oak barrel can easily cost $1,000 or more.
Each barrel holds enough wine for about 300 bottles. If we assume 33% new oak, then the cost per bottle for French oak would be at least $1/bottle. And that doesn’t include the space they occupy, the labor required to clean, maintain, move, and monitor them, or the financial implications of sitting on inventory for 12 months.
Oak aging also leads to evaporation. A barrel can easily lose 5%—that’s 15+ bottles—of its wine volume each year. Evaporation can increase concentration, but it’s a hit to the bottom line.
Inexpensive wines rarely age more than three or four months and don’t get time in new oak. Often, these wines only see massive, stainless tanks. So, the cost of barrels is decreased or eliminated, the inventory turns more quickly, and there’s no evaporation.
Sorting fruit after harvest is labor intensive, sometimes uses extremely expensive machines, and lowers yield even further, because fruit is discarded. Inexpensive wines rarely involve sorting.
Even something as simple as the way a wine is sealed can have a significant bearing on the retail price. Very inexpensive wines may use a plastic “cork.” At commercial volumes, their cost is well under a dime each. Those closures work in the short term, but allow rapid oxidation. So they aren’t at all suitable for a wine intended to be opened more than six months after release.
On the other hand, a very high-quality cork, natural or engineered, may cost $1.50. That doesn’t seem like a big monetary difference. However, when you factor in markups for margin, marketing, and selling expenses at each level of distribution, the difference can be magnified to 30 cents vs. $4.50. At that point, the “price” of the excellent closure is more than that of some bottles of wine.
Opportunities for Great Value
Some regions are famous for producing wines which offer an excellent quality-price ratio. These are typically places where land, labor, and water are inexpensive and the vineyards are easy to access and farm. They usually also feature good, reliable weather which allows the grapes to ripen well, and without much intervention, every year. Examples include Spain, southern France, and Sicily.
Other opportunities for value lie in regions or grape varieties, that are excellent, but aren’t as sought after as Bordeaux and Burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir. Despite their intensity, ageability, complexity, and versatility with food, top-quality Riesling and Chenin Blanc remain very affordable.
In objective terms, wine quality tends to go up with price. The higher price allows for better fruit, more labor, longer aging, and many other practices which are expensive, but lead to rich, complex, distinctive wines. However, due to personal taste, individual people may find certain inexpensive wines more appealing than those at higher prices.
Examples of Great Values in Stock Now
2014 Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Rosso - Sicilian blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato
2006 Lopez De Heredia Rioja Vina Tondonia Reserva - A Tempranillo-centric blend from Spain's most famous region
2013 Domaine du Clos des Fees Cotes de Roussilon Villages Clos des Fees - A rich, concentrated of 50% Syrah with Carignane, Grenache, and Mourvedre
2015 Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel - Intense and ripe, but laced with acidity and saline mineral
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. He's founder of Wine Writers' Educational Tours, an annual, educational conference for professional wine writers. He also leads private wine tours and conducts tastings and and seminars. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator, Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist, and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.