As one could expect, expensive wine is supposed to taste according to the price. And you bet it does! According to numerous blind tests, even when the same wine is poured in bottles with different price tags, the respondents prefer the wine from a “more expensive” bottle over the rest.
On a serious note, in many cases, it works the opposite as cheaper wine has higher residual sugar, which tastes better for unsophisticated wine drinkers.
So is there really a difference between cheap vs expensive wine or it is all about the label and the name of the vineyard? We will try to dissect it into elements leaving the results to your judgment.
Perception is Subjective
It goes beyond any doubt that the perception of taste is subjective. Presentation, packaging, atmosphere — this is what makes that special bottle of wine, be it an exquisite dinner with family or an exclusive restaurant on occasion. Numerous experiments with the target audience of most sophisticated experts tasting the very same wine under different conditions are proof of the above.
But as with many other subjective phenomena, such as visual art or music, appreciation of wine goes along with developing one’s taste. As soon as you start enjoying exclusive wines, there will be no way back. Yes, sometimes your brain can color the perception of cheap wine to make it taste like gold, but once you tried well-made varietals, such tricks will not work in the long run.
So what makes the well-made wine so much valued? Below are the most common factors which add to the taste as well as the price.
Vineyard factors, or terroir
The same sorts of grapes, grown in different regions, will taste (and cost) differently. The range of factors, including soil, sun, and climate, as well as methods of cultivation and wine-making, are those that are responsible for such difference.
For a long time, French vineyards were unbeatable, with French winemaking being a long routed national tradition. However, in 1976 and later in 2006, California wines won over French ones in the so-called Judgment of Paris by top wine experts, after which Napa was never the same again.
With that being said, the importance of the terroir is hard to overestimate. It is well reflected in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification with Grand Cru and Premier Cru classes being awarded to vineyards rather than to sorts of wine grapes.
Oaking in barrels brings the wine into contact with oxygen and the oak. The oxygen causes the wine to mature, making the color more stable, tannin less intense, and the taste more smooth. The barrels add vanilla flavors to the wine due to the vanillin compound in oak. In addition to vanilla, oak ads smoky, spicy, woody, and other subtle notes making the taste rich and creamy.
As wine does not allow additives, oaking is the only way to add other notes. The effect would naturally depend on the type of oak used, and the time the wine is left in barrels. While cheap wines may be unoaked at all or kept in barrels for a very short period of time not exceeding several months, more expensive wines are stored for extended periods either in French, American, or, sometimes, in combined American and French oak barrels.
After oaking, wines continue to mature in bottles. Although most of the wines are consumed young (which is one of the reasons for their lower price), best wines open up only at maturity.
Aging does several things with wine: decreasing acidity and tannin, which is the element making your mouth feel dry. A mature wine will taste more smooth and rounded with fruit notes becoming more subtle. To reach that point, the wine shall have higher qualities, otherwise, it will not improve with time.
The fine wines have high acidity and tannin levels and are quite austere at the beginning of their lifetime so that they are supposed to be consumed only at maturity. Naturally, aging wine adds to its costs considerably, requiring storage in a wine cellar, having optimal temperature, humidity, and other conditions.
Summing It Up
As you could imagine, any 20 dollar wine, great as it may be, cannot boast an exquisite taste of rich grape varietals or flavors of high-quality oaks. More often than not, such wines would be a single note and have higher residual sugar to improve their taste. Most of them are supposed to be consumed young, and cellaring usually does not make them taste any better.
When you begin to learn the difference between cheap vs. expensive wine, ask the seller about the maturity period as fine wines open up only at the due time while too old wine may taste dull. You may want to try various varieties, be it Pinot Noir or Grenache on the lighter side, balanced Cabernet Sauvignon, or full-bodied Syrah to find out the ones for each of your moods and occasions.
Finally, do your fine wine a favor by serving it at the right temperature, decanting, if possible, and sharing it with your friends and special ones. Hopefully, you’ll find that fine wine is no longer a beverage, but an exciting new experience worth trying.