Master of Wine Emma Jenkins examines the question of quality and cost and what lies behind a higher price tag.
What makes one bottle of wine better than another? Why does one win gold medals while another languishes in critical obscurity? Why does one cost $10 and another $100 – is the latter really 10 times better? And while you’re at it, how long is a piece of string?
Leaving aside trying to make the subjective objective – after all, the best wine is the one you enjoy regardless of its price or other people’s opinions – there are generally agreed upon wine quality parameters. Wine judges look for balance, intensity, length, concentration and complexity. There should be varietal character and hopefully an intrinsic expression of the place in which it was grown – a rather nebulous quality the French call ‘terroir’. The component parts of fruit, acid, alcohol,tannins plus any residual sugar or oak, should be harmonious, the sum becoming greater than its parts. Hopefully, you’ll even be transported by the sheer rich evocativeness of the wine. A lot to ask? Well it should be, as chances are you’ll be parting with at least $30 per bottle for the experience (the sky’s the limit from there!).
The higher the price of the wine, the higher the average quality, and while this is by no means the simple linear scale that would make life easy, the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is generally true. Better quality grapes plus more time and effort in the winery equals more complex, concentrated wine. The best vineyards produce the most expressive and intense grapes (and there can be plenty of added cost via a top vineyard – France’s Montrachet vineyard in Burgundy is more expensive per acre than Manhattan’s CBD), but they cost a lot to manage... then add on low yields, hand-picked grapes and gentle, time-intense winemaking. Of course, extra spending will also have gone into label design, packaging and promotion, but despite any added marketing puffery, in the end it is what’s in the bottle that counts and, thankfully, as the vast majority of wines are judged ‘blind’ (without the judge knowing what the wine is), this should matter little.
So, is that $100 bottle really better than the
$10 one? In a nutshell, yes. Better quality wines do generally have more intensity and character but they also cost more to make. Of course, there are always bargains to be had (see below) and there are also horses for courses – no need to quaff that $300 bottle of vintage port! But if you really want an experience in a glass, a wine that tells a story and has a sense of place, you are going to need to seek out quality… and be prepared to pay for it.
The best wine is the one you enjoy regardless of its price or other people’s opinions.