It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find out the quality of a wine by just looking at it on the retail shelf or wine-list. When confronted with such uncertainty about the intrinsic value of things, customers use simple rules of thumb that they understand. Psychologists call these ‘heuristics’ - (any approach to problem solving, learning or discovery). In this case, the price of the wine provides a rule of thumb.
Most wine enthusiasts have varied levels of experience that allows them to associate higher prices with higher quality - (yes, this is subjective). Thus when buyers see a wine priced for only a few dollars, they conclude the quality of this wine is of a lower quality, and may decide not to buy for the occasion intended. The law of ‘demand’ is turned upside down.
Wine buyers rarely have complete information and therefore use various strategies to fill the gaps in their knowledge as they consider and choose between wines. For example, customers may believe that popular products are higher in quality while also believing that scarce-limited production wines are higher in quality.
Please note that this article is referring to price equalling quality. This is not the same as price equals ‘value’ for money - that is another ‘subjective’ topic of discussion. So why does wine vary in price and what factors make expensive bottles - and how does this relate to quality.
Staring at the beginning - the location of where the grapes are grown, the ‘terroir’ - and the unique decisions of the winemaker, can make the grapes from one particular region taste vastly different to the grapes from another.
All of these elements can dramatically increase the price and resulting quality of the wine. A typically used example is that of Burgundy in France. This region is ideally suited to growing Pinot Noir for a quality still red wine worthy of ageing. Some in the know might say there are few better places on earth which best express the typicity of the Pinot Noir grape.
The best sites in Burgundy can sell for up to one million euros per ha - so if you’re drinking wine from Burgundy the vineyard is in part, influencing the final price. It is worth a reminder, that if you grow a particular varietal - say Pinot Noir in the wrong, or not ideal terroir - you are going to get an ordinary, lower quality expression of this varietal. Make sure you ask questions and find out if the region from where the grape was grown is ideal, plus the vintage in question - if there is a knowledgeable staff member to talk with.
The highest priced wines are generally from single vineyards - as opposed to wines from grapes grown in several different sites. Single vineyards wine are interesting because they taste of a specific, unique terroir and are not diluted with lower quality grapes from variable quality vineyards. Where growing conditions might not be quite right or different vineyard management practices used or the age of vines - to mention only a few factors to be aware. Lower priced wines are typically mass produced with their grapes coming from anywhere and everywhere which dilutes the unique flavours and produces a generic style.
Another influence on the price and resulting quality is the cost and use of oak barrels. Some people don’t like wine that has been aged in oak barrels but others who understand why it is used, love the resulting wine. If you don’t like the characteristics of oak in wine (toasty, nutty, vanilla, spice flavours) don’t worry - as there are many unoaked wines available which are generally cheaper than oaked wines - as the cost of the barrel and time ageing is not added to the final price.
Oak barrels increase the price of the wine because they are expensive. Many higher priced wines are aged for a minimum of 10-12 months in new French or American oak barrels which can set you back anything from NZ$800 - NZ$2500 for a 225L barrel - (on occasion even more). If you like the taste of oak wine but not the price - drink wines aged in American oak barrels, as these can be half the price of French oak barrels. Or there are wines which are aged in used oak barrels 2-4 years of age, sometimes older, so the recovery of the barrel price has been achieved so the added cost to the wine is lower. Or some wines use oak chips, some have oak essence added, so yes, much lower priced wines and lower quality.
Age also plays a part of the final price of a wine and its quality. Once the wine has been bottled it can be aged in the winery cellars from 3 months to 9 plus years - (depending upon regional regulations of production, or the style of wine being made). Lower priced wines can be released after just a few months. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as some wines are made to be enjoyed in their youth and soon after bottling. But fuller, heavier, more complex red wines will always benefit from a little time in the cellar and also the bottle.
When talking about higher priced and therefore higher quality wines you must cover the influence of ‘stature’ of a winery or a wine brands reputation. But this can only be achieved over time - and by repeatedly achieving a high quality - time and time again, recognised by both industry experts, and also constantly purchased and enjoyed by the drinking public - as it is they who pay the final price.
Developing wine regions and wine brands around the world can produce outstanding wines but because they don’t yet have the same reputation of well-renowned wines - they can’t charge the same price. Another factor of higher priced wines that is typically used to suggest quality to new wine buyers is packaging. A winemaker can choose to go for a standard bottle, cork or screw-cap with a simple label (for a lower priced wine). Or for a premium quality wine - they can choose a bespoke, limited edition, heavy glass wine bottle with a label designed by a leading design company and it is going to cost a little more.
So friends and colleagues ask me - can you get a quality wine for an inexpensive price? And the answer is yes - I have frequently described wine as honest, a well-made expression of the varietal from the season and region. All of the components that make a well balanced, quality wine are all there in the bottle and it is priced accordingly.
As part of your experience and knowledge - the article I wrote last week‘wine scores’ - if used as part of your decision process. If a winery or label has consistently received high scores from several sources over a number of years - this can give you confidence in the price and quality. But also be aware that a very high score can ignite market speculation sending the bottle price rocketing and demand from customers not normally buying this wine, makes prices go far beyond the quality if compared to other wines that did not receive the same score - so do ask questions. There should always be an answer for how and why a wine is priced.
With the accessibility of numerous wine review magazines and websites over the past 25 years, the market forces and transparency has given much more clarity to wine prices and quality. Generally today the price can be a good indicator of its quality - as it will be sold at what the market will agree and can sustain.
There are always producers and wines that will surprise you from different regions, vintages and winemakers. Because of competitive market forces, resulting in wines priced well below the individual wines quality in the bottle. These are the gems that can be found, by asking a few questions and by reading websites like this; which describe a wines growing conditions, winemaking choices and the final wines personality - so you can decide the quality is what you are looking for with the occasion, cuisine you want to pair and enjoy it with.
But those new to buying wine - be aware that the industry thrives on people’s anxiety about buying good wine. So with a little knowledge, feel confident to buy a well-priced wine from the lower shelves of your favourite retailer. You will be happy with your purchase, as long as you understand the character inside the bottle and why you are buying that particular wine.
Now that you know a few of the factors which make a ‘quality’ wine - the key now is to find those characteristics that you like for the occasion you are buying the wine - in a well-priced bottle of wine and you are set to have an enjoyable experience.