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Main Difference Between Expensive And Cheap Wines Explained

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If we look at wine as fermented grape juice, it seems illogical that prices can range from as little as $2 up to $1000 or more. What differences make some wines so expensive while others remain cheap? Can we detect those differences easily when we taste wine?

Expensive wines are produced from grapes with more intense, concentrated flavors – usually from low-yield vines. Expensive wines are aged in high-quality new oak barrels that impart distinctive flavors to the wine that are layered on top of the intense, complex flavors of the grapes.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences that make some wines more expensive to produce than others so that you can tell the difference the next time you go to a wine tasting.

Difference Between Expensive And Cheap Wines
Difference Between Expensive And Cheap Wines

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What Is The Difference Between Expensive And Cheap Wines

In simplistic terms, I could say that the difference between expensive and cheap wine is the price. In some ways, that is not entirely false.

By way of example, in Spain, for a wine to qualify for the prestigious DOCa certification, it must currently be priced at least double the price of the national average of wines with the regional DO certification. 

From the above example, you can see that one of the main criteria for a Spanish wine to receive the top fine wine certification is that it must be offered for sale at a price that is at least double the national average.

Looking slightly deeper, we can say that scarcity increases the price/value of a wine. Older vines yield lower yields, but each grape has more intense flavors.

If the grapes have more intense flavors, so does the wine. The lower yields mean less wine can be produced with these intense flavors. Lower production levels increase the scarcity and hence the price.

If the vines “struggle” in poor soils with limited irrigation, those vines also produce fewer grapes of higher intensity. This, too, leads to more intense wine flavors. Old vines that have “struggled” in poor soils for decades seem to create the most incredible intensity of wine flavors but at meager yields per hectare.

When you factor in production methods that could include spending 12 months in barrels of new French oak that adds $6 per bottle to the production cost alone, you can see why some wines get priced higher than others.

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Because of the low yields and quality of oak barrels, the easiest way to tell the difference between an expensive wine and a cheap wine is in the complexity of the aromas and flavors. 

That is not to say that less expensive wines always taste worse than expensive wines. I have had the privilege of tasting many superb wines from new estates and vineyards. They have just not as yet developed the reputation of being top-quality wines and hence can’t yet command top-quality prices.

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Can People Tell The Difference Between Expensive And Cheaper Wine?

If you have developed a nose and palate for the intricate qualities of a very well-made wine, you can often tell an expensive wine from all the flavors on the nose before you even taste it.

However, for those who have not had the opportunity to taste top-quality wines, it might be more difficult to spot the difference between an expensive wine and a cheaper wine.

Part of what makes some wines expensive is their reputation for being high quality. This reputation increases demand, and that pushes up the price.

There is one thing that I have learned, and that is there are many cheaper wines that taste superb. These are often from relatively newer wineries that have not yet developed their reputation for being high quality. 

TIP: French wines are often compared to Italian wines. Find out the main differences between these wines in this article. If you want to know what the differences between Spanish wines and all others (French, Italian, Chilean, and more) are, check out this article.

What Is The Difference Between Good And Bad Wine?

When comparing good vs. bad wine, we need to settle one important factor that has nothing to do with the price of the wine but massively affects its value.

From my perspective, the only really bad wine contains one of the typical wine faults. For instance, a wine might have a damaged cork causing a completely oxidized wine.

The wine may have been corked with a cork contaminated by TCA, resulting in the wine having cork taint. You recognize cork taint by the smell of wet cardboard on the cork and the wine, and it affects as much as 2% of wine bottled using natural cork.

Pau Gomez of Bodega Mil300 told me that some wineries put their corks in bleach if they have had a TCA contamination in their cellar. If you spot a bleached cork when opening a bottle, you will have an above-average chance of having one of the bottles in that case contaminated by cork taint.

Another cause of bad wine is when bottles of wine get left out in the heat and get cooked. I remember staying in a resort on the Costa del Sol in Spain for our summer holiday.

When we arrived, I noticed 5 cases of top-name Rioja standing outside one of the service entrances. Four hours later, those 5 cases were still standing outside, baking in the August sunshine – completely ruining some very expensive wine.

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These are what I would refer to as bad wine. As you can see from the Rioja experience above, some very expensive wines can also become bad wines.

In all of these instances, it is easy to taste the difference between good and bad wines where the wines have one of these wine faults. Even a cheap wine with no faults will taste infinitely better than an expensive wine that has a wine fault.

Can You Taste The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Wine?

Can You Taste The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Wine?
Can You Taste The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Wine?

Most of the time, it is possible for most wine drinkers to taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

Expensive wine will have more complex layers of aromas and flavors. This comes from the vines producing fewer grapes of more concentrated flavors. Cheaper wine will come from high-yield vines, where the juice will be a bit more diluted in flavor.

Expensive wine will be matured in new oak barrels, usually for around 12 months. The newer the barrel, the more flavor transfers to the wine.

If you get clear notes of vanilla, clove, allspice, nutmeg, chocolate, or freshly tanned leather on the nose of a red wine, it usually indicates that the wine was matured in new oak vats.

Similarly, you can recognize new oak on the nose of white wine when you clearly smell vanilla, marzipan, creme brule, caramel, or brown sugar.

In her book Wine Folly (available on Amazon), Madeline Puckette mentions that a single 80-year-old oak tree only produces enough wood for two barrels.

This means that the best quality French oak barrels can cost up to $3,600. When you consider that a barrel holds enough wine to fill only 300 bottles, it means just aging the wine in new oak barrels adds $12 per bottle to the production cost.

By contrast, less expensive wine will be matured in used oak barrels which impart little to no direct flavor to the wine beyond smoothing some of the grape flavors in the wine. This makes it easier to taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

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Does Wine Taste Better When It Costs More?

In a roundabout way, you could say that wine tastes better when it costs more. Let me explain.

Wines that taste better are more sought-after by wine collectors. Often a wine or a vintage that tastes exceptional will be in great demand. When that demand is higher than the supply, it will force the price of the wine up as collectors are willing to pay more for that wine.

Some wineries will only release a limited number of bottles of their best vintages each year to keep the demand and the prices higher.

Because the market has forced the prices of the best-tasting wines higher, it is safe to say that most of the time, the wine will taste better when it costs more.

Why Are Some Wines Ridiculously Expensive?

Scarcity is what makes some wines ridiculously expensive. Suppose you are holding a top-rated wine in your cellar for an extended period. In that case, that wine will likely increase in value because as each year passes, fewer bottles of that vintage are available in circulation.

Simply put, the more bottles of a certain vintage get consumed, the scarcer the remaining bottles of that vintage become. I will use Chateau Lafite as an example to show you how this works.

Chateau Lafite is one of the largest Medoc estates, producing between 25.000 and 35.000 cases of wine annually. That’s between 300.000 and 420.000 bottles! These typically sell for about $1.000 per bottle when they are released. 

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild
Chateau Lafite-Rothschild

Each year critics from the wine press taste and rate young wines from the previous year’s harvest. At the same time, a percentage of the vintage is offered for sale En Primeur, where you can buy bottles of the wine as many as two years before the wine is bottled and released to the public. This is like a futures market for wine.

On 7 June 2022, Chateau Lafite released the 2021 vintage En Primeur for $470 per bottle. This is much less than $1.000, but you must wait two years to get your wine.

By the way, the 2021 vintage scored 97 by the critics – the highest score of any 2021 Bordeaux. The 2021 Troplong Mondot placed second with a score of 96.

Now let’s look at how scarcity affects the value of Chateau Lafite. The 2017 vintage was released in 2020 at a time when the restaurants of the world were closed and not stocking their cellars.

So there is currently an over-supply of 2017, and you can find bottles available for $830 on Vinatis. We know that Chateau Lafite shouldn’t be consumed younger than 20 years old, so let’s look at some of the older vintages.

The 1998 vintage is available for $1.200 per bottle. That is because I’d estimate that over 250,000 bottles are still in circulation. By contrast, the 1982 vintage has become scarce, so a bottle of 1982 Chateaux Lafite will set you back $7.600!

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Should You Drink Cheap Wine?

The wine industry never uses the term “cheap” wine because that would mean wines to be avoided at all costs. Instead, the euphemistic term “less expensive” is commonly used in wine literature.

What even is less expensive (or cheap) wine? Everything is relative. A wine that is completely beyond my budget might seem cheap to someone like Jeff Bezos.

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With that put aside, let’s answer the question of whether you should drink less expensive wine. From my perspective, I would say yes. Especially if you are relatively new to the world of wine tasting and are still developing your palate.

If top sommeliers like Madeline Puckette taste wines priced under $5 and, in the process, discover stunning wines that have yet to develop a superior reputation, then we can also hone our tasting skills on less expensive wines.

According to Forbes Magazine, the wine industry term for a “premium wine” is one that costs around $15 per bottle. That might be difficult to believe when you browse the shelves of a wine shop.

In 2007 I visited a Barcelona wine shop and saw a South African Cabernet for $30. I had the identical wine on my wine rack at home that I had bought at the estate in Stellenbosch a year earlier for $2.

If I hadn’t been prepared to taste “cheap” wines, I would never have discovered that Cabernet.

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Do Cheaper Wines Have More Sugar?

Cheaper wines do not necessarily have more sugar. Sweet wines have more residual sugar and dry wines have converted all of their sugar to alcohol in the fermentation process.

I have tasted some expensive sweet and dry wines that are much cheaper. The amount of residual sugar in a wine does not indicate how expensive/cheap that wine is.

The one thing that I will say is that I would not let a sweet wine age for too long in the bottle, as there is always the risk that a sweeter wine could begin a second fermentation process in the bottle that can drastically alter the taste of the wine.

Does Cheap Wine Give You A Hangover?

Cheap wine will give you a hangover if you consume too much wine. However, you are just as likely to get a hangover after consuming too much expensive wine. A hangover comes from consuming too much alcohol, not how cheap or expensive the wine is.

I remember hearing a story in the tasting room at the Graham Beck estate during the 1990s. Many people say that sparkling wine gives them a hangover. However, people most commonly have sparkling wine at celebrations like New-Years-Eve or weddings.

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In the case of the latter, guests will be consuming wine, often mixed with other drinks. At the end of the reception, the guests all raise a half-glass of bubbly to toast the bride and groom.

The hangover the following morning gets blamed on the half-glass of sparkling wine and not all the drinks that preceded it.

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People can usually taste the difference between expensive and cheap wines. Expensive wines are made from low-yield vines that produce grapes of more intense flavors.

Expensive wines will usually also be aged in new French oak barrels, which add as much as $6 per bottle to the production cost of the wine. New French oak gives wine distinctive aromas not detected in older barrels of lower quality.

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