Buying Wine
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Buyer Beware: Understanding the good and bad when buying wine

November 3, 2022

Several factors are involved when it comes to the final price tag on a wine. Where the wine is grown, how it’s cultivated, winemaking costs, brand name, etc. All of these can also be indicators for quality. Do you have to spend more money to drink quality wine? Does a $100 and upwards price tag on a wine mean it’s always exceptionally good? And conversely, is a $8 bottle of wine always bad? The simple answer is no.

Each country – and even a country’s specific growing regions – will have several factors that impart influence on a bottle’s value. Ontario, for example, has provincial levies and taxes that massively impact bottle prices compared to other provinces and countries. In Bordeaux, the competitiveness between producers has pushed quality within the region so much that the price of classified first and second growth wines has skyrocketed within the last decade.

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What I’ve learned after 17 years in the wine tasting business is how to piece together clues about the wine, along with its price, to determine if it’s worth a splurge or not. One thing is for certain, you don’t have to break the bank to find a delicious bottle! Below are just a few, but common, components that may reflect a wine’s value:

When is an expensive wine good?

Factors that drive up cost on a wine that are beneficial to the final product can be found with wines that receive greater care in the vineyard and winemaking process. Meticulous vineyard management to ensure healthy grapes, and labour – including hand-harvested grapes – can be costly for the winery.

Hand-harvesting is used to ensure a gentle and healthy pick. It’s also commonly used on sloping vineyards. In Alsace, for instance, it’s simply too steep for machinery to be utilized, so a team for hand-picking is mandatory. A winery’s labour force is an expense that must therefore be made back in the pricing of its wine.

Wine

Quality grapes, plus careful production methods and the best barrels can ultimately produce a top quality wine.

Single vineyard wines can also run at a higher price point than regional wines. If your bottle has the name of an acclaimed single vineyard, plot, block, or even cru, then you’re paying for the limited amount of wine being made from a specific zone that can be known to produce exceptional quality and may even have a higher classification within its region. Wineries with designated plots or single vineyard labels will market these as their best fruit source, and they will typically use their most expensive barrels to ensure top quality.

When is an expensive wine bad?

It’s true… expensive wine can taste bad. Just because something is held in the lockup section of wine retail stores doesn’t mean that it’s the best. Typically, these expensive wines ($50+/bottle) that are “bad” have elevated prices based on a brand name demand. Some of these prestigious wineries built a name by creating delicious wines decades ago, but in today’s market and demand, have had to produce more cost-efficient wines, and in turn, lower quality.

Some wines retain the same style that was popular when they first became champions in their field, which is great if you like your wine to taste 80 percent oak and 20 percent fruit – which today’s modern consumer won’t appreciate. On the other hand, other wines in this elite price point have adapted to the consumers’ palate. The consequence of this being that additives are used in the wine as flavouring agents to appease today’s buyers.

Buying wine

Remember: Just because something is held in the lockup section or in a fancy looking crate of a wine retail store doesn’t mean that it’s the best.

One compound favoured for this use is called Mega Purple. It adds colour, and a sweet, grapey flavour that is widely appealing to the general public. It’s mostly used in popular, mass-produced wines, in regions that are known to have loose laws in terms of labelling transparency and ingredient permittance. However, it is also used in revered “high-end” wines, although most shy away from even admitting its usage. These additional ingredients ultimately lower the quality of the wine and are often only detected by seasoned palates.

When is a cheap wine good?

There’s a fine line between a cheap wine being low quality and a cheap wine appeasing the mass consumer market. If you like to drink a wine that you can buy at a low price point, then that is great! No one would argue that you’ve found a good bottle. But you can always look for a good correlation between quality and value at these same convenient price points, also known as QPR (quality to price ratio).

Wines that can be good and of decent quality can ring in at a cheaper price point by having a combination of adequate terroir, large vineyard acreage, and a cost-efficient growing plan. Some wine growing regions with large valleys can receive optimum growing conditions for ripening fruit and produce a significant amount of quality grapes that increases the overall production of the wine. Such high producing areas include the Uco Valley in Argentina, where the climate, altitude and overall terroir allow for grapes to optimally ripen and thrive organically, with a hands-off vineyard management style.

The Maipo Valley in Chile and Languedoc, France, are other examples of how high volume, perfectly ripened grapes are cultivated and produced at a lower cost and therefore can be sold at a lower price for buyers.

When is cheap wine bad?

Often the best-selling wines in today’s market are sweetened and contain artificial flavouring agents. Another one of these common additives is oak-flavoured powder, a cost-cutting angle used for mass-produced wines instead of costly real oak barrel usage. Wines made on an incredibly large scale are produced in ways that stabilize the wines for consistency in product, so there are times when these additives are the best winemaking choice. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is bad, it can lower the quality of the final product.

High-yielding varieties that are grown to be sold in bulk for non-vintage blends will typically lack the depth and complexities of higher caliber wines. Large format wines labelled “dry white” or “smooth red” are indicators of these bulk blends.

Wine Search

Consumers are increasingly doing their research before making a purchase.

Of course, these are just guidelines that don’t always signify whether wines are strictly “good” or “bad”. Everyone has a different perspective, along with taste and wine preference. But my wine career has allowed me to consistently taste with large groups of other wine professionals in rooms with 100 plus wines, and it isn’t uncommon for wine experts to cringe at the wines that are flashing the highest price tags.

As wine consumers statistically become more knowledgeable, it’s becoming easier for buyers to navigate the crosswire of where quality and price fall. As a general rule, I find wines in the $25-$40 price range to bring the best QPR. In this price bracket, you can be tasting wines coming from great producers, great lands, and great climates. That’s the sweet spot.

 

– Leah Spooner is a contributing editor for VineRoutes