Today's inexpensive wines are better than ever. So what's with that guy who always orders the priciest bottle? Is he just showing off? Or are there legitimate reasons some wines are more expensive than others?
Over the past few decades, winemakers all over the world have supplied their wineries with high-tech equipment, and employed sophisticated techniques to ensure that consumers rarely pick up a bum bottle. With this gear they can inexpensively produce oceans of enjoyable wines. It all adds up to store shelves jam-packed with consistently good wine at bargain prices.
But what is good wine anyway?
Aside from simply being fun to drink, a good wine meets recognizable standards. First off, it should be "varietally correct," tasting like the grape or grapes from which it is made. A good wine also won't have any unpleasant flavors or aromas. Finally, it should be balanced, without any one trait dominating all the others -- such as excessive tartness or sweetness.
Defining greatness in wine is much more difficult. That's because ultimately, the only person who can judge whether a wine is truly great -- and perhaps worthy of a higher price -- is you.
Even so, aficionados would agree that a great wine fairly drips with the best flavor characteristics of its grape varieties, and is evocative of the soil and climate of the place in which the grapes were grown. Its flavors and aromas may be so clear yet so beguiling -- even subtly evolving from one thing to another -- that resistance to its charms is futile. You have no choice but to give a great wine your full attention. Its flavor may go on for such a long time that it seems as though it might never end. And you hope it never will.
No free lunch!
Unfortunately, magnificent wine doesn't often come cheap. One of the biggest factors is basic supply and demand. There's an extremely limited supply of the world's most prestigious wines, and surprising numbers of people pay exorbitant amounts to get their hands on them.
In addition, winemakers have identified a number of things they can do to radically upgrade quality -- but, sadly, at a price. These may include:
- Growing grapes only on the best sites, the scarcest, most expensive land
- Severely limiting grape yield -- fewer grapes per vine concentrates flavor but provides much less wine to sell
- Harvesting by hand instead of by machine
- Hand-sorting each bunch of grapes, using only the best for top wines
- Buying many brand new small oak barrels every year -- at up to $1,000 each
- Properly aging the wines
- Producing and blending with care only very small batches of wine
With the quality of all wines at historic highs, wine lovers may justifiably choose to never spend more than $10 and still enjoy good bottles. Wine's beauty -- at any price -- is in the glass of the beholder.