For those inclined to claim that there really is no difference between expensive wine and cheap wine, this symposium at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium should be enlightening.
Using Cabernet Sauvignon because of its prominence in the marketplace, four different Cabernet wines at four different price points were dissected in a tasting and panel discussion which included Francis Ford Coppola’s Diamond line Ivory Cabernet at the lowest price point of $13, Rodney Strong’s Knight’s Valley Cab at $35, Steven Hills Cabernet from Eastern Washington at $50, and Napa’s Cliff Lede Vineyards Cabernet at $78. Representatives from each winery were present to explain how the wines were made.
The differences were remarkable.
Long story short, the $13 Cabernet was a product of thoroughly mechanized vineyard work, high yields with a single pass through the vineyard taking all the grapes that were available, grapes sourced from several vineyard locations in the state, large scale fermentation with short extraction times boosted by the use of enzymes and tannins softened by micro-oxidation, barrel alternatives (meaning oak chips) to build complexity, with the overall aim being consistency, volume, and speed.
The higher priced Cabs by contrast were a product of hand pruning by trained, experience, sometimes in-house crews. There was some machine harvesting but in many cases the grapes were harvested by hand with several passes through the vineyard over time to ensure optimal ripeness. Grapes were usually harvested at night when temperatures were low to ensure adequate acidity. In some cases the grapes were hand sorted. Fermentations were done in small lots so winemakers had lots of control over the final blend. Macerations were longer and pump-overs carefully calibrated. Real oak barrels, both old and new and often custom built, were used for aging, with the new French oak barrels costing about $1300 each. And the wines were barrel aged sometimes for over 20 months requiring storage space and constant monitoring.
Every step of the production process of the premium wines costs money and the article never mentions the cost of prime vineyard land compared to the cost of land suitable for inferior grapes.
I suppose it could be the case that the premium winemakers are going to all this trouble and expense to maintain the illusion of quality. But that doesn’t sound very plausible does it?
Sure part of the cost of Napa Cabernet has to do with branding and supply and demand. And some expensive wines are not worth their price. But there are intrinsic costs of fine wine production that explain the much of the quality differences.
To suppose otherwise is to assume a conspiracy theory worthy of Congressional Republicans.