Cheap wine doesn't have to mean bad wine
What makes a cheap wine taste cheap? Have you ever pondered this question? I have on many occasions and decided it was time to find the truth.
The first step in my research was to locate the least expensive bottle of wine possible and compare it to a finer wine. I walked the aisles of the liquor store and looked down. The least known, least expensive wines are usually on the bottom shelf, unless they happen to cost less because they are on clearance or discounted to move. I found Boone's Farm for $4, but come on … been there, done that and don't need to ever taste that again. The next price level was at $6, so I selected this simple, straightforward 2013 Canyon Road Chardonnay. Nothing fancy about the label and no extravagant description. So far there's still nothing to tell me this should be categorized as cheap other than the price.
There are three things that drive up the price of wine: oak, time and terroir. (Terroir being the natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil and climate.) Following is a brief insight for each.
Wine growers and producers know that aging wine in new oak barrels allows them to increase the price because it improves the taste by adding oak flavors. These barrels also allow oxygen to permeate and decrease the intensity of tannins, making the wine smoother. Oak increases the price of wine because the barrels themselves are expensive too. An 80-year old oak tree will only produce two barrels, with French barrels costing twice as much as American. The increased price to the consumer is about $2 to $4 dollars more per bottle.
Many times we've heard the saying, "The older a wine, the better." This mainly pertains to reds, but it's important to understand what time does for any wine. Aging brings a balance between sugar and acidity while enhancing the fruit flavors. This is what makes the wine taste smooth. There is added cost in this process because aging takes up space and delays profits. It's common to add $1 per year for aging.
Great-tasting wine begins in the vineyard and is a result of terroir. Certain grapes grow best in certain areas according to whether they are warm climate or cool climate grapes. Also, the best vineyards are those where the vines struggle to produce. You've most likely heard the saying that personal struggle builds character? Well, that holds true for grapes, as well. Those that are more difficult to grow are the ones that end up having the most flavor. Growers also force the vines to produce less grapes to pack more flavor into each one. As the terroir becomes more precise, the price will increase by $5 per bottle. For example, a general wine from California may cost $12, while a bottle from Sonoma will be $17, and one specifically from the Russian River Valley will be $22.
Knowing what makes a wine more expensive helps me evaluate this 2013 Canyon Road Chardonnay at $6. This wine is "partially barrel fermented," which means it spends only a short time in oak barrels. This reduces the cost because it is not aged in oak and gets to the market more quickly. The label mentions only California and no region, which helps keep cost down due to no specific terroir. In tasting, there is very little aroma and a prominent taste of sugar because the fruit has not had time to develop and the acidity is not in balance with the sugar content. This is not the best Chardonnay I've tasted, and certainly not the worst. All things considered, it is perfectly acceptable at $6 per bottle.
So, when wine shopping, one can expect higher prices for earlier years and a name-brand terroir. But, save yourself some money by looking at the bottom shelf for those less expensive brands. Although, I'll say again, walk right on past the Boone's Farm.