More of wine's most difficult questions asked so you don't have to fear your next tasting.
If you spend more money on a bottle of wine, does it guarantee better quality?
Yes to a point. There are reasons why some wines are more expensive than others and these have to do with the way the wine is made, the grapes that are used and ultimately the way the wine tastes. But if you don't care for these things, if you couldn't give a fiddler's fart what sort of oak is used, if it at all, then its not better wine to you is it? Spending the extra four dollars per bottle that it costs to use French oak that you can't taste is not better wine to you. But it is four dollars more for a reason and it is better to someone. That's what you must understand.
The reason wines are more expensive starts from the ground up -- literally. Like any land, there are more expensive and more sought after blocks of land. Regions that are already established and those that have already proven track records are more expensive.
The cropping levels of the fruit that's used also plays a part in determining the price. The more bunches of grapes you can get per vine, the cheaper the fruit, but the more bunches you get per vine, the less flavoursome the fruit. Picture the vine as a mum. Mum's only got so much time, so much patience, so much food and so much love to give. Now if she has one child, it's gonna get the lot -- love, affection, money. If she has three, it's fair to say they're gonna get a red hot go in life, but if she drops a dozen, good lord, she won't be able to remember their names let alone raise them with all the love and nourishment they need. A vine is the same. The less grapes, the more taste, flavour, colour and intensity of everything they're gonna have. All this determines just how the good the wine is gonna taste.
Once they have grown, there are different methods of getting the grapes off the vine and turning them into wine -- some are more labour-intensive than others and naturally, these cost more. Pruning can be done mechanically or by hand -- mechanical pruning is far less gentle on the vines but it gets it done faster and after the outlay of the machine, is done using far fewer people.
It's the same when the grape gets to the winery. The end product of course is wine but there are more expensive ways of making it than others. Some of these techniques are much more labour intensive and include hand plunging of red wineskins during fermentation, barrel fermentation and lees stirring in the barrel. While adding very individual characters to the wine, these techniques are super expensive to perform.
Oak's another thing that cranks the price, and the flavour, of a wine up. Depending on the exchange rate at the time, one French oak barrel costs $1200 while American oak will set you back around $800 a pop. The younger the barrel, the more influence it's gonna have over the wine before it's put out to pasture as a flower pot because usually you can only use the barrel for flavour for about five years. You can use cheaper methods such as oak chips, oak staves and even oak essence, but they don't have the same quality of flavour.
Once the wine leaves the winery there's a whole 'nother world of costs that include marketing, advertising and promotions. This stuff is not free either.
These are all fair and comprehensible reasons why a wine costs more and makes sense in terms of better quality wine. But 'better' is a fairly relative and personal word and only you know the value of that. If you can't tell that there's new French oak, or can't taste the intensity of flavour from low cropped vines, or for that matter, don't place that great a value on that sort of wine, then more expensive wine to you is just that, wine that costs more.
It's safe to say that more expensive wine is usually higher quality wine, but the better bit is entirely up to you.
Is older wine better than wine that has been bottled more recently?
Older wine is different wine because age changes wine. If you like the taste, feel and smell of the wine that it changes into, then I guess for you, older wine is better wine. But it's not just a matter of grabbing your favourite bottle of plonk and laying it down for a couple of years. There's a lot more to it.
First, age does not automatically make a wine better. A bad young wine will only grow up to be a bad old wine. Wine that ages well usually has to be made that way and be made from a certain variety that does age well, as not all wines do. Wines that are made for ageing are very carefully selected and made. Progress of previous successes with the grapes are monitored, the vines are usually low yielding vines that produce intense fruit and the fruit produced is usually from a good vintage and whoever lays their winemaking hands on it has gotta know what they're doing. And even then, it takes another few years of monitoring the aged wine to see if it's good with a couple of footy seasons. Making wine suitable for ageing is not a random thing so you can see it's not just a case of grabbing a wine you like now and laying it down. It has to be made that way. With this wine, you may find that it is better when it's older.
One things for sure, it will be different which brings us seamlessly to the next point, that age changes wine. You see, when wine goes into the bottle, its really not that far removed from it's original state so it still tastes and smells super fruity and has a lot of vibrancy and colour and flavour and varietal definition. These characters that come from the fruit are called the primary fruit characters. If it's a dark red wine, like shiraz or cabernet sauvignon, it probably has some really heavy tannins too, so that your mouth dries out and puckers into the shape of a cat's bum when you taste it. It may also go into the bottle with secondary characters, things that winemaker has done to it - you know, oak smells from being put in a barrel, creamy textures from different winemaking techniques.
But when the wine goes into the bottle, and this is what makes wine a little intriguing, its still evolving. Even though it looks like its sleeping, the wine is going through more chemical reactions which begins to alter the way it looks, smells, tastes and feels.
After time in the bottle, the wine changes. The really big fruit characters start to mellow, the astringent tannins in red wine relax and start feeling all smooth and sexy in your mouth and because the tannins have taken a backseat, it allows more subtle characters to poke their shy heads to the surface. All the big fruit smells start to mellow and all the different components of the wine begin to integrate and intertwine together to make a more complex wine. You'll begin to get different smells and tastes that you may not expect from your favourite wine -- a chardonnay might start to have kind of almond, nut and honey characters and reds take a turn for more earthy, tobacco and cigar qualities. And these are all great if that's what you like. But if you love cabernet because of all that blackberry fruit tastes, you might not like an older version of this.
And let's not forget that older wine is usually more expensive because of superior winemaking techniques, better produce and also because someone had to take the time, space and patience to store it.