Price a clue to quality, but returns diminish as it climbs

The Grapevine

October 20, 2011|By Lisa Airey,

Can we define greatness in wine? Or is something like wine so subjective as to defy qualification with regard to excellence?

Many wine writers and critics associate longevity with greatness. In order to be considered great, a wine must be capable of aging.

Now, age-ability is linked to four principal components: acid, alcohol, sugar and tannin. A wine must contain at least two of these four structural components in quantity to withstand the test of time.

But just because a wine is built for the long haul does not necessarily make it great. If such was the case, wine would be a much more manipulated. It would be a constructed product. And if anything, over-processing a wine robs it of its soul. A wine with too much "handling" loses identity and becomes non-descript.

And "neutral" has never been the marker for greatness in any category.

No, a great wine has exquisite flavor.

I love Fritos and I love lobster, but there is no doubt in my mind as to which of the two has the prettier flavor profile.

There should be nothing ordinary about a great wine. It should pull sharply into focus on the palate. The wine should draw the eye back to the glass, make you shift your attention to the wine.

Great wines do not deliver one flavor with a superlative. Great wines should deliver many flavors and those flavors should be intricately intertwined. The notes should play out like a symphony on the palate.

Intensity is a good thing, but not to the point of extreme. Great wine should not be a sensory assault. It should not war upon the palate, or clobber and anesthetize the taste buds.

Great wine should tantalize, tell a story, convey a sense of place, give voice to the soil, paint a picture and inspire and amaze.

You don't get this kind of experience at the $10 mark, but it doesn't necessarily come at a higher price point either.

Disregarding supply and demand and those wines of cult status, one can make a few broad generalizations.

Wines at the $10-and-under price point are often mass-produced, majorly blended products. At this price point, yields are high(er), and oftentimes, the fruit and/or juice is purchased from others and vinified and blended by the bottler/brand owner. If there is wood influence, it comes in the form of oak chips. The wine can be quite good, but it will never be awe-inspiring.

Bump up just $5 in price (to $15) and many things change. Yields are lower, much of the fruit is estate-grown, there might be some sur lie aging and/or a little oak aging (vs. oak chips). The difference in quality between a $10 and a $15 bottle is huge. We've moved from "good" to "really good."

The difference between a $15 bottle and a $25 bottle is also significant, but diminishing. The producer of a $25 bottle is already harvesting at low yields, using estate-grown fruit, but perhaps at the $25 level, the grapes are hand-picked (vs. machine picked). There is a sorting table to cull out unripe or rotten fruit. The wine might spend some extra time in the cellar, in barrel. It develops layers of flavor and character. Now you are in the "noteworthy" category, wines with "greatness" potential.

The qualitative difference between a $25 bottle and a $45 bottle is getting smaller. Many of the same practices are followed, both in the vineyard and in the winery. But perhaps here, the producer moves the juice about by gravity vs. electrical pumps, which violently transfer wine and incorporate oxygen into the liquid in the process. There is a kid-glove handling of fruit and the wine shines brightly.

Lastly, the qualitative difference between a $45 bottle and a $145 bottle is miniscule. At this level, producers are doing everything they can to produce a superior product. The big difference is site, vintage year and the talent of the winemaker.

Greatness potential is not necessarily predicated by price, but rather by grape-growing and winemaking practices. Price just often (but not always) corresponds to the intensity of (manual) labor involved.

Sometimes you truly get what you pay for, other times you find greatness where you least expect it.

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