What Makes Fine Wine So Fine?
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Greg Harasen, wine connoisseur and certified wine expert, gives some tips about how to spot fine wine.
Have you ever walked into a liquor store and been puzzled or even intimidated by the rows of wine bottles from every corner of the world? Have you ever scanned a restaurant wine list and searched in vain for some clue to guide your selection?
So what makes one bottle of wine special and the other run of the mill? Here are a few tips that may help reduce the confusion.
You get what you pay for, right? Well, yes….but not necessarily! It is true that the art of grape growing and winemaking does cost money. Oak barrels used to age some wines cost over $1000 and add $2-$3 to the cost of a bottle. So it’s a fair assumption that a wine with a sticker price of $8-$12 is not going to be made with an emphasis on the finer points of high quality. However, there are many factors that contribute to the cost of a bottle of wine that have little to do with the quality contained inside.
Input costs such as vineyard land prices and labour costs are a prime example. Vineyard land and labour in prestigious regions such as Bordeaux, France or the Napa Valley in California can cost more than ten times what comparable vineyards and labour costs are in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, or Spain.
Price can also be a reflection of consumer demand. Red wine made with Pinot Noir grapes from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in France’s Burgundy region averages $20,000 a bottle at auction and prized vintages have exceeded $500,000 a bottle! Is the wine good? Of course! Is it the best wine in the world? Debatable, but because of the limited vineyard size only 5000 bottle are made annually. Thus it has become a prestige item where the demand vastly outstrips the supply.
Closer to home there are several full-bodied red wines from California who’s retail prices exceed $100. Are they better wines than south Okanagan reds or others from around the world at half the price or less? While they are terrific wines, I would argue that they are not superior to lower-priced options. The combination of production costs, demand for California wines (combined with the fact that California has never been shy about commanding a good price!), and let's not forget the impact of taxes on the prices we pay, have all contributed to the price tag.
What’s the bottom line when it comes to the bottom line?
Prestigious wine regions, whether that’s Bordeaux or Burgundy in France or Napa in California come by their reputations for great wine honestly, but that prestige comes with a price. Good quality can be had at a lesser price if you take a wander down the South America, South Africa, Spain or Canada aisles.
Shouldn’t I just buy the oldest bottle I can afford? It depends what you’re buying but generally the answer would be “no.”
The truth is that more than three-quarters of wines are intended to be consumed when they are young; within 2 or 3 years of production. This includes the overwhelming majority of white and rosé wines, and even a fair number of red wines. Young wines tend to feature bold fruit flavours. Aging causes these flavours to fade and change into more complex flavours that are often described as “earthy.”
Whether you buy wines with some age or buy young wines and stow then away for several years will depend on two factors.
First, and most important, will be your personal tastes. If you prefer bold, fruity wines then young wines are for you and age won’t be an important factor. If, on the other hand, you prefer more complex, smoother wines then age is a factor to consider.
The second factor will be what wines you are buying. If you are buying a rosé or most whites like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, for example, then you want a bottle that’s a year or two old. A marked-down price on such wines might be because the store wants to move 3-4 year-old stock. If you are buying full-bodied red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot, Chiantis, Malbecs, among others, then age can be your friend. With white wines the same is true for Rieslings, oaked Chardonnays, and sweet dessert wines.
The wine world is divided into the Old World and the New World. The Old World is Europe, especially the Big Three of Italy, France and Spain, but also countries like Germany, Austria, Portugal and Greece, among others. The New World is everywhere else, especially North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The distinctions between New and Old World are more than just geographical.
Old World wines are said to be “terroir” based. That is the wines reflect the place where they are made being influenced by soil, climate, and traditional winemaking techniques. The goal is that a Chablis wine from the north of France will reflect the chalky limestone soils and cool climate that have produced the distinctive, crisp Chardonnays of this region for generations. Old World wines tend to be lower in alcohol, higher in crisp acidity, and more restrained in flavours.
New World wines are more about style. They tend to be bigger, bolder, higher in alcohol, and lower in acidity. In general, producing bold style is more important to New World winemakers than reflecting a sense of “place” in their wines. Wine lovers need to sample several examples of both Old and New World styles to see where their preferences lie.
Canada makes great wines. Full stop. The trouble is that nobody....or almost nobody, knows it! On the world stage we are very small players accounting for less than 1% of world wine exports. But the bigger shame is that Canada is one of the few wine-producing countries that drinks more foreign wine than domestic. And we drink a LOT more foreign wine: close to 70% of our consumption. Even worse, of the “Canadian” wine we drink 80% are so-called “ICB’s” or International and Canadian blends. These are low-priced bottles found in the Canadian section of the liquor store that are made in Canadian facilities but from predominantly foreign grapes. You’ll find reference to the International/Canadian blend in these wines in the fine print on the label but you can identify 100% Canadian wines by the “VQA” symbol on the bottle. VQA stands for Vintners Quality Alliance and is a program operating in British Columbia and Ontario that, assures consumers 100% of the grapes come from Canada.
Choosing a Fine Wine
The number of wines available to consumers is staggering and increases every year. One can’t help but feel that there are so many wines and so little time! So don’t be afraid to try new wines in an effort to explore what’s out there and to define your own personal tastes. Ultimately, regardless of price, age, style or nationality, fine wine is wine YOU like to drink!
Greg Harasen is a Saskatchewan native and a retired veterinarian. A decade of travel resulted in an appreciation of wine and food and spurred a desire to learn more. The next steps were Level 2 certification from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in 2018, Level 3 (Bordeaux) in 2019, and Certified Specialist of Wine designation (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators in 2021. Greg has conducted many wine tastings, dinners, seminars, and online classes, many of which have been for the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Regina.
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