If you search for Cabernet Sauvignon on any reasonably stocked wine retail website, you will often find bottles ranging from $10 to more than a $1,000. While it is unlikely that a cheaper wine will taste just like the more expensive bottles, it is possible to find relative quality wines at almost any price point across the spectrum. If absolute quality isn’t the driver of price in wine, what is? Although production techniques (like use of new oak barrels versus oak chips or powder) and growing decisions (like limiting yield) absolutely influence price, there are also a number of other factors that create price differences between wines produced in roughly the same way:
Cost of land and labor: Not all vineyards are created equal. Land situated with the right climate, altitude, aspect and soil to naturally ripen the grapes to the perfect levels of sugar, acid, tannins and flavor is highly sought after and commands a premium price. If the land costs more, the cost to produce grapes will cost more and the price of the wine will be higher. For example, a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Napa commonds about $7,000 while the exact same grapes go for $3,000 at ton just over the mountains in Sonoma. Labor costs can also vary widely across the world.
Simple economics of demand: Remember supply and demand from your economics class? Most wineries have a fixed amount of grapes that meet their quality standards from which to work in a given year. Once those grapes are turned into wine, they are gone. Whether grown in their own vineyards or purchased from growers, they can’t just summon up any more, even if their wine catches fire and becomes in greater demand than they expected. Increase demand on a product where supply can’t be quickly increased and the price goes up.
Cachet: Both winemaking regions and wine brands can carry a cachet that makes consumers willing to pay more for the wine despite what the supply and demand curve dictates because of the name recognition or brand. If you can charge more and people are willing to pay it, you do. Pretty simple.
Given these three factors, where should you be looking to find a value on a restaurant wine list or retail shelf? Look for these three things:
New or undervalued wine regions: The wine world is large and there are a number of undervalued regions where the combination of the lower cost of land and limited cachet allow for the production of quality wines at lower prices. They may not be exaclty like the more recognizable regions, but can provide great quality and a more value price. For example, someone seeking a value Cabernet Sauvignon might look at quality produces from Columbia Valley in Washington or the California regions of Sonoma, Lodi or Paso Robles.
Alternative grape varietals: Although its rare that an alternative varietly will be exactly like the more popular grapes, when you look across levels of acid, tannin, body, alcohol and flavor profile, there are typically a number of varietals that serve as a suitable alternative to the more expensive grapes. Carrying through with the same example, someone who normally drinks a Cabernet might look at Touriga Nacional (dry red wines from the Duoro Valley in Portugal), Malbec (primarly from Argentina), Tempranillo (especially Rioja Reserva / Grand Reserva or Ribera del Duero from Spain), a ripe Merlot, or Mourvèdre (also known as Mataro or Monastrell).
Blends: By blending the same grape from different wine growing regions with varying fruit costs instead of one more expensive region or blending together alternative varietals, winemakers are able to craft quality wines that can provide really compelling results without breaking the bank.
How to find those value wines: There are several resources for uncovering value wines. To start with, for a basic education on grape varietals and wine regions I highly recommend winefolly.com. Madeline is a Certified Sommelier who had a knack for making wine fun and easy to understand. Using the Discover feature on wine-searcher.com and the browse wine feature on the Vivino app can help uncover value wines of a specific type. Wine-searcher includes both aggregated critic scores (when available) and some user ratings while Vivino had a larger mass of user ratings. When looking at user ratings, I find the wisdom of the crowd gets much wiser with a larger number of ratings. If two wines are both rated at 4.0 on Vivino and one of them has been rated by 1,000 users while the other has been rated by only 5 users, I’d trust the one with the larger number of user ratings. I find a threshold of at least a few hundred ratings is a good benchmark on any wine user rating source.
Finding a value wine isn’t a perfect science. What is perceived as a value wine by one palate may not be equally valued by another. Knowing a few way to start your own exploration of value is the first step. What other advice do you have for how find quality wines at a value price?