Sunday, April 30, 2017

What Makes a High-End Wine?

In the wine world, there are the Two Buck Chucks, and then there are Château Latour or even Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (affectionately known as the DRC). There is a vast price difference between high-end and mass-produced wines, but is there a corresponding difference in taste and quality? Let's consider what goes into a good wine.

Wines of Pauillac
High-end wineries are very picky about their grapes. Many will only use grapes from their estate vineyards, where they have complete control on how to grow the best grapes possible. This includes the type of fertilizers used, pest and disease management, canopy management, irrigation (if even allowed), green harvesting, and actual harvesting practices. While controversial, there is the terroir factor - the secret something in the land that gives the grapes or the wine a distinct character. All the above can be costly.

Wineries of mass-produced wines are less fussy about their grapes. Many of them use excess or leftover grapes or juice from other wineries or vineyards. Or they may own inexpensive parcels of vineyards that are not known for quality grapes. These wineries have limited, if any, control or interest in vineyard management. The main goal is to get a large quantity of decent grapes or juice at a low price.

Estate vineyards

Wine Making Practices
Winemakers of high-end wineries are very particular about how they make their wine. Each may differ in his or her own style and philosophy. Some are almost esoteric and minimalist in their approaches. Lalou Bize-Leroy, a firm believer of biodynamic wine making, is almost mystical in the way she guides the evolution from juice to wine. Others apply scientific analysis and use the latest technology to rigorously and meticulously monitor and direct the wine making process. Christophe Perrot-Minot is one such winemaker, who is extremely comfortable with technology and leverages it to produce the best wine out of his grapes.

High-end wineries are also particular about cooperage. The type of oak, grain, toast, and even size of the casks adds flavor, complexity, and mouthfeel to the wine. Some of these wineries even have their own cooperage so that they can control the quality of the barrels.

Makers of mass-produced wine use technology and equipment extensively to produce huge quantities of wine. In fact, these wineries benefited most from the scientific understanding of the wine making process. With more tests and supplements available, the ability to augment lower-quality grapes to produce viable wine has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades.

Add or remove sugar to manage the alcohol level of the final product. Adjust the acid level to achieve the right level of brightness. Use big steel vats that are easily re-usable and less costly and then supplement with oak chips or beans or staves to mimic the wine maturation process that would otherwise happen in an oak barrel.

Consumer's Taste
Ultimately, the difference between high-end and mass-produced wines today is fairly nuanced. If it tastes good and is within your budget, then that is the right wine for you. If you can't really tell the difference but enjoy and are able to afford to drink high-end wines anyways, knock yourselves out and invite some good friends to join you. If you have a palate that appreciates the higher-end wines and your bank account is agreeable, savor an extraordinary bottle. You are blessed!

My Verdict: Personally, I am not a fan of most mass-produced wines. I like my wine to have some complexity in it. Since I also don't drink very much, a nice bottle will last me a few days to a week with my Sharper Image wine saver. Thankfully, the higher-end wines tend to hold up a little longer as well. And when a friend invites me to taste some Bordeaux First Growths, I am most grateful.