Are expensive wines any better than the cheap ones?

Are expensive wines any better than the cheap ones?

It’s often been said that, “You only get what you pay for”, or that, “If you buy cheaply, you’ll pay dearly”, but is that always the case when it comes to wine? Or is it possible to proverbially drink champagne on a beer budget?

Value, like anything, is in the eye of the beholder and not all palates are the same. We all have our preferred styles, varietals and characteristics we enjoy, but at times it can be difficult to justify spending $40 on a bottle of our favourite drop when there’s a perfectly palatable alternative available at half the price!

And in Australia, there’s no doubt that consumers are spoiled when it comes to value for money when purchasing wine. When you consider that you can buy wines that would earn 93 – 95 points (in a very subjective rating system) from the big-name wine critics for less than $30 a bottle, it’s unsurprising that many foreign markets think Australian wines are cheap!

Most wine drinkers would agree that higher-priced wines are normally more enjoyable, but that the relationship between price and quality is not a linear one; you could double the amount that you spend on a bottle of wine, but that won’t necessarily mean that its quality will be twice as good (or twice as enjoyable for that matter!).

It’s, perhaps, for this reason that most of us have our “sweet spot” – the price range at which we prefer to buy our wines because we perceive that spend to provide the right balance between the calibre of the plonk, and the amount of hard-earned that we need to part with.

But with so many options out there on the market and so many marketing messages to sift through, how do we really know that we aren’t spending too little or too much for a wine that meets our individual preferences?

Recently, I had an opportunity to join with a talented local chef, Nathan Rumble, to put together a food and wine appreciation degustation for a group of ladies who had won the prize at a charity fundraiser. There were five delicious courses (the scallop dumplings and crab tacos were sublime!) with wines paired to match and a couple of activities designed to improve the guests’ knowledge about all things oenological. So what better group of enthusiastic palates to test whether we can really tell the difference between wines of differing price points?

The first activity involved giving our guests glasses of three different chardonnays – one which sells at $10 a bottle, one which was “mid-range” at $25 a bottle, and a more expensive example that retailed at around $45 – and asking them to identify which was which. Unsurprisingly, 7 out of 12 correctly identified the cheap and cheery $10 bottle, 3 out of 12 guessed which was the mid-range wine, but only two people correctly identified the more expensive Margaret River chardy! What was interesting was that many of the guests said that their favourite was the mid-range Snake and Herring Chardonnay 2017, rather than the more expensive label.

And so it was with the blind glasses of Barossa Valley shiraz – four people (one-third) could identify which was the cheapie (perhaps, because it really was a pretty ordinary wine), five people nailed which was the mid-ranger, but only three out of 12 picked the more expensive shiraz. When asked which of the three wines the guests actually preferred to drink, more than half of the group said that they preferred the mid-range Chaffey Bros Shiraz 2017 than the more upmarket St Hallet Blackwell Shiraz – a wine that has long been held in very high regard by many experts!

I’d have to admit to being surprised by the outcome – I’d have expected more difficulty in discerning between the low and medium-priced wines, and less difficulty in identifying the “top shelf” product. So the object lesson in all of this? Well, perhaps it goes to show that just because it comes at a higher price doesn’t make it more enjoyable or for that matter, the hero wine that we sometimes expect the expensive bottle to be. If your guests are going to enjoy the $20-25 wine just as much (or more) than the $50 bottle, is there any point in reaching to a higher shelf at the bottleshop?


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