For the sake of this conversation, I’m defining “cheap” as mass-produced bottles of wine under $7. Let’s jump right in.
In the category of “affordable wines,” price matters. I’m almost positive you can find a $5 quality bottle of wine somewhere on this earth that tastes amazing, but unless you want to track down that needle in a haystack, I personally wouldn’t put up the effort. The reality is that most of these cheap wines are drinkable and fine, they’re just not that great. Although taste and preference are subjective and everyone likes something different, there are some basic differences between cheap and quality wine that you should know.
Flavors & Complexity
Let’s not save any feelings here and jump straight in. Cheap wines usually taste extremely basic. For example, a $4.99 “Red Blend” at the gas station or on the bottom shelf of the grocery store will generally taste like basic fruit. IF you can even identify which fruits you taste, you may pick up a couple flavors like cherry or blackberry. Sometimes they even taste like a nondescript fruit juice concoction with the flavor being define as simply “red.”
However, quality wine will taste like many different fruits simultaneously. If you choose a premium bottle, let’s say in the $30+ range, you could possibly identify up to 12 different fruits, several herbs, an array of spices, and sometimes even flowers. That complexity and depth is what connoisseurs love and appreciate most about wine, and what cheap wine is unable to showcase.
Oak is sometimes used for good, and sometimes used for bad. Let’s start with the good. In premium wine, expensive oak is often used as a vessel to develop flavor complexity and smooth out the tannins in red wine. When wine sits in these wooden barrels for extended periods of time, it develops flavors of cedar, vanilla, spices, etc. imparted from the wood itself. In addition, oxygen slowly seeps through the wood over time, allowing additional flavors like chocolate, caramel and coffee to develop. These delicate additions can make the wine very complex, and layered with delicious flavors.
On the contrary, inexpensive and strong oak is sometimes used to mask and mute the basic flavors of cheap wine. In fact, many of those $4.99 “Red Blend” bottles taste more like oak than fruit! Sometimes the wooded flavors are so overwhelming they can even make the wine taste sweet and thick. In addition, many of these wines aren’t even oaked in barrels. Sometimes they pick up these flavors from small wood chips (or staves) that were thrown into the wine and mixed around to mimic the actual barrel-aged wine flavors. Other times winemakers just add an oak powder to the wine as a quick way to add the flavor.
Intensity & Finish
Cheap wines don’t usually smell very complex. In fact, they may not have a strong aroma at all. They will also taste weaker with a short finish (how long the good flavors linger in your mouth). For example, if you sip a $4.99 bottle of a generic “White Blend,” it will probably taste more like flavored lemon water and less like ripe peaches and pineapples. Furthermore, the few flavors that do happen to be present often seem to vanish as soon as they hit your tongue. Within seconds, it’s like the wine was never even there.
Quality wines are often more intense in both smell and taste, with longer finishes. You’re more likely to experience rich aromas jumping from the glass to your nose, and taste pronounced flavors with every sip. In premium expressions, a finish can even be up to several minutes long. In these cases, those delicious flavors linger in your mouth long after you’ve swallowed your sip and that after-taste is quite lovely. This is a sign of a well-made bottle of vino.
Shelf-Life & Aging
Cheap wines are meant for immediate consumption and will die an early death in your cellar if you try to hold on to them for too long. This is because they lack the proper structure and qualities required for aging. In order for wine to improve with time, it requires a proper balance of fruit intensity, flavor, acidity, alcohol, and sometimes tannin. Cheap, flabby wines are not candidates for aging because they don’t have the ingredients required to improve over time. I once had a case of cheap wine in which every bottle was completely undrinkable and oxidized (think vinegar), after 6 months. I abruptly cancelled that wine-club subscription.
However, many premium wines that were carefully and expertly crafted for aging can improve in the bottle for years or even decades before they hit their peak quality. In these instances, they can go on to develop rich tertiary flavors like honey and nuts in white wine, or earth and leather in red red wine. These additional factors add even more character to the existing complex fruit flavors.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t drink cheap wine (I indulge sometimes when my pocketbook gets tight). My first rule of thumb is to always drink whatever you like. Just at least know the difference!
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