The differences between cheap and expensive wines

The differences between cheap and expensive wines
PHOTO: The Straits Times

There have been quasi-academic studies that appear to prove that most people can't tell the difference between a cheap bottle of wine and an expensive one; indeed, they frequently prefer the less expensive option.

There's a reason for that - and it's most easily expressed as the difference between a branded wine and a destination.

Branded wines are made to a specific price and style, and those responsible know what works in the market.

There's no need for wines of this sort to have any discernible link with a place of origin, though the imprint of a particular grape variety is usually required.

How wine and champagne are made

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    This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows the Bouzy vineyards, in the northeastern French champagne region.

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    If ever there was a place destined to produce a cheeky tipple, it has to be the village of Bouzy in the champagne country of northern France.

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    People harvest grapes on October 23, 2013 in Irouguy, southern France, at the Arretxea vineyards of Michel Riouspeyrous to make the Irouleguy organic wine.

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    This picture taken on October 21, 2013 during the harvest shows wine grapes in a vineyard on a spoil heap in Haillicourt, northern France.

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    People work next to a container filled with Chardonnay grapes at the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House on October 9, 2013 in Bouzy, in the northeastern French champagne region.

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    A man drops Chardonnay grapes into a container.

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    A man drops Chardonnay grapes into a container.

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    "Pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine, in the northeastern French Champagne region village of Bouzy. Bouzy however has another string to its bow, thanks to a group of dedicated producers who have opted to maintain, albeit largely as a sideline, a centuries old tradition of producing still red wine from pinot noir vines planted close to the northern limit of where the notoriously fickle varietal will ripen fully.

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    This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows grape pickers sorting "pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine, in the northeastern French Champagne region village of Bouzy.

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    This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows grape pickers sorting "pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine.

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    People collect grapes.

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    This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows winemaker Jean-Rene Brice shucking "pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine.

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    This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows an oenologist pouring "pinot noir" grape juice, used to make Bouzy wine.

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    A woman works, on October 9, 2013 in the vatroom of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House, in Bouzy, in the northeastern French champagne region.

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    A picture taken on October 9, 2013 shows a person holding a glass of red wine, from the Pinot noir grape variety.

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    This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows winemaker Remi Brice smelling "pinot noir" grape juice, used to make Bouzy wine.

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    A person holds a glass of red wine, from the Pinot noir grape variety, used to manufacture pink champagne.

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    A man stands in front of tanks filled with red wine, used to manufacture pink champagne, in the vatroom of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House.

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    Champagne vineyards are pictured in Verzenay, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest October 8, 2013.

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    The end of September start of the 2013 grape harvest was the latest in the last 30 years. Weather conditions permitted grapes in the vineyards to reach maturity and cool temperatures enabled an even quality of the fruit throughout the harvest.

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    Grape pickers harvest fruit from the vines at the Billecart-Salmon vineyard in Verzenay, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest.

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    A hands of a grape picker are seen as he harvests fruit from the vines

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    Grape pickers carry boxes full of pinot noir grapes from the vines at the Billecart-Salmon vineyard.

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    Grape pickers work at the Billecart-Salmon vineyard in Verzenay, eastern France.

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    A bunch of Chardonnay grapes

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    Grape pickers harvest fruit from the vines at a vineyard in Verzy, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest

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    Weather conditions permitted grapes in the vineyards to reach maturity and cool temperatures enabled an even quality of the fruit throughout the harvest.

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    A stone marker shows the logo of the Moet & Chandon Champagne house in Hautvillers, eastern France.

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    Billecart-Salmon vineyards

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    Boxes with Chardonnay grapes are pictured in the Billecart-Salmon winepress in Mareuil-sur-Ay.

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    Bunches of pinot noir grapes are pictured in the Billecart-Salmon sort area in Mareuil-sur-Ay, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest.

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    A worker handles pinot noir grapes.

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    Workers handle pinot noir grapes at the Billecart-Salmon sorting area.

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    A worker inspects a vat holding the liquid resulting from the wine clarification process.

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    A worker inspects the liquid resulting from the wine clarification process.

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    Rows of barrels are seen in the Billecart-Salmon winery.

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    A worker fills a barrel of Champagne in the Billecart-Salmon winery.

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    Billecart-Salmon Champagne bottles are stacked in a cellar.

At this point, wine is an alcoholic beverage performing a social function; it may or may not be a pleasure in its own right.

Psychologically, once we start paying more for a bottle of wine, we should expect something more in return - a flavour profile that drives a specific sense of enjoyment and perhaps a link to a particular place.

It's not just that we have discovered over the years that great pinot noir and chardonnay are made in Burgundy, cabernet and merlot blends in Bordeaux, shiraz in Barossa, sauvignon blanc in Marlborough and so on - when we taste one of these excellent wines, there's that magical sense of recognition when it delivers exactly what we expect.

So the elegant red fruit notes combined with violets is not just a delightful taste, but the essence of Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy.

Cedarwood and cigar boxes have been the olfactory triggers for the wines of Bordeaux's Pauillac for generations of drinkers.

As soon as you put your nose in the glass, you start to smile.

However, this all depends on drinking the wine at the right time.

The inexpensive branded bottle is going to be purchased and drunk within days (or possibly hours) of going on sale, shortly after bottling - either way, it'll be ready for its fate.

But a finely crafted bottle from a famous region needs time in bottle for its full expression to mature, for the tannins or acidity to fade, for the complexity of its bouquet and the nuances of texture to emerge.

These are the things we really care about.

Wine myths to stop believing

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    Fact: Surprise! Wines can actually expire.

    Not all wines can age gracefully, and many soon turn stale after a year or two. Only about one per cent of all wines improve with long-term cellaring of five to 10 years.

    Photo: Pixabay

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    Fact: Wine prices are not only influenced by quality. Image - along with market conditions, demand and even currency fluctuations - influence the price.

    Less familiar wines from more unfashionable regions and producers can also offer surprisingly good, value-for-money wines.

    Photo: Pixabay

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    Fact: Don't judge a wine by its bottle.

    A heavier bottle certainly indicates that the winery has made a substantial investment in the packaging, but that doesn't mean that the wine itself is exceptional.

    And just remember: the cost of shipping heavier packing also costs more, which is factored into its final retail price.

    Photo: Pixabay

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    Fact: You don't have to confine your wine to only Western cuisine - you can drink it with Asian food too if you choose something suitable.

    Chinese food pairs perfectly with wines that have high acidity, lower alcohol and relatively understated flavours and aromas. The next time you dig into your stir-fry, try Riesling if you prefer white wine or Pinot Noir if you like red.

    Photo: Pixabay

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    Fact: Cork has been preferred choice as it allows small amounts of oxygen into the wine to help aid its evolution - an important aspect for reds.

    But this doesn't mean that wines can't mature well with screw-on caps.

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    Fact: Beer, wine, and liquors all confer the same health benefits.

    Research has revealed that it's not antioxidants that protect against heart disease, but alcohol, which raises levels of HDL - also known as good cholesterol. This helps to reduce plaque formation and clots in the arteries to lower the risk of heart diseases.

    But of course, this isn't a free pass to load up on booze. Drink in moderation!

    Photo: Pixabay

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    Fact: While this is commonly believed, the reality is that not all cheeses pair well with wine. Heavy textured and strong-tasting cheeses overpower the tongue's ability to fully enjoy the richness and balance of a good wine.

    Pair your tipple with a softer, milder cheese like Brie.

    Photo: Pixabay

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    Fact: Uncorking a bottle does not sufficiently aerate wine as the narrow bottleneck restricts airflow.

    Pouring the wine through a decanter into your glass is a more effective way to let it breathe.

    You can also gently jiggle the bottle after opening it to fully aerate your wine and release its flavour and aroma.

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Great vintages often take longer to come round than lesser ones, so a fine wine drunk at the wrong time can certainly disappoint.

Then we get to the seriously expensive fine and rare wines.

Those two adjectives, "fine" and "rare", are often used in tandem - and they tell a significant part of the story.

Clearly a very expensive wine needs to be very fine, but there is also a cachet to its rarity.

Being the owner of a rare bottle to which other people cannot aspire may be a considerable source of status and satisfaction, but it's a pleasure that will be paid for.

The fact that only one barrel (of 300 bottles) of Christophe Roumier's Le Musigny is produced each year doesn't make it intrinsically a better wine - just a more expensive one.

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