Inexpensive wines are only supposed to be enjoyable for a short time after purchase. They need to be made at a large scale, and the winemaking is done as fast as possible – often using automation and chemicals.
In large-scale wine production, grapes are picked by mechanical harvesters, and oak chips are used to add flavour. Sometimes powdered acid is added to balance high sugar levels, and chemical fining agents are poured through to remove sediment. Of course, all chemicals are considered safe for consumption. The resulting wines have consistent flavours in every vintage. They are supposed to be consumed in 1-2 years after release and do not improve with ageing.
In contrast, premium winemaking happens at a slower pace. Harvesting is done by hand so only healthy and ripe grapes are selected. Such low-volume winemaking involves time-consuming processes like post-fermentation maturation to extract more flavours and tannins. Delicious flavours of vanilla, spice and cedar are imparted during ageing in proper oak barrels – not with chips dunked in a tank. Filtration is gentle, and takes place in several tanks rather than with centrifuges or chemicals.
Naturally, because of the time-consuming processes, premium wines are more expensive. But they offer more complex tastes and have a capacity to improve over many years in cellar.
As a wine importer, I am often asked if premium and inexpensive wines are produced in the same way, and if there’s a technical reason why premium wine is sold at a higher price – or if it’s just clever marketing.
Today we’re going to “look under the hood” – after all, my background is in engineering and manufacturing. We’ll look at the different production methods used for cheaper supermarket wine and small-volume, premium wine and show how it impacts the price difference.
We spoke to Italian winemakers to get the lowdown on why premium wines are more costly, and they have some interesting facts to share.
What’s the main difference between inexpensive and premium wines?
Producing a lot of wine lets the winemaker achieve economies of scale, which dramatically reduces the cost for the consumer while still making a good profit. The cost of running a vineyard is very high, and maintaining winemaking equipment is expensive too. One way to recoup the investment is to spread the cost over a large number of bottles. In high volume production, every step of the winemaking process must be sped up as fast as possible – which sometimes involves automation or using chemicals.
On the other hand, winemakers who choose to produce premium wines tend to use manual labour instead of machinery, and tend to avoid chemical adjustments. It’s not always their choice, either: in “appellations” or “controlled denominations of origin”, it’s the law. This is why the output from a premium cellar of the same capacity as a high volume vineyard will be much smaller, and the price per bottle will need to be higher to cover the costs.
At this point you’re probably thinking that the general idea is clear, but how about some examples? Fair enough! Let’s look at the step-by-step differences in how premium and high-volume wine is made.
We also spoke to Italian winemakers to get their view on why premium wines are more costly, and they have some interesting facts to share.
Grape ripening and acidification
Inexpensive wines are often made from grapes which ripen easily in warm climates. Such wines are simple, inexpensive, and appeal to a wide range of consumers.
In warm regions, grapes will develop a sufficient level of sugar but struggle to retain enough acidity to balance it out. Such wines will have an appealing sweet taste, but without acid to refresh the palette the texture can be quite cloying. If the winemaker wants to increase the “freshness” of the wine, they can adjust it by adding powdered tartaric acid. This method is called “acidification”.
In Europe, acidification is outlawed for all premium wines that come from “controlled denomination of origin” areas. But in the New World – countries like the USA, Australia and New Zealand – this is a common practice for inexpensive wines.
Which grapes have naturally high acidity?
Grapes for premium wines are very often grown in vineyards on hills, or in the foothills of the mountains. Usually such vineyards experience cool nights, warm days, and a huge temperature swing between the two. While the warm daytime temperatures help sugar to develop in the grapes, the chilly nights help to retain high acidity – which is very important for a balanced taste. It also allows the wine to age in the bottle, as acid is a natural preservative.
Examples of hilly regions include Barolo and Barbaresco in the foothills of the Alps, and (another Alpine territory) Alto Adige – home to Europe’s highest vineyards, planted at 900-1000 metres above sea level. Another example is Chianti Classico, a small region of Tuscany with vineyards planted on the mountains at an altitude of 400-600 metres.
Hilly vineyard plots are expensive, so those who want to make a lot of inexpensive wine will usually plant on the flat plains. As a result they don’t benefit from the cool night time temperatures which keep the grapes sharp, and so acidification is one of the adjustments typical for high-volume wines.
Mechanical harvesting vs. picking by hand
Mechanical harvesters pick up to 200 tonnes of grapes per day
To supply large quantities of grapes for high-volume production, vineyards need to use mechanical harvesters. The machine goes over the vines and shakes the bunches, making grapes drop into the bin. Harvesters are highly efficient machines, and this process happens at a very high speed. The main advantage of the mechanical harvester is its throughput – it can work around the clock and collect as much as 200 tonnes of grapes per day. It main disadvantage is that automatic sorters can’t tell the difference between healthy, ripe berries and unripe or damaged ones. Machines are able to separate some of – but not all – foreign objects such as stems, leaves, dirt and insects.
Why premium winemakers choose to hand-pick less than 1 tonne of grapes per day
In contrast, even the most experienced farmer picking grapes by hand can only harvest 1-2 tonnes of grapes per day. In hilly areas of Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti Classico etc., the daily harvest is less than 1 tonne. It sounds crazy why would anyone choose to reduce the output so much? We spoke to winemakers, and it turns out, there are good reasons for that.
First, the pickers need to use their judgement to only collect ripe and healthy grapes, a process called “first selection”. The machine can’t do this: it’s designed to pick all the grapes as quickly as possible. This is a very important factor for grapes that ripen unevenly, like Sangiovese, or Zinfandel (also known as “Primitivo” in Italy), which often has ripe and green grapes on the same bunch. The worker has to go through the vineyard several times, picking grapes as they reach the perfect ripeness level. This is time-consuming, and people need to be paid a wage – so it’s costly too.
“We never use machines for harvesting. When we harvest, each time we pick only the best grapes. We make up to five passes, depending on the grapes. This is the only way the best Brunello wine can be made.”
Secondly, to make premium wines like Brunello and Barolo, the winemakers need to make sure that the grapes are not damaged when they are picked. If the skin is damaged or pierced, the grape will be affected by oxygen as soon as it lands in the harvesting bin. This may affect the purity of the future wine. Machines, which take grapes in high volumes, can’t pick grapes with the same degree of care. This means some skin damage should be expected.
Last but not least, mechanical harvesting can only be used in vineyards located on flat terrain, because the harvester can’t operate on steep slopes. That’s why hilly areas like Barolo and Alto Adige in Italy, Mosel in Germany, and Hermitage in The Northern Rhone only use manual harvesting and produce low-volume, premium wines.
Extraction of tannins in red wines
Tannins are natural antioxidants found in the skins and stems of grapes. Scientists have recognised that drinking red wine with a high level of tannins may help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Tannins lend a signature flavour to red wines made from thick-skinned black grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. That’s because, when the wine ages in the bottle, tannins become softer and develop complex flavours.
Post-fermentation maceration for up to 30 days
Tannins are best extracted when the alcohol level is high, at the very end of alcoholic fermentation. To produce premium red wines, winemakers will often conduct post-fermentation maceration. The wine will be left in contact with grape skins after the alcoholic fermentation is finished, in order to extract more tannins from the grape skins. It’s believed that this post-fermentation maceration helps to smoothen the astringent tannins and make the wine taste softer.
Post-fermentation maceration is a time-consuming process, which doesn’t fit a high-volume production schedule. Depending on the winemaking style, this process can take up to thirty days. It occupies vats and, because the wine is kept in the cellar for longer, takes up space and delays shipping for sale. As such, it’s not used for mass-produced wines. Because of this, small-scale premium reds typically have higher levels of tannins than supermarket wines.
Another factor is, since supermarket wine is typically made in an easy-drinking style, a higher level of tannins isn’t always desirable. Tannins sometimes need to age in the bottle for 3-5 years to become soft and enjoyable, while mass-produced wine has a shorter shelf life and is supposed to be drunk within a year or two from sale.
Ageing in oak vs oak chips
Oak flavour is very important in many wine styles. For example, the wine laws of Barolo require that the wine is aged in an oak barrel for two years, and five years to qualify for the more prestigious Barolo Riserva title (check my “Essential Guide for Barolo Wine“).
While aromatic white wines like Sauvignon Blanc are often produced in stainless steel vats without any oak influence, the noble white wines from France are often aged in oak to pick up desirable toasty flavours. For example, Péssac-Leognan in Bordeaux, and whites from Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint Véran in Burgundy are all matured in oak barrels.
New World wine producers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will often add oak flavours to their high-volume Chardonnay, Sémillon and Chenin Blanc to offer a cheaper alternative to the high-class, small-volume whites from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
But while premium wines are aged in small oak “barriques” or large oak barrels, inexpensive wine takes its flavour from oak chips or staves. The winemaker will insert bits of oak into the wine-filled stainless steel vat for a short time, allowing it to impart some toasty flavours. This is done for economic reasons. Due to the high volume of production, the winemaker doesn’t have to buy as many expensive oak barrels, or allocate lots of floor space for lengthy ageing. Relatively speaking, the oak chips have a larger surface area in contact with wine so pass the oaky flavour much faster when compared to a barrel.
This method helps to reduce the cost of production for high-volume wines, but it may not be so appealing to consumers who like the genuine taste of oak ageing – which usually includes notes of oxidation, too, as air passes through the porous wood.
Typically, inexpensive wines sold in supermarkets are sweeter because sugar makes the taste more attractive to mainstream tastes. If the weather doesn’t allow grapes to fully ripen, they may not have a sufficient level of sugar to balance the high acidity. To make their wines sweeter, high-volume winemakers sometimes add sweeteners such as RCGM (rectified concentrated grape must).
In contrast, in premium winemaking the level of sugar is controlled and wines are typically made in a dry style. The winemaker will choose grapes with a concentrated aroma, which balance the level of acidity in the wine without adding sugar.
Clarification: gravity separation vs. chemical fining
Aside from natural wine aficionados, most consumers expect their wine to be clear. To achieve consistent clarity, particles left over from the grape skins are removed before the wine is bottled. As before, producers of high-volume, cheaper wines choose to use methods of clarification designed for high speed and throughput, while premium winemaking allows for slower processing.
Premium producers believe that the wine must not be disturbed, and they typically use gravity separation – leaving the wine in the vat for a few days, so that the particles settle and drop to the bottom of the vat. The wine is then bottled.
Gravity separation is too time-consuming for mass-production, so high-volume winemakers often use fining agents instead. These are chemicals that bind small particles dispersed in the wine so that they form bigger clumps. The wine is then pumped through a fine filter, the particles stay behind, and the clarified wine is bottled for sale.
For a wine to age on the shelf for a long time it has to have both a high level of acidity and pronounced, complex aromas that will change and develop in the bottle. A wine with such characteristics will be able to evolve over time and become more enjoyable the longer it’s left in your wine rack.
Inexpensive mass-produced wines typically have a bright, simple character. At the low price point, they’re very appealing to the majority of consumers. The shelf life of supermarket wines is very short – they’re not designed for ageing and need to be drunk young, within 1-2 years from bottling. The wine will not become unsafe, but the fruity flavours will quickly disappear and the wine will become dull.
Typical examples for quick and easy drinking include single-varietal wines such as inexpensive Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
In contrast, winemakers producing premium wines aim to develop very complex aromas and flavours. Grapes grown on hillsides or mountains usually have a higher level of acidity, which is a necessary component for long ageing. Such wines – both red and white – are designed to improve with age and develop more complex and enjoyable aromas because of this. The shelf-life will range from 3-10 years for whites to 20-30 years for best reds.
For example, Barolo wine – and other wines made from Nebbiolo – will develop their taste in the bottle for 20 years or more. Chianti Classico Riserva, with its aromas of fresh cherry and raspberry, will age for more than 15 years.
As for whites, a premium Burgundy Chardonnay from Côte d’Or will mature in the bottle for 10 years or more. Thanks to its high acidity, a Pinot Blanc white wine from Alto Adige will age for 7-9 years.
Conclusion: how are premium and inexpensive wines produced?
From site selection to bottle ageing, we’ve looked at different methods of production for inexpensive and premium wines. All of these processes cost time and money, and for producers they need to weigh up what’s more important – quality or quantity.
Inexpensive “supermarket” wines are designed for easy drinking, and are produced using the quickest production methods. They are typically made from grapes picked by mechanical harvesters, in vineyards planted on flat terrain. Sometimes inexpensive wines are adjusted in the winery – by adding acid, stabilising chemicals and sweeteners. When the winemaker wants to add toasty flavours, they’ll use oak chips and staves instead of real oak barrels. These wines are not meant to age, they’re supposed to be enjoyed soon after purchase. As a result, high-volume wines have a simple, sweet and fruity style that appeals to a large number of customers.
Premium wines are much more labour-intensive and so take longer to produce – from hand-picking grapes in vineyards planted on the hillsides, to ageing them for several years in real oak barrels. High-end red wines have a higher level of tannins which help them to develop a more complex character while in bottle. Both red and white premium wines benefit from higher levels of acidity and concentrated flavours, which allow them to age – up to 10 years for whites and 20 years or more for the best reds.
We hope that explains the difference behind premium wine and inexpensive wine. They’re certainly not made in the same way, and the amount of work and time that goes into creating premium wines is deserving of the higher price tag. It’s worth keeping in mind the next time you’re looking for a bottle of something tasty.