Written by: Tim Edison

Updated on: July 8, 2022

Cheap Wine vs Expensive Wine [What’s the Difference?]?

Does expensive wine taste better? We find out in today's guide as we compare cheap and expensive wines.

Does Expensive Wine Really Taste Better Than Cheap Wine?

It's not a simple question to answer but we think we've given it a pretty darn good shot!

If you don't feel like reading the whole article (we recommend you do!) then make sure you don't miss the scientific study.


Let's Define Expensive and Cheap Wine

Before we attempt to answer if expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, we best define what expensive wine is and what cheap wine is.  

A $50 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon may seem expensive to a person who lives paycheck to paycheck, but will seem incredibly cheap to someone that drives a Ferrari and flies on a private jet.

Wines can range in price from under $5 per bottle to well over $1,000 a bottle. Some bottles of wine are worth more than most people earn in a year.

For purposes of this article, we are going to consider wines from the “Super Luxury Wines” category as expensive wine.

These wines include wines from the top producers from the most prestigious wine regions in the world. 

Wine glasses on barrels

As for cheap wine, we will consider wines from the “Extreme Value Wines” and “Value Wines” brackets. 

These are wines that typically sell for under $10 per bottle, and are often made with a blend of several types of grapes, from several regions, and even from several vintages. 

These wines are noted for their lack of consistency. 

To answer the question if expensive wine really taste better than cheap wine we will need to do a few things.

We need to define taste, discover what makes wine expensive in the first place, discover what additional factors may correlate to the taste of wine, and finally take a look at the science.


What is 'Taste' Anyway?

wine tasting

Taste, as everybody knows, is wildly subjective. What tastes good and pleasing to one person may be considered to be just average by another person.

Due to this, when you ask the question, “Does expensive wine really taste better than cheap wine,” you very likely will get different answers depending on who you ask.

When you drink a glass of wine, what do you really care about? 

For most people, the only thing they care about when ordering a glass of wine is if it tastes good. However, taste is not the only factor in determining a wine’s monetary worth. 

Wine connoisseurs will often refer to wines that are fine and rare when describing why a wine is expensive. The “fine” in “fine and rare” obviously refers to the quality and reputation of the winemaker,and to a wine collector names like Jayer and Cheval Blanc might sound like the names Picasso and Manet sound to an art enthusiast.

Do the works of Manet look better than the works of Picasso? 

There are just too many variables at play to say whether a $250 bottle of wine tastes better than a $10 bottle of wine.

It may even be hard to say whether it tastes better than a $10 bottle of wine in the same category. It will taste different and part of the price difference can be chalked up to the producer.


What Makes Wines Expensive in the First Place?

Expensive wines, for the most part, are expensive for three main reasons: 

  1. 1
    Production costs
  2. 2
    Time costs
  3. 3
    Scarcity

Expensive wines generally cost much more to produce.  The raw materials can vary in cost dramatically. 

Wines categorized in the Extreme Value Wines bracket are typically produced from very high-yielding grapes from an average or below average vineyard. These grapes are then fermented in large stainless steel tanks.

When we look at the production of Super Luxury wines, we will find wine produced with lower-yielding grapes from a marquee vineyard and that are fermented in oak barrels under the supervision of an expensive consultant. 

The most sought after wines in the world are aged in oak barrels. Aging wine in an oak barrel adds to distinctive qualities to wine. It adds oak flavors to the wine, and it exposes the wine to oxygen. The oak flavors are often compared to vanilla, nutmeg, coconut, milk chocolate, or even baking spice. 

The oxygen causes the tannins to become noticeably less intense and makes the wine taste much smoother. As oxygen permeates through the barrels, some of the wine will evaporate, though at a very slow rate.

Even with the very small amount of evaporation, the wine that is left in the barrel becomes more concentrated. Oak barrels are very expensive, which is why the wineries that produce the value wines simply cannot afford to use them in production. 

Here’s an interesting fact – only two barrels can be made from an 80 year old oak tree.  As such, you can see that oak barrels will significantly increase production costs.

wine-cellar-with-barrels

Another element that makes expensive wines expensive is time. Especially with red wines, there is an assumption that “the older the better.”  

Time can make certain wines taste much better the more they age.  The passage of time can change the taste of the fruit flavors, and it will reduce the acidity and tannins as well. 

A wine that is aged well will be noted by fruit notes that become much more subtle, and as the acidity and tannins are reduced, the wine will become much smoother. 

We have already learned how expensive it can be to age wines in oak barrels. Now picture a winery storing its wine for years before it is bottled and sold. Holding the wine for years takes up space and costs a considerable amount of money. 

Think about it, if a winery ages its wine for five years, a single oak barrel, which is expensive to begin with, will be effectively “tied-up” for five years, meaning that the winery will have to purchase additional oak barrels for the following four vintages. These costs are a major reason of why certain wines are expensive wines.

wines

Wines also become expensive because of their relative scarcity.  Only a fixed number of bottles can be produced per vintage, and no two vintages of a same wine will taste exactly the same.

When we talk about the most expensive wines, these are the ones that end up in luxury auctions. These are small-production wines to begin with, meaning that they come from small, delimited vineyards in prime real estate, where growers keep their crop yields purposefully low to get a smaller amount of concentrated, flavorful grapes (instead of a larger amount of less interesting ones). 

This number only decreases over time, as bottles from this already limited edition are consumed, which then drives prices up.

Bottles of this vintage that remain on the market will appreciate with age also because the actual wine inside changes. A wine that might start out tannic and tart on release will become softer and more savory at two decades old.

These three factors: cost to produce, time, and relative scarcity, should help explain why some wines become unbelievably expensive.

These factors should also hopefully explain why price doesn’t directly correlate to taste.

One person may prefer the fruitiness of a Beaujolais as compared to the more delicate, earthy flavors of a perfectly mature bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy, which is much more expensive.


What Other Factors May Correlate to the Taste of Wine?

To prove that price alone does not correlate to the taste of wine, a wine drinker only has to sample his or her favorite wine served at two different temperatures.

Just a few degrees difference can make the wine from the same bottle of wine taste vastly different.

If you like your favorite wine served at slightly below room temperature, but it is brought to your table ten degrees cooler, you may think that you were given a different wine all together. 

So how many other factors, or elements are out there, defining wine experiences for wine lovers?  

It turns out that there may be quite a few! Here are a few such factors:

  • Branding/marketing
  • Price
  • Color
  • Food pairing
  • Personal experience

Scientists, psychologists and winemakers have been proving the power of these influences for decades. 

Compounding this problem is our obsession with assigning numbers on things. In this day and age, we like ratings and scores. 

Think of when you purchase an item on Amazon, one of the first things you do is look at the number of stars your item receives.

When you are on vacation, and you want to find the best restaurant in the area, you look at Yelp or TripAdvisor to see which restaurant received the highest rating. 

This same concept of rating the purchase of an item on Amazon, or the selection of a restaurant based on the number of stars it receives on TripAdvisor, has spilled over into the world of wine.

There are different rating systems, but they all achieve the same result, they make wine quality more identifiable and narrows down all of the overwhelming noise.

Riesling Wines 2

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris, was a wine competition organized in Paris on May 24, 1976 by a man named Steven Spurrier, who was a British wine merchant. 

It was at this competition that French judges carried out two blind tasting comparisons: one of top-quality Chardonnays and another of red wines. 

The red wines consisted of Bordeaux wines from the home country of France and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California in the United States.

In each category, a Californian wine rated best, which caused much surprise as France at the time was generally regarded as being the foremost producer of the world’s best wines. 

As the founder of this event, Steven Spurrier who only sold French wine believed that California wines would not win, and would in turn boost his business. 

Critics of this event suggested that wine tastings lacked scientific validity due to the subjectivity of taste in human beings. 

Spurrier backed this up by saying, “The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines.” 

It was even reported that a side by side chart of the best to worst rankings of the 18 wines by a group of experienced tasters at this event showed about as much consistency as a table of random numbers. 


A Scientific Study: Why Expensive Wine Appears Better

wine temperature chart

Price labels influence our liking of wine, like it or not. The same wine tastes better to people when it is labeled with a higher price tag.

But, is there scientific evidence available to prove this? 

Scientists form the INSEAD Business School and the University of Bonn discovered that the decision making and motivation center in the brain can and does play a vital role in such price biases.

Let’s get scientific for a moment.  

The medial prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum sections of the human brain are particularly involved in this, and the results have been published in the journal Scientific Results.

Previous research from INSEAD Associate Professor of Marketing Hilke Plassman’s research group did show that a higher price, for items such as chocolate or wine, did in fact increases the expectation that the product would also taste better and affects the taste processing regions in the brain. 

Professor Bernd Weber, acting director of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience (CENs) at the University of Bonn stated that, “It has so far been unclear how the price information ultimately causes more expensive wine to also be perceived as having a better taste in the brain.” 

This phenomenon where identical products are perceived differently due to differences in price is called the marketing placebo effect. 

Similar to placebo medications, it has an effect solely due to ascribed properties.  In this study, researchers assessed how different prices are translated into corresponding taste experiences in the brain, even in cases where the wine tasted does not differ.  

Thirty participants took part in this study, half men and half women, with the average age of the participants being 30 years old.

The wine tasting that took place during this particular study took place while participants were lying down inside an MRI scanner, which allowed their brain activity to be recorded as the participants tasted the wines. Before each taste, the price of the wine was shown to the participant. 

Then, about a milliliter of the particular wine was administered to the participant through a tube that was placed in their mouths. The subjects were then asked to rate how good the wine tasted to them based on a nine point scale by pressing a button. Their mouths were then rinsed with a neutral liquid and the next identical wine sample was given for tasting. 

All of these experiments were performed in the brain scanner at the Life and Brain Center at the University of Bonn.

It is noted that the marketing placebo effect does have its limits.  For example, if a very low quality wine is offered for $100, the effect would predictably be absent.

It is for this reason that researchers conducting this experiment at the University of Bonn performed the tests using average to good quality wines with a retail bottle price of around $12. 

While participants were in the MRI scanner, the price of this wine was randomly shown as $3, $6, and $18. In order to make the study as realistic as possible, each participant was given $45 of initial credit. For some of the tastings, the displayed sum was then deducted from the account in some of the trials.

As expected, the subjects in the study stated that the wine with the higher price tasted better than an apparently cheaper one.

This was the case if the participants had to pay for the wine and if they were given it for free. This proves that identical wine leads to a better taste experience when a greater expectation of quality is associated with the wine due solely to its price.

The measurements of brain activity in the MRI scanner back this finding up. The researchers found that parts of the medial prefrontal cortex and also the ventral striatum were activated more when the prices shown to the participants were higher. 

While the medial prefrontal cortex particularly appears to be involved in integrating the price comparison and thus the expectation into the evaluation of the sampled wine, the ventral striatum forms part of the brain’s reward and motivation system.

This system was activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increases the taste experience in this way. 

In the end, the reward and motivation system tricks our bodies. When prices are higher, it leads us to believe that a taste is present that is not only driven by the wine itself, because the wine samples were objectively identical in all of the tastings. 

The exciting question that arises from this experiment is whether it is possible to train the reward system to make it become less receptive to such placebo marketing effects.

This would only be possible by training one’s own physical perception, such as taste, to a greater extent.


In Conclusion

There are numerous factors to understand when it comes to deciding if expensive wines do in fact taste better than cheap wines.

In the end, it appears that our brain actually convinces us that a more expensive wine tastes better than a cheaper wine.  

Does that mean that the expensive wine is of higher quality?  Well that, is totally subjective.

I guess the real question is how susceptible are you to marketing tricks?

And can you judge a wine based solely on its taste without other factors influencing your decision?

If so, the answer lies with you!

About the Author Tim Edison


Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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