Sunday, January 13, 2013

Expensive wine vs. cheap wine

Have you ever wondered whether an expensive, seemingly impressive bottle of winereally tastes better than a bottle of Three-Buck Chuck? For the layperson (i.e. anyone who's not a sommelier), drinking wine can be an especially psychologically driven experience, influenced by numerous factors: labels, price points, bottle appearance, and even your peers, just to name a few.

But take away all those factors, pour yourself a glass of wine, and take a taste. Without knowing the price or viewing the bottle, can you really tell the difference between a $65 bottle and a $3 bottle? What do your senses really tell you when those external factors and social influences are stripped away? We wanted to find out, so we set up a blind taste test in our office. Here's how it went down:

Each taster blindly tried two types of wine side-by-side, not knowing which was which. One was from an expensive bottle, and the other an inexpensive version from the same region. We did this with two reds (Cabernet Sauvignon), and then with two whites (Chardonnay). Testers recorded which wine they thought was the more expensive of the two, and left comments explaining why. Here are the results:

Cheap Red
Trader Joe's Charles Shaw Blend Cabernet Sauvignon (a.k.a. Three-Buck Chuck), California, 2011 -- $3
Comments: "This is much smoother and rounder." "This seems to have more layers of flavor." "Much smoother and easier to drink." "Less acidic finish than the other." "I like this more than the other, but that makes me think maybe it's because my palate is unrefined?" "I have no idea which is which! This exercise makes me happy that I don't spend money on wine, as it obviously would be wasted on me."

Expensive Red
Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain, Californa, 2007 -- $65
Comments: "Tastes like decaying strawberries." "They're too close in flavor to be $60 apart." "This has more tannins and a truer color, and it's more complex." "This is harsh and overly acidic." "This has a fuller taste and is a bit sour." "This is bland." "Strangely harsh." "This seems to open up on my tongue." "This is very tannic, you can see a ton of sediment."

Price difference: $62
Tasters' verdict: Only 38 percent of our tasters correctly identified the more expensive wine, and 62 percent preferred the $3 variety from Trader Joe's. Surprising, right? Think about how much more wine those tasters can get for their buck.

Cheap White 
Glen Ellen Reserve Concannon, 2010 Chardonnay, California -- $5
Comments: "Too fruity and just tasted really unsophisticated -- like the wine I bought in college when I only had a few bucks to spend." "This is much softer and rounder. A little sweet, but I like it better." "This is quite thin and one-note." "This was hard to drink for me." "Paler, glassier and milder than the other." "Tastes much oakier and I'm assuming that when it comes to Chardonnay, more oak equals more loot?" "This tastes worse to me, but has more pronounced legs."

Expensive White
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California -- $45
Comments: "I'm finding this much harder to differentiate than I expected." "This is more drinkable and drier, which I assume makes it the cheap one." "This has no flavor." "This is spicier, sweeter, thicker -- still, has a cleaner finish than the other." "Seems more complex." "This has a much smoother quality." "This is a little bitter but has a nice effervescence."

Price difference: $40
Tasters' verdict: 60 percent of our tasters correctly identified Cakebread Cellars as the more expensive wine, but many comments suggested there wasn't much difference between the two (see comments in the slideshow below -- and trust us, you'll want to read the comments).

There are two lessons to be learned from this. The first is that wine drinking is a subjective art. The second? Don't judge a wine by its price. (All the more reason to get out there and try some new wines, right?)


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