What determines wine prices?

It’s a fact of life: some wines simply cost more than others. There are many reasons for this.

Let’s start in the vineyard. Certain grapes are harder to grow and require more vineyard management like pruning, canopy control and bacteria/pest prevention. Older vines produce less – but better – fruit, and maintaining them is more work and more costly than propagating younger vines. Often some of that fruit is thinned out further so that the quality of the remaining grapes is enhanced. When it comes to picking, hand-harvesting grapes is much more labour-intensive than machine harvesting. The extra work involved is passed on to the consumer in the final price of the bottle.

Winemaking techniques can also raise the price of a bottle. Pressing is one of them. The juice of commercial or low-end wines is achieved by a “hard press” (metal against metal). It extracts maximum juice, but also delivers bitter elements because of the hardness of the process. Better quality wines are “soft pressed” by the inflation of a rubber bag within a tank that gently draws the juice out of the grapes without any bitter components. It’s more expensive than hard pressing.

What a winemaker ferments in can add dollars to the final price too. High-end stainless steel tanks with temperature control are expensive as opposed to tile-lined concrete tanks. Producers sometimes ferment wines in oak barrels that can be extremely pricey.

After fermentation, there is the question of aging. Certain finished wines are kept at the winery and aged for some time until the producer deems them ready for sale. Storing at a winery takes up space and does not result in immediate sales to cover production costs.

Included in the final price of these bottles could be a “rental” fee for the space it took up at the winery. Barrel aging is another expensive procedure. The type and age of the oak, and the amount of time spent in it, can all add up. French oak, for example is much more expensive than American oak, up to $1,500 for a 226-litre barrel. If a particular wine requires new oak, then barrels have to be purchased each year for that wine. Barrels also have to be maintained, and sometimes topped up. All of this adds up in cost.

When bottling wine, there are other points that can increase the cost. The type of closure is important. Natural cork still seems to be the best enclosure for wine and is certainly more expensive than polymer versions or screw caps. Even within the realm of natural cork, there are quality differences.  Corks cut entirely in one piece from a tree are pricier, and longer corks carry a heftier price tag. Finally we have the bottle and the label. Heavier bottles or specific shapes with a deeper “punt” (the indentation in the bottom of the bottle) cost more. Then there’s the label. Artist-designed versions compared to commercial, cookie-cutter styles are expensive.

Beyond this, wines that are small production and limited availability will most definitely cost more. Gold medals obtained in competition and rave reviews from the media can certainly drive the selling price up. Let’s not even consider markups by your local monopoly.

So the next time you question why one wine costs more than another, consider all of the above possibilities.


Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator, judge

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