cheap wine vs expensive wine

Cheap Wine vs. Expensive Wine: Which is Better?

You want to buy a bottle, but you don’t want to shell out the big bucks … so what’s the deal with those wines on the bottom shelf? Are they really that bad? 

From a safety standpoint, cheap wines are completely fine to drink. It’s the flavor profile  in these bottles that might make you want to think twice before buying. After all, a bad wine is still a waste of money, even if it’s $5! But that doesn’t mean all cheap wines are bad, and sometimes it might not matter at all.

Know when to splurge and when to save with these wine buying tips. 

FACTORS THAT DETERMINE PRICE 

From Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” to rare bottles that cost over $100,000, it’s no secret that there’s a BIG discrepancy between bottles of wine. Even wines at the supermarket can range $100, and these bottles are mere feet apart. So what’s the difference? And which is better? 

Land 

Inexpensive wines are produced on properties where grapevines thrive the best, which begs the question — why would these wines taste worse? 

Grapevines that thrive produce more grapes, whereas hilly regions with challenging soil produce less bunches with higher concentrations of flavor. In the easy vineyard, these grapes lack the complexity, sweetness, and richness that those in difficult areas do. With more land and more grapes, winemakers are able to produce thousands of bottles, compared to wineries that struggle and have a smaller output. Expensive wines are more rare compared to bottom-shelf wines which are readily available everywhere. 

Your cheap wine will have less flavor, but on a casual weeknight that might not matter. If you’re making a mulled wine or other infused-wine concoction, a good bottle is not worth the splurge. Let the spices do the talking! 

Labor

The grapes in your wine were either picked by a person or by a machine, and it’s obvious which is the more expensive route to take. However, it’s not just the labor each bottle of wine represents, but the quality control. 

A machine will pick up anything and everything, including rotten grapes that give the wine a funky flavor. People who hand pick the grapes with clippers are trained to toss any bad bunches to the side, and reserve the best for the batch. This may not make or break your decision, but when indulging in a good bottle it’s nice to appreciate the time and effort that went into making it. 

Storage

Most quality wines are stored in oak barrels for a period of time, and the amount of time it takes to store those wines adds up in costs. After all, the winery doesn’t have unlimited storage, and they can’t sit idly by without counteracting some of that time with dollars. 

Even a delicious $20 Cabernet Sauvignon will probably spend some time in a barrel. It’s the bottom-shelf $5 wines that were probably infused with flavor or wood chips during the fermentation process to give them flavor. If you appreciate rich vanilla and sophisticated, velvety tasting notes, it’s almost guaranteed you won’t find those characteristics in the wines displayed at your feet.

Marketing

Contrary to popular belief, expensive wines aren’t all marketing, but there is a part of this that’s true. A beautiful bottle will likely go for more than one with a plain label (because people like pretty things), so you may not always want to reach for the best-dressed. If this $15 wine is surrounded by other $15 wines, consider one that doesn’t stand out. The winery may have put their little bit of time and money into the wine, rather than banking on the text that sparkles. 

Year/Age 

An old Cabernet Sauvignon may come with an expensive price tag (back to that storage point), but contrary to popular opinion, the older the wine is doesn’t mean it’s always better. Some wines are best drunk young, including most white wines, rosés, and red wines under $30. And if you’re trying to turn a $15 bottle into something better than it is, don’t bother. These wines (white OR red) aren’t designed to age. 

The fact is, there are delicious wines at every price point! It’s all about personal preference and knowing what to expect. 


Erin Hooker

Erin Hooker is a writer with experience creating wine, food, and interior design content. She began contributing to Graham + Fisk’s blog in 2021.