MOST ASKED QUESTIONS AT CARO’S #3
Ever tasted an expensive wine and just wondered what the fuss is about? Wine is funny. It’s not like fast cars where you spend more and go faster. Or business class plane tickets where you get a more comfortable seat and better drinks. No, when you go up the scale to better and better wine, the bang for buck can be a trickier thing to actually experience.
In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, as retailers we’ve tasted some really, really expensive wines. But for those who would like us to lean off to the side and whisper that they’re not worth the money – well, we can’t. There may be some markets where genuinely overpriced wines circulate – ‘trumped up’ wines you might say, ordinary wines with a high price tag slapped on them. But frankly New Zealand is too small, too sophisticated, or perhaps simply too isolated for that kind of behaviour. When we see a wine we think is ‘not worth the money’ then it’s generally a close-run thing – i.e. it may not be quite concentrated enough, it may lack a little harmony or typicity, etc. But we we never see one that costs a hundred bucks and tastes like jungle juice. And if a wine isn’t worth much MORE than the price, then we wouldn’t stock it. So average to poor wines never make it through our doors and even if they’re out there such suppliers have long since left us alone. So perhaps we are biased. Or blessed.
In any case, here are some thoughts on what makes expensive wine expensive. We’re not saying everyone can appreciate these things right away, but it offers some clearer ideas of what you might be missing out on. Or what you might have in store, when your wine radar is fully tuned.
So, what qualities should an expensive wine have?
This is the most basic measure of quality in wine. Good concentration is not limited to top wines – sometimes it appears in cheaper wines too – but it is an absolute must-have for the drinking experience and aging potential that we expect from expensive wines. Concentration is just like it sounds – it’s the amount of flavour or flavour-depth in the wine, and derives from the quality of the juice. Basically, high-value vines are made to produce (or ‘yield’) very few grapes – the more expensive the wine, the lower the vine yield usually is – so all the energy (and flavour) of the vine is literally concentrated in this smaller production. The resulting juice and wine doesn’t exactly have ‘more’ taste. But aside from developing far longer in cellar (a key marker of quality in wine) a well concentrated wine has an effect on the nose and palate that is perhaps more penetrating, fuller, rounder and deeper. The other effect commonly associated with concentration is ‘length’. A quality wine will generally develop slowly through an open, expressive mid-palate to a very long and lingering finish – the latter of which especially relies on good concentration.
A concentrated wine is worth more because it is ‘better’ in these ways. But it is also worth more because of the investment required to make it concentrated in the first place. The winery has to forgo the easier money in producing high yields (i.e. the temptation of growing more fruit on each vine) while in addition spending extra time and effort on these higher value crops, pruning them carefully and harvesting them by hand. So the price tag is usually paying for something real – and something that you can taste. Sort of.
Complexity is closely linked to the above, as the power and ‘presence’ of good concentration delivers fuller, more nuanced and therefore more complex fruit flavours. But complexity can also take other forms, for example mineral characteristics – whether derived from the effects of subsoil or chemistry within the juice. Likewise oak forms complexity in some wines – with the timing, type, and level of oak exposure being essential to winemaking, while also helping determine how expensive or cheap the wine tastes. (Incidentally, oak complexity is also a matter of investment – good wood simply costs more money). In addition there are other winemaking factors – such as yeasty complexities from contact with lees, or the choices for/against malolactic fermentation, all of which play a role in ‘layering’ the wine with the right spectrum of complexities for that particular wine – so that it can fulfill all of the conditions listed here and deserve a decent price tag. Hopefully.
Ahh finesse, that je ne sais quoi of wine. How do we express finesse? It’s such a lovely word. Shall we just keep saying it and not actually answer the question? Finesse is very similar to balance. Although every wine has it’s own way of ‘doing’ finesse the term implies that the basic elements of the wine – fruit, body, acidity, tannins, length etc. – strike a kind of balance while, more than that, conveying a sense of poise, composure and quality. Finesse is more easily used for lighter or more elegant wines (we might say that a Beaujolais or a Cotes de Provence Rose is all about finesse – and so they are), but the term really comes into it’s own as a marker of quality when you feel forced to use it to describe a massive red like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or a legendary Barossa Shiraz. Even in these baking hot climates, when you get to the top end – after having passed up beyond sometimes heavy, assertive mid-level wines – you reach single-vineyard offerings that have been so treasured on the vine and gently handled in the winery that they seem to transcend their massive alcohol and richness to attain a perfect balance – at a higher level – where they speak almost softly and with an almost introspective finesse that can only be achieved by the most staggering investment of real quality in vineyard and winery. Now that is real finesse. Sort of.
Closely related to finesse is ‘harmony’, a concept even more tricky and very subjective. Harmony is the sense that a certain wine – whatever the style – just feels ‘right’. A wine with harmony can be smooth or sharp, simple or complex, integrated or edgy. But if a wine has harmony then all the parts feel like they’re in the right place – it is what it is, it’s meant to be, and it it’s own way of speaking to you, of being beautiful. It’s not hard to appreciate this – if you find a wine beautiful then you’re already doing it.
It doesn’t need to be expensive to have harmony, but in the premium end let’s say it’s a top white Burgundy – a well-made Puligny-Montrachet. A Puligny may taste like a slightly acidic Chardonnay to some people. But those looking for complexity and harmony will find, in Puligny, a nearly magical landscape of ripe fruit and florals poised against citrus and chalky, mineral acidity. These warm and cool aspects will work across many others in an edgy, layered, almost paradoxical and highly evocative way. It is this peculiarly compelling harmony of elements – a sublime and hard-to-explain effect – that keeps us coming back with the big bucks. Puligny-Montrachet is also expensive because it’s home to the most exclusive chardonnay vineyard in the world, ‘Le Montrachet’, but which came first – the chicken or the egg?
Wine is unique in that it is both a consumable and a museum piece, both a market product and a cultural artefact of certain times and places (vineyards, vintages… terroir). The same product offers two entirely different types of experiences – and to understand the top end you have to first grasp the bottom. Wines at the lower end of the price spectrum are quite rightly designed as beverages – even the best cheaper wines are generally made fruity and enjoyable, with the broadest appeal in mind. As we climb to the mid-level (say $30-$50), the market is still essentially the same – wines to drink – so to do justice to the consumer the added value is generally reflected in the taste. These mid-level wines taste bigger, better, oakier, or maybe the opposite – finer, crisper, classier. Many wines in this category are stunning value – these are wines we most often drink ourselves at Caro’s. But the point is, the difference is fairly perceptible, whatever the style.
Many people stop here, finding wines above this level ‘unsatisfying’. Because above $50 it gets complicated. Firstly, there’s a certain ‘ceiling’: there’s only so much flavour you can put in a wine: many $50 wines are among the most punchy and impressive mouthfuls you could ever taste (notwithstanding subtle matters like harmony or finesse). Secondly – the main point – wines above $50 are generally not wines to drink but wines to… well, appreciate. In short, wines above $50 generally aim to be great examples of their region, or of their vineyard or terroir – like the Puligny-Montrachet we mentioned earlier – and their value is at least heavily informed by their ability to perform this essentially cultural role.
Individuality… aka ‘Less is More’
And now the kicker. As we move up the scale we don’t get more flavour – we often get less! Or rather, at the top end wines become more distinctive, more singular – more, as it were, solely ‘what they are’. After all, this is their job as cultural artefacts – to portray the style of a particular famous estate, or record a given vintage in a given vineyard. Take for example an average $30 Mendoza Malbec: fruit from right across the region – some slightly over-ripe, some perfectly ripe – is made and blended so that it tastes as rich, rounded and satisfying as possible. Then by contrast take a single vineyard ‘terroir’ Malbec, from a tiny and exclusive elevated site also in Mendoza. The single vineyard wine may cost $50 – and in fact be worth more like $70 or $80 – but this will actually have much less overt richness. It is less mouthfilling and seems at first to offer less flavour overall. But to those looking for finesse, harmony and a sense of individuality or terroir, this expensive single vineyard delivers like a fine Burgundy. Its delicately ripe fruit speaks of its elevated location, the ‘absence’ of overt richness in fact leaving room for the chalky texture to make itself felt, while on the nose and palate a subtle interplay of florals, alpine herbs and limey-mineral and earth nuances envelop the drinker in a charming and precious experience of a very specific, unique wine and place. This wine does it’s high-paid job perfectly – it is a less slurpy and satisfying drink. And yet precisely because of that it is so, so much more…
And there you have it – our version of why expensive wine is worth it. Of course there’s a category of expensive wines we have missed out – The Lafite Rothchilds, the Antinori’s et al. Certainly there are wines so invested with history and prestige – or scarcity, which is closely related – that they command phenomenal prices at the pump.
But we figured you understood all that. Such wines speak for themselves, but we thought it might be good to clarify what we look for in our more exclusive selection of expensive stuff.
We hope it’s been useful, and that you proceed to clean out our top shelves…