What makes a wine “Premium”

Cabernet Sauvignon Red Wine Shiraz Wine

Both a premium $100 wine and the $10 wine are made from grapes, so what causes the difference in price?

To get a premium wine there first needs to be a decision at the vineyard to go out and create the wine, with an eye firmly at recouping their outlay. There needs to be a decision about the fruit quality, obviously the better the fruit the higher the cost, new high quality oak isn’t cheap, nor is holding onto the wine and aging it in the vats or bottles. The choice of grape will change the yield and how you will harvest. Some grapes are very low yield, but give excellent quality juice, and will affect how you harvest the fruit. Premium quality grapes are hand-picked, plucking the bunch off at exactly the right time of ripeness and is carefully handled to avoid bruising. Whereas the fruit for bulk wine can be machine harvested and hauled off in bulk containers. Once picked the grapes are pressed, the more expensive wines are made from free run juice, where the weight of the grapes are naturally forces the juice out or first press where a slight force is used. Bulk wines grapes are pressed much harder and often many more times, forcing out all the juice and all the bitterness that is in the skins too.

And then we have fermenting and ageing. Higher end wines are often fermented longer, pumped or hand plunged over a period of time to mix back through all the skins etc. and are then aged in oak barrels, which don’t come cheap. The juice will often spend somewhere between 18-24 mths on oak, during which time the producer still has their overhead costs adding up. Bulk operations look more like a chemical plant with stainless steel tanks and spend a relatively short time in the winery before hitting the shelves.

In the real world the difference between a $50 premium wine and a $250 premium wine often has less to do with the quality of the wine inside the bottle. Yes they will both be better than a $10 wine or a cask, but the difference between the two of them is more closely related to market demand and reputation of the label. When it comes to those super-premium, luxury wines, like Grange for example, it’s often bought primarily because of market reputation as a luxury brand and not because of the spectacular quality of the years vintage. There has been years when, on release, a $780 Penfolds Grange has been out-pointed by much cheaper wines, even with Penfolds’ own ranges. 

So given that pricing isn’t always an indicator of top quality, is it possible to purchase a premium wine at a reasonable price?

The trick here is to find a label that you know will give superb quality year upon year, and then exceptional wine every other year. That can be done by going to wine dinners, reading as many reviews as you can, but also trying a few of those reviewed wines for yourself and seeing how they sit with your palate. If you can find a producer/reviewer that has similar tastes to you, this can be a useful guide to identifying great wines for you.

During the 80’s and 90’s the premium wines from Jacobs Creek and their sister label Orlando have cemented their position as super-premium, giant killing wines. However over the last decade or so , they seem to have fallen out of favour.

Now I don’t understand the drop in popularity, these are consistently only a point or so away from the corresponding years Grange release, and are all well below $100. But what it means for us is that real world shelf pricing sits around $60.  

The three reds selected, with a few years of bottle age already on them, and real instore pricing of less than $60, they make a no-brainer for that special dinner/gift.

I should point out that I realise that if you are buying these for the long haul, then in 30 years’ time that Grange could still be going whilst these wines will be long gone, but most people won’t be looking at that long term cellaring. It will be medium term cellaring, with bang for buck as the key driver.

Lawson’s Padthaway Shiraz 2012 – What leaps out is the aged notes, dusty and dry notes, old leather, wood and tobacco. Spicy pepper has settled down with time in the bottle, but it’s still there and they are balanced so well by the oak handling, good dark fruit notes, blackberry and dark plum. Firm tannins in a long and savoury, almost roasting pan type flavours. This would be a great wine to check if you actually like an aged red before you decide to invest in a cellar or wine fridge, and will still be going strong in another 15years. About $55.

Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill Shiraz 2012 – the Jacob’s Creek name has dropped off this now, so I guess this should just be called Centenary Hill now. Aromas of ripe berry fruit, touches of mint, plums and earthy notes. Those notes follow through on to the tongue with chocolate, and rum-and-raisin notes/dark fruitcake. The finish long and fine, it’s a superb wine. The ’12 Grange was a 98pt wine, the ’12 Centenary Hill was 95. About $85 in store.

Orlando Jacaranda Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – the Jacaranda Ridge was once a very popular wine, but for some reason it seems to have fallen out of favour. I’m not sure why, I’ve still got a fair bit of this floating around in our cellar and I’ve always found it over delivers for its price eg the 09 grange was 94pts, the 09 jacaranda was 93 for a wine that sells at $60. Lashings of blackcurrant and blackberry and tobacco. Tannins are superb, drying and savoury driving a long, long finish. It’s in its peak drinking zone at the minute, but will still hold for another 10years with careful cellaring.

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