Why does one bottle of wine set you back a fiver and another cost five times as much? It’s all in the detail.
Jean-Claude Lapalu makes beaujolais that’s as thick as blood and as soulful as a patch of wilderness. He is a humble man, a paysan, but also one of the region’s stars. A bottle of Lapalu Brouilly sells in a shop for £20 or more.
“Why not make more of it and get rich?” I asked him as we sat outside at a scruffy table near his winery a couple of years ago. “Land in Beaujolais is relatively cheap. You could buy more vineyards…” He regarded me wearily. “It’s already completely exhausting me,” he said with a shrug at the madness of the idea. “I’m not sure it could be done.”
Lapalu is unusually attentive. He does not just work organically, he labours over every detail. He is interested in energy lines and biodynamics; he has used the golden mean to determine the ratio of length to breadth, and even the size of the bricks, in his winery; he pours his entire being into wines that are in every sense handmade. This makes them expensive. Not as expensive as they might be were they from a more fêted area, but still.
I thought of Jean-Claude Lapalu when I opened an email from Telegraph reader Geoffrey Keen asking if I could explain the variation in price of an ordinary (as opposed to a cult or collectable) bottle of wine.
“I can understand that small vineyards and older vintages would tend to have rarity value,” wrote Mr Keen, “and that growers, agents and retailers all need their cut, but can you account for why one might cost a fiver, another quite easily five times as much?”
Where to start on all the rest? It begins, of course, with the grapes. You could plant a load of vines on relatively fertile soil (ideally a valley floor which won’t grow you such good grapes as a slope but will be easier and therefore cheaper to work), leave them to run riot, machine harvest a huge quantity of grapes in a single pass come the autumn and then ferment them, willy-nilly and unsorted, in bulk. That would be the cheapest way to start filling a bottle of plonk.
Look to improve the quality of the grapes, a limiting factor when it comes to the quality of the wine, and you immediately stumble into 1,000 decisions, all of which cost money.
To improve concentration of flavour, it helps to reduce yields (which can be done by “green harvesting” – cutting off bunches of tiny green grapes in the summer); this has an obvious impact on vineyard economics. Older vines also tend to produce grapes that taste richer and more detailed, but they are often naturally lower yielding which, again, will ramp up cost.
Then there’s the matter of how much viticultural care you take. High-quality grapes are tended by hand as opposed to machine (add labour costs to the bill). There will be much agonising over the trellising system and the leaf-to-fruit ratio (this affects the quality of the fruit, and the canopy can be useful in shielding grapes from sunburn in hot places) and so on.
“We’ve worked out that we do 32 manual passes per pinot noir plant per year,” says Ruud Maasdam at Staete Landt in Marlborough, New Zealand. You can taste this care – and you can expect to pay about £16 a bottle for Maasdam’s deliciously silky pinot noir.
You may also need costly hail nets, an irrigation system…
Farm organically or biodynamically and there is even more work; possibly, arguably, also more risk to the crop. Picking by hand is gentler on the grapes but also more costly, particularly if you are so intent on getting the grapes at optimum ripeness that you send pickers on several tries through the vineyard or if the slope is so steep workers virtually have to abseil down it.
Reach the winery and you might want to sort the grapes up to three times, picking out rotten or unripe berries and bits of other vegetal matter. Inside the winery the scope for spending money with a view to improving quality – on presses, de-stemmers, temperature-controlled vats, those trendy concrete Nomblot egg-shaped tanks that cost about £2,500 a throw, bottling equipment and so on – is immense.
One ingredient that has a high impact on the cost of a sub-£15 bottle is oak. Chips and staves (sticks of wood, essentially) might be added to a tank to give a taste of wood but their flavour tends to sit apart from the wine like an overlay, sometimes with a resinous or scratchy edge. Maturing a wine in barrel is a gentler process as it allows some aeration, producing a wine that tastes more civilised. For a price – a 225l oak barrel might cost £7 00. Let’s say it’s used three times; it will still add 78p to the cost of your bottle of wine.
Let’s not forget the closure either. “A screw cap costs us about 2 rand [16p],” one South African winemaker told me. “And a cork about 6 rand [49p], but you could easily pay up to 11 or 12 rand for a really top-quality cork.”
I could go on. I’ve barely scratched the surface; haven’t covered the cost of experimentation or the difficulty of working in a marginal climate (where better-quality wine grapes are grown) in which a producer may lose half or more of his crop in an unlucky vintage and so much more. But I hope this at least begins to answer Mr Keen’s question.