They’re everywhere and more prevalent than ever. Mass produced bargain wines are now a staple on grocery store shelves and in the aisles of large wine retailers. With all the cheap wine options you may be asking, why would I pay $50 for a bottle of wine when there’s plenty of wine out there for 5 five to 10 bucks? The real question is what is in that five-dollar bottle.
The Throw Away Grapes
Great wine starts with great fruit. Generally speaking, cheap wine is made from bulk wine and bulk wine is just what it sounds like, wine made in bulk. Sometimes, when a reputable vineyard has an uncharacteristically bad vintage, the vineyard opts to put some or all its lower quality grapes for sale in the bulk wine market. Those grapes eventually become bulk wine and are used to make the bargain wine sold in stores. For example, there will undoubtedly be a dump of many smoke tainted grapes into the bulk market due to the California fires this year. The wine from these grapes will be doctored to cover the smoke taint so that you don’t taste mesquite grapes.
Some vineyards are bulk producers. They start their growing season focused on producing grapes or grape juice for the bulk market. These vineyards are normally large vineyards in flat areas that get plenty of sun for even and expedited ripening. They also have a high concentration of grapes per vine in order to maximize profitability. Unfortunately, by jamming a ton of berries on the vines’ shoots, you create a situation where many of the clusters are simply under nourished. After all, there’s only so much nutrition to be shared. Also, because these bulk producers do not use high quality farming practices such as rotating cover crop to provide nutrients back into the soil, the soil is not as nutrient rich. The end result is a bunch of lack luster grapes that lack flavor intensity.
The grapes are machine farmed, machine harvested, and machine sorted but who cares? Well, you should because although hand harvesting and sorting makes wine more expensive, hand harvesting ensures that only grapes are harvested. Machines suck up everything in the vines including grapes, bugs, snakes, and anything else that might be on the vine. Also, on the sorting table, a human can inspect grapes for quality and make sure only good fruit is used in the wine making process. With machines, not so much. Some of the stuff making it into the press may not even be grapes at all.
Finally, with bulk farming no consideration is given to ensuring the grapes have a certain terroir (taste of the region) and in fact the primary focus is efficiency. These vineyards stick to ripening the grapes, machine harvesting them, and getting them to the producers as efficiently as possible.
Wine Manufacturing vs. Winemaking
After tons of subpar grapes and whatever else are collected and pressed into juice, bargain wine producers begin to manufacture the generic bulk wines into something that they believe their customers will want to drink. For example, if a wine is missing oak characteristics, a bargain winemaker will not spend the hundreds or even thousands of dollars to age the wine in oak barrels. They will opt for the much cheaper alternative oak chips or even oak dust. If the wine is too astringent, fish bladders, gelatin or egg whites are brought to the rescue. Is the wine stable? If not, no worries, they will add enough sulfur to clear a building. Last but certainly not least, the bottle get’s a nice dose of color additives and sugar concentrate.
In short, most of the time, when you buy bargain wines, you’re getting far more than what you paid for and in this case, that’s not a good thing. Bargain winemakers can use over 60 additives when frankensteining a bottle of $5 plonk from subpar grapes. The worst part is that with the exception of the sulfur, none of it is required to be disclosed. So, the next time you grab a bottle of bargain wine, consider that what you are drinking is to wine what a McNugget is to chicken. There’s probably some in there somewhere but nah…