The term "fine wine" is definitely one that is more subjective than objective and actually more focused on price than any other factor.
Fine Wine Defined
What exactly makes a wine "fine"? Perhaps you've tasted some wines and the one you liked best doesn't fit under the fine wine umbrella. Why? Who makes up these rules, anyway?
The wine industry separates itself into different "classes" of wines/wineries depending on who the target consumer is. Interesting, isn't it? You would think that perhaps everyone would like their product to be considered "fine wine," but that is not necessarily the case.
For example, take Cook's "Champagne." We all know it and perhaps sampled it once or twice and whatever you may think of it, you know it's not "fine wine." Their target market though, is not those who are dumping $20+ on a bottle of bubbles. So their target market is those people who want bubbly but don't want to spend a whole lot to get it for one reason or another. This, by the way, is a HUGE market segment! So if they started making their wine differently and charging for it, they would put themselves into a different target market--in essence losing their base clientele. So you can see that you don't always have to be a fine wine to fit a market niche!
Levels of Wine
So what defines a fine wine? It all revolves around price (doesn't everything?). Right now there are probably these categories of wine:
- Jug/mass produced
- Value wine
- Industry average
That is by no means a definitive, end-all be-all of categories, but one that is accurate at this point. Now, you may think already that premium and ultra-premium are hefty-priced wines, right? Not really, they are actually more reasonably priced than you think.
Premium wines usually are defined as wines anywhere from $13-19 and ultra-premium wines are anything $20 and above. You can see that ultra-premium wines have a wide play of the field so to speak. Many beginning wine-tasters I have met have usually believe that ultra-premium is $50 or more. So the wine industry in general considers anything premium or ultra-premium to be fine wine. It all comes back to price.
So far this has been a fairly accurate approach because it reflects the level of quality products used in the winemaking process. The assumption is you cannot make a "fine wine" that costs less than $10 or so given that oak barrels and quality fruit sources are costly, added to that more detailed winemaking techniques being used.
However (and this is a BIG however), that does not mean that other wines that fall below this category are not good tasting or even better tasting than some "fine" wines. Many wines at cheaper price points blow their more expensive counterparts out of the water--many times. Inexpensive Italian wines, for example tend to be appealing and balanced...yet they don't fit the "fine" wine definition given their price. So that's why you have to not think of price and taste being on the same wavelength. This goes for ultra-expensive wines, too; don't make yourself think that all wines over $100 taste fantastic...they don't.
Some Famous Fine Wines
When we think of fine wines, we always go to the cream of the crop-the ones we hear about in movies. If you are a fan of James Bond you know that he likes his '55 Dom Perignon (and even chastised someone for drinking it too warm). If you have seen any music video lately you know that Cristal is the staple wine of a lot of music stars and who hasn't heard the term Mouton Rothschild? You don't even really have needed to taste it to know it. These are all fine wines, obviously. They're all quite pricey, too. It all comes back to price.
Price Isn't Everything
Price is a huge consideration of many people when it comes to choosing and liking a wine. In my wine education classes I do an exercise that is very eye-opening: The class is divided into two separate and equal sized groups. One group goes to a different classroom, the other group stays. The same inexpensive wine is poured for both groups and they are told all the information about the wine (variety, vintage, AVA, etc.) with one exception.
One group is told the wine costs way more than it really does and the other group is told the real price. Both groups taste the wine, evaluate it, and then come back together as a whole to discuss the results. It's amazing what the result is! The group that thought the wine was significantly more expensive gave much higher marks and raved about the how good the wine tasted. The other group who thought the wine was "cheap" gave very poor marks.
When I share what the truth is with the class they are usually surprised. It shows how cost perception is a big consideration to thinking that the wine is good. So whether a wine is a fine wine or not doesn't really matter, it really all goes back to personal taste.
Drink What You Like
So as with all wines you drink, it goes back to drinking what you like. The term "fine wine" shouldn't really play a role in what you decide you like in a wine (unless you like a more expensive wine). A good exercise to do (and a fun one) is to taste as many wines as you can "blind", which means cover the bottle or have someone else pour it for you so you don't see it. When you don't know what the cost of the wine is you can only judge it on how it tastes to you! Fine wine or not, you can only judge a wine on its taste and smell. So next time you are wondering if you are drinking a fine wine or not, consider first whether you like the wine before judging it on it's price. Don't let anyone tell you what to drink, and take pride in drinking a wine that makes you happy - fine wine or not!