Why does good wine cost so much?

I have a friend who says he won’t pay more than £6 for a bottle of wine. I tell him he’s barmy. Wine making is a slow, difficult, and expensive business. It’s true that wine does come cheaper than £6 but it’s an industrial product, without individuality or character. If you do find one with flavour it’s probably come from oak chippings suspended in the wine like teabags. But, my friend persists, what’s so expensive about making wine?

For a start there’s duty. UK excise duty is £2.16 for a bottle of still wine. Then there’s customs duty – there’s none for EU wine but it can go up to 32% for non-EU countries. Then there’s 20% VAT on top of the final figure. So, a £6 bottle from the EU is £1 VAT and £2.16 excise duty – so 53% of what you pay is tax. Then there’s the bottling, transport and retailer costs. But, most of all, good wines cost money because good winemaking is not a simple task.

The first problem is location. Most vineyards are on hillsides. This gets the vines well above the water table, so their juice is more concentrated, but it makes the vineyards harder to work. Some are too steep for anything on wheels. And they are often some way from a decent road.

The second is the nature of the work. Pruning is done by hand and grapes are often picked by hand too. Machine picking is likely to pull off MOG (not a cat but ‘matter other than grapes’) as well as the grapes themselves. Weeding is tricky. You can’t run a normal plough between the rows. Some use a special plough drawn by horses, thinking that a horse compacts the soil less than a machine on wheels.

Thirdly, the winemaker goes to all this trouble to grow grapes then, in June, goes through the vineyard cutting out and throwing away half of them. This concentrates flavour in those that remain.

Fourthly, like any fruit, the crop is never free from the risk of frost, storm, hail, and disease.

Fifthly, there’s the harvest: weeks of hectic activity when the grapes are picked, sorted, pressed, fermented in vats, then run off into casks or straight into bottles. No-one in the family, or the firm, gets much sleep during those weeks. Casks are incredibly expensive at £600 a barrel for French oak, and are often only used two or three times when making serious wines. And, talking about money, the winemaker is still a long way from being paid. Whether in barrels or bottles, wine has to be stored (except for odd examples like Beaujolais Nouveau). And all that time the winemaker is paying interest on the loan taken out years before to buy the vineyard or buy new vines.

And the end result? It’s usually accepted that you get one bottle of wine from each bush. Chateau d’Yquem, in Sauternes, is so exacting and throws out so many grapes, they only get one glass per bush. On the other hand, some industrial companies make 24 bottles per bush. No wonder the wine doesn’t taste of much.

Andrew Polmear


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