Every industrial sector produces goods that range in quality and price. Wine is no different in this regard.
When I host tours of Niagara’s wine country as a Wine Smart Guide working for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours, one of the aspects of the wine industry that I always try to convey to my guests is an appreciation for quality. Not all wines are made equal. For someone who is new to wine, it can be difficult to appreciate, or even notice, the difference between a fine wine and a mass-produced bulk wine.
This article will attempt to point out some of the basic differences between the two and describe them in layman’s terms that a consumer who is new to wine can understand.
Start with the Label
When spotting the difference between a fine wine and a mass-produced bulk wine your first indicator will be the label. A label is never going to come right out and state, “this wine is very fine,” or, “this is bulk wine,” but there are some clues to look for.
In Ontario, it can be as simple as looking for the letters ‘VQA’ on the label. VQA stands for Vintners Quality Alliance, and it is the gold standard of quality when it comes to Ontario wines. In simplest terms, it is your guarantee that 100% of the grapes that went into making that wine were grown in Ontario. By comparison, the LCBO sells wines with labels from Canadian wine producers that are made from grapes sourced outside of the country as well. These wines are known as ‘ICB’s, or ‘International-Canadian blends.’ Only 25% of the grapes that go into making these wines are grown in Ontario. But why does this matter?
When it comes to winemaking and grape growing, place matters. The place that a grapevine grows is referred to as its ‘terroir.’ The combination of climatic conditions, weather patterns, soil composition, and aspect to sunlight in any given terroir will be unique from all others. A vine’s terroir will influence the level of sugars and acids, as well as the flavours of the grapes it produces. At its best, winemaking should be an expression of terroir. A wine made from grapes harvested from a specific area will be a better expression of terroir than a wine that is made from grapes that have been sourced from a wide, unspecific area.
Ontario’s grape-growing appellations can be more generic or more specific in nature. For example, a wine labelled ‘VQA Niagara Peninsula’ indicates that the grapes that went into making that wine were sourced from the south shore of Lake Ontario somewhere between the Niagara River and the city of Hamilton. This is an area that stretches over 50 kilometres from west to east. Niagara Peninsula is also comprised of two regional appellations and ten sub-appellations, each with its own unique geographic features that influence grape-growing. If a wine label states a regional appellation (for example, ‘VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake’) it means the grapes that went into making that wine were sourced from a more specific area. In this instance, somewhere between the south shore of Lake Ontario and the base of the Niagara Escarpment, and between the Niagara River and the Welland Canal. This is an area that is only 10 kilometres across from west to east. As Niagara-on-the-Lake is a much smaller appellation than Niagara Peninsula, it possesses a more specific and less generalized terroir. When grapes are sourced from a smaller area, the wine will possess a greater expression of a unique terroir.
A bulk wine containing only 25% Ontarian grape material will not possess a VQA logo on its label. It may say, “cellared in Canada,” in small print on the back. A bulk wine from outside of Canada will usually include a generic appellation on its label. Think ‘California,’ instead of ‘Napa Valley.’
Growing for Quality
Vineyard managers have a number of techniques at their disposal which allow them to grow grapes that are meant to be produced into bulk wine or to be crafted into a limited edition fine wine.
Producing quality wine begins with selecting a vineyard site that is capable of growing high quality grapes. There are numerous geographic factors that can influence grape quality, but two of the most important are good aspect to sunlight and soil that drains well. A steep hillside will often be the best place to plant grapevines. In the northern hemisphere, a steep south-facing hillside will provide excellent aspect to the sunshine, meaning greater hours of sun exposure for the grapes on a row-per-row basis. Good drainage will ensure excess groundwater flows away from the vines. In most cases less water is preferable to more, because excess water will cause diluted flavours in the grapes.
A vineyard manager who is intending to make a fine wine may choose to conduct a ‘green harvest.’ A green harvest is when ripening grapes are intentionally removed from the vine and left on the vineyard floor. The philosophy behind this practice is that the grapes that remain on the vine will be better developed and more flavourful. By reducing yield the vineyard manager can increase quality.
The method used to harvest ripe grapes can have an impact on the quality of the wine produced as well. Machine harvesting is fast, cheap, and easy, but prevents the opportunity for the human eye to be selective about which grapes are to be made into wine. Not all grapes are grown equal: some will be infected by rot, and some will have split open and lost the integrity of their juice. Choosing to harvest a vineyard by human hand allows the workers to be more discerning about which grapes end up in the wine.
Tasting the Difference
At the end of the day the real difference between bulk wine and fine wine comes down to the tasting experience. Is there really a difference in taste? Yes, absolutely. The best way to note the differences between a bulk wine and a fine wine is to taste one of each, both made from the same grape varietal and from a similar region, back to back. This will allow you to note the differences by comparing two wines in the same environment at the same time, without any time in between your tastings to forget what the first wine you sampled was like.
A fine wine should taste complex. That is to say, it should be three-dimensional, with many different flavours, and it should seem to change with time in the glass. Flavours that you noted on your first sip will be co-experienced with new flavours after a few moments of allowing the wine to breathe. For example, you may taste blackberry, dark plum, coffee, smoke, and chocolate all at the same time.
By contrast, a bulk wine will taste one-dimensional. You may pick up on one or two flavours, but it will be lacking the depth and complexity of a fine wine. The wine will fail to change with time in the glass. Flavours are less specific and more generic. For example, the wine may taste of blackberry and dark plum. And that’s it. It is outright less interesting to taste.
Why Make Bulk Wine at all?
If there is such a difference in the quality of fine wine and bulk wine the question must be asked: why would a producer want to make bulk wine at all? And, doesn’t the consumer want every bottle of wine they consume to be nothing short of exceptional?
Not everyone who drinks wine has an interest in drinking fine wine. Consumers who are new to wine, who know little about wine, or who are on a tight budget, may prefer to choose a bulk wine. Bulk wine can be less intimidating and its labels can be easier to understand. For example, a consumer is likely to know where ‘South-East Australia’ is, but to name a more specific region like ‘Barossa Valley’ could be a turnoff because it means nothing to a base level consumer. Also, bulk wine is more likely to state the grape varietal on the label whereas fine wines from Europe are more often named after the region in which the grapes are grown. Someone who is new to wine will likely have a better idea of what the wine tastes like based on what grapes went into making it, as opposed to where the grapes were from.
In basic terms, bulk wine is cheaper to make and therefore more affordable to buy. Bulk wine can be an excellent choice if your intent is to make sangria. Why waste money on fine wine when you are going to change its character by adding fruit, soda, and brandy to it anyway? Bulk wine can also be a great choice for when you wish to use wine in cooking. No sense in pouring a $40 bottle of wine into your stew when a $10 bottle will do.
When choosing a wine from the liquor store shelf, keep in mind what your intention for that wine is. Fine wines are meant for special occasions when you will take the time to savour the product’s distinctiveness, but if you are looking for a wine to drink around the campfire, a bulk wine can get the job done.
This article is by no means an exhaustive list as to what constitutes a fine wine and a bulk wine. There are a myriad of factors that can contribute to a wine’s quality, and this piece serves to offer only a basic overview of some of those factors.
To learn more about what goes into crafting a quality wine, and to taste a number of quality wines as well, join a tour of Niagara’s wine country with Niagara Vintage Wine Tours. NVWT’s Wine Smart Guides will be excited to share their knowledge with you and aid you on your journey through the world of wine!
Michael Twyman – Sommelier and Niagara Wine Country Guide for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours and Bootleggers