There was a time in my life when I didn’t care what kind of wine I drank. I didn’t care about anything I drank, really. Beer, spirits, baby oil … It was all the same to me. Just something to do with friends. Like Twister or raising concerns about Clint Eastwood’s politics.
But as I got older, I realised I needed to make some changes and drink better wine. As I discovered, the hard, nasty reality of this decision turned out to be that drinking better wine generally meant spending more money. I could still have a good time on cheap wine – but finding that great bargain required dragging myself around town and choking down a lot of goon juice to find that one $10 bottle that tastes like it costs $30.
But what is the difference between cheap and expensive wine? Does it just come down to subjective taste?
To find out, I bought an $11 shiraz from South Australia, near the Barossa Valley. It appeared to be produced by an independent winery and the small shop owner assured me that it wouldn’t taste like any old sack of trash sap.
I also spent $105 on a shiraz from inside the Barossa Valley produced by one of the biggest winemakers in Australia. Not corporate necessarily, but widely available.
Next I sat down for a blind taste test.
It actually took me a few sips of each, going back and forth, to finally figure it out.
What does this prove? For me, absolutely nothing. Because I drank both my wines with a steak dinner and the expensive one was the clear winner.
There is certainly some evidence for the psychosomatic nature of drinking wine - our tastes can be informed by knowing where something is from and how much it cost. But only some kind of lobotomy would have made me think there was no difference between the two.
The Barossa Shiraz was probably the best wine I’ve ever had.
Every sip was an adventure. It had all that complexity, intensity and balance an expensive wine is supposed to have. It was fruity without being too sweet. It was incredibly easy to drink. It was dark. It was rich. It smelled amazing. Peppery? You better believe it. And so so smooth, with some kind of berry finish. And it tasted great with or without food.
"It actually took me a few sips of each, going back and forth, to finally figure it out. But a lot of people can’t. Wine experts and wine dummies alike have been fooled by blind taste tests."
I would brush my teeth with the stuff every day if it were acceptable. I want it in my mouth all the time, just let it set up camp and live in there. I don’t want to taste anything else for the rest of my days. This wine was haunting me, calling out to me in the night. I saved a glass for the next day and it was all I could think about. I felt lucky to have known this wine. I want the Democrats to run this wine in the 2020 Presidential race.
And that’s not to say that the cheap wine was bad. It wasn’t. In fact, the first few sips were great. There were some strong flavours coming through and it was very enjoyable. And I think I smelled salami in there, which was a weird surprise.
But then it showed itself. It was dancing with me at the beginning like it knew all the moves. But then it got sloppy and started missing its cues, stumbling all over the place to the point where I was just holding it up all night. By the end, I was tired and I wanted to call it a taxi.
Complexity, intensity and balance? The hooch didn’t have any. It flamed out really early, crawling over the finish line.
By contrast, the expensive wine maintained its level of quality – and it even got better as the night went on. It had the steady hands of a surgeon, saving my life and showing me how to love again. I will forever be in its debt.
Is this bottle worth over $100? I think so. It was a pretty special experience that lasted two days and stayed with me. For the same amount of money, I could take the family to see The Nutcracker movie, which would only bring us all weeks of hate and sorrow.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s completely up to you. Maybe you would have thought the $11 was good enough. You would have been wrong. Disastrously wrong.
But that’s the cost of freedom.
For unnerving updates about the author’s wine habit, follow him on Twitter.
The Wine Show is 8.30pm Thursdays on SBS Food (Channel 33). After they air, episodes will stream at SBS On Demand.