How to tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine

It can take a fair bit of practice to tell a cheap wine from a more expensive one but once you get the hang of it, you’ll understand why it’s definitely worth paying a little bit more for what’s in your glass.

To help you tell the difference, dynamic drinks duo Aidy Smith and Helena Nicklin share us their tips with us here. Find out what makes a wine expensive, the three things to look for when choosing a good wine, and the ‘golden’ price point for one. Oh and they also answer the question: “Do cheaper wines give you worse hangovers?”

What makes a wine expensive?

While there is certainly a lot of cheap plonk out there that tastes more expensive than it is, the difference between a five pound and a fifty pound wine is not just marketing. 

According to the pricing experts at How Much Does It Cost, the price of wine can be significantly influenced by the winemaking process. Certain techniques, such as hand harvesting, meticulous sorting of grapes, gentle pressing, and careful barrel aging, require more labor, time, and resources. As such, pricier vino will have a more hand-made approach with every stage of production, from what happens in the vineyard to bottling.

Each stage takes time and therefore, money. This could mean using proper oak barrels instead of cheap oak chips for example, or crafting each grape type into wine separately instead of sticking them altogether in a tank. Each decision has an implication on quality and cost, but also, how we experience the wine in our glass. So, how do we taste the difference?

Tasting the difference: cheap versus expensive wine

There are three key things to look for in your quality vino: balance, complexity and finish.

1) Balance

In expensive, ‘better’ bottles, no single element sticks out, such as screeching tartness, an alcohol ‘burn’ in the throat or too much sugar. The fruit flavours, the alcohol, the texture (tannin) and the acidity (tartness) should be as harmonious and as balanced as possible. 

Cheaper tipples, meanwhile, often have one or more of these elements out of whack, leaving you with a bitter taste in your mouth or a sense that the wine is less refreshing than it could be. 

2) Complexity

The second thing to look for in pricier wine is complexity, i.e. lots of different, subtle flavours with every sip. More expensive, higher quality vino tends to offer more levels of flavour.

A top-end Cabernet Sauvignon for example, might offer complex flavours of blackcurrant, cedar wood, spice, tobacco, earth and mint leaf, whereas a cheaper version may be more one-dimensional, like Ribena with alcohol; all sugar and synthetic blackcurrant with a simple alcohol hit. 

3) Finish

And the last thing to pay attention to in a decent drop is what’s known as the ‘finish’, which means what you can taste after swallowing the wine and how long that flavour stays with you. 

A well-made, more expensive vino will have attractive flavours that linger in your mouth for a long time – in a good way! With simpler, cheaper pours, the flavour tends to fall short and disappear immediately, possibly leaving a strange or bitter taste. The ‘length’, we’d say here, is very short. 

Do cheaper wines cause worse hangovers?

A lot has been said about the fact that more expensive wine will give you less of a hangover and there is definitely a lot of truth in that, though every producer is different. More expensive wines means more care has been taken, which usually goes hand in hand with less intervention and additions, so the wines are more naturally made.

A less natural product will most likely make you feel a bit worse. At the end of the day though, we all have different tolerances to things and alcohol is alcohol, so if you drink too much of that, you will feel it regardless! 

Paying a little more attention to what you’re drinking will help you start to spot the difference between key grape styles and quality levels – and when you know a little more about what’s in your glass, your enjoyment of all wines will increase dramatically!

Decided it’s time to cut down on your wine consumption? Here are four ways to drink less without feeling like you’re missing out.

How much do you need to pay for a good wine?

The golden price level for wine to start getting seriously good is around £8 and goes all the way up, so why not pick a grape type like Cabernet or Malbec and do your own tasting challenge, with a cheaper bottle and a more expensive one? You can call it ‘education’. We won’t disagree…

For more drinks features and recommendations, go to or follow Aidy and Helena on @TheThreeDrinkers @HelenaSips and @Sypped.

Photo by Kelsey Chance