Certainly, a lot of time and money goes into the wine business. Ostensibly the reason is to make great wine. So just what is it that makes a wine great?
The first thing that needs to be understood is the purpose of wine. Wine is a drink made to bring its consumer pleasure. If a wine brings a consumer pleasure then it has done its job. If a wine brings a consumer great pleasure, much more than most of the wines that consumer has tried, then it is a great wine. To that consumer.
It may or may not elicit the same reaction from the next consumer, and that is okay. The first thing to understand about wine is to understand what you like. That is a subjective decision that you and you alone can determine.While there can be no denying the subjectivity about what an individual likes, we disagree with the concept of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, as the old phrase goes. Why? It is a conversation killer. It implies an omnipotent relativism that trumps any further discussion with “It is just what I like”. People who write wine blogs and who read wine blogs want the conversation about wine to be continued, not killed. Advinetures would like to continue that conversation by delving into the less subjective notion of quality in wine. The notion of quality in wine goes beyond subjectivity, beyond the likes and dislikes of the individual. We want to explore here what it is that makes up the inherent quality in great wine. We want to look beyond our own individual preferences to a more objective standard of quality in wine.
The first thing that we have learned about quality in wine is it invariably results from quality grapes. Techniques can be applied in the cellar to mitigate certain flaws in the vineyard. But those efforts, which essentially are remedial, go only so far. To make truly great wine you need great grapes. The primary goal in the vineyard is to get the grapes ripe. We often use the term “grow” when talking about grapes but increasing the size of the grape is not the objective, ripening the grape is the actual objective. Great wine cannot be made from under-ripe grapes. The same is true in all of gastronomy: serving under ripe fruit or vegetables will never make a truly pleasing dish. There are other important objectives in the vineyard: keep it healthy so it will continue to produce, stop disease, etc. But these are secondary objectives, contributors to the main goal of getting the grapes ripe.
Ripeness in wine grapes is measured primarily by three things. The first is brix. Brix is a measurement of the amount of sugar in the grape’s juice. That sugar will react with yeast to create the reaction called fermentation which converts those sugars into alcohol and CO2. The second indication of ripeness is the decline in acidity levels (measured as a rising pH factor). As grapes ripen, brix, or natural sugar levels rise while acidity falls. In addition to achieving a desired sugar level, the wine grower will also want to achieve a desired acidity level. The third indicator of ripeness will be determined by the level of phenolics the grapes have achieved. Phenolics are the various compounds in grapes that contribute to the grapes colour, flavour and aroma. Among these phenolics are tannins, which are necessary to give structure to the wine and anthocyanins which give the wine colour. Years ago brix was heavily relied upon in determining ripeness. Today most quality wine growers speak of physiological ripeness which is a more holistic view of ripeness that considers brix, acidity, tannin and anthocyanin among other compounds. While grapes can be brought into a lab and examined with sophisticated equipment, quality winemakers will taste grapes in the vineyard to determine when grapes have fully ripened. Tasted ripeness trumps measured ripeness.
The grapes are harvested once they have fully ripened. Fully ripened will be determined in part by the style of wine to be made. Grapes for sparkling wine will be picked earlier and at generally higher levels of acidity and less ripeness than for still wine. Dessert wines will seek much sweeter grapes than table wines. Also, that interplay between fruit, tannin, acid and other compounds will be impacted by the winemaker’s personal style. But in all cases, winemakers will wait to pick at the point the grapes have fully ripened, to them, given the style of wine they wish to make.
Why have we focused so much on getting grapes fully ripe as opposed to avoiding over-ripeness? Because fully ripening grapes in many parts of the world is not easy! Over-ripeness is just as much of a flaw as under-ripeness but is much less of a problem. The great terroirs of the world are marginal grape growing areas where the grapes must struggle to get fully ripe. Not every vintage allows for that full development before the growing season ends. Vineyard managers have to work hard in the vineyard most vintages, pruning leaves, dropping fruit and other activities to ensure enough sunlight gets on the grapes to fully ripen them.
Once you have achieved the base of fully ripened grapes, quality wines will exhibit balance. Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch, co-founders of the now defunct In Pursuit of Balance movement defined balance in wine as “Balance is the foundation of all fine wine. Loosely speaking, a wine is in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.” A balanced wine then is one where no single component stands out significantly above the rest. As Goldilocks would say, the one that is just right.
Complexity is another factor that occurs in quality wines. Complexity is the existence of a number of different flavours and aromas. Complex wines don’t just taste grapey, they will have a multitude of different flavour and aroma aspects to them. There may be a dominant flavour, usually fruit (cherry, plum, currant, apple, pear, etc.) and additional secondary notes of spice, mineral, savoury, flowers or herbs add complexity to the wine.
Intensity is another factor present in quality wines. In all things gastronomic, intensity of flavour is a desired trait. No one wants a dish or a drink that lacks flavour or is insipid. Intensity of flavour gives a wine presence and makes its good qualities more noticeable.
A quality wine must not only please the senses, it must also challenge the intellect. A quality wine asks you to think about what you are tasting as it evolves in the glass and changes over time. It is a quality wine when you want to think about it, want to talk about it, want to read about it.
For us the essentials of quality in wine begin with fully ripened fruit that have been made into wines that demonstrate balance, complexity and intensity, and also challenge the intellect. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust goes beyond that and teaches the acronym “BLICE” for evaluating quality in wine. BLICE stands for Balance, Length, Intensity, Complexity, Expression. In their courses they teach their students to evaluate wines based upon these five factors. They add in length, the degree to which the wines flavours persist after the wine has left your mouth and expression, the degree to which the wine reflects the typicity of the grape variety. We agree that length and expression are components of quality in wine but we feel they hold a lesser role than balance, complexity, intensity and intellectual challenge.
Jancis Robinson and other wine writers have included the ability to further develop over time as an essential of quality in wine. We do not include longevity among our criteria, though we certainly consider it when buying wine. We do not include it because not every wine is meant to age. Viognier, due to its lower acid profile rewards more immediate consumption, yet few would doubt that Condrieu makes wines of great quality. Many Rosé wines do not improve with age. Wines that have already been aged in your cellar and are now at peak can still be great-quality wines even though they will no longer improve.
In setting out these more objective criteria for determining quality in wine, we do not want to take away from what we said at the beginning of this article: that wine is there to bring pleasure and that no one can tell you what you like. Sometimes we quite enjoy a simple wine in a fun setting while talking with other people. These are “cocktail” wines to us, not terribly complex or interesting, not something we might seek out to purchase again, but fine in that setting. These are wines that we just like. (See how that tends to kill the conversation?) They do not stimulate our intellect. When we provide our tasting notes in our articles, when we are reviewing wines, we are not simply praising wines we like in the moment or that happen to appeal to our individual tastes. When we provide these reviews we are attempting to discern quality in the wine in our glass. We are assessing the balance, the complexity and the intensity along with the personal pleasure we are deriving from drinking it as well as the wine’s ability to provoke further thought.
This brings up the issue that affects most forms of appreciation, be it art, music, food, wine or any other art form. Appreciation of an art form can appear in three different ways, subjective, popular and objective. Subjective is what an individual happens to like. An individual may like the wine his grandfather made in the basement because that is what he grew up on. There can be no question that you like it if that is what you say, but that does not necessarily make it great wine. Meomi became a wildly popular Pinot Noir from California’s Central Coast. Sold at a fair price point with a soft, round and textured mouthfeel, it appealed to all sorts of palates and has been a resounding commercial success. Though popular, few would say it was one of the world’s great wines. In the auto world, the same thing could be said about the Toyota Camry. Popular no doubt, but not the finest example of automotive engineering. The 1982 Château Haut-Brion, would objectively be said to be a great wine. That is not just our opinion. It is made in too small of a quantity and is far too expensive to be popular. But informed persons who have made a lifetime of tasting wines have similarly concluded that 1982 Haut-Brion is a profoundly great wine. Regardless of our own personal opinion, we have to acknowledge a body of experts who uniformly acknowledge the wines greatness. This is the same as experts in the art world converge upon the greatness of the works of Da Vinci or Michealangelo or music critics who acknowledge the extraordinary talent in the works of Mozart, the Beatles, or John Coltrane.
Drinking wines that meet these quality criteria bring much more pleasure to us than more simple wines that we merely find pleasant. These quality wines are exactly the sorts of wines we seek out for articles to present to our readers. We are constantly on the look-out for wines that meet these quality levels. When we discover a new winery that we think will produce wines that meet this quality criteria, we reach out to them and request an appointment to meet the winemaker and taste with them. Not all of our explorations meet with the same degree of success. If our evaluation of the wines does not meet that quality criteria, we don’t write them up. We don’t want to waste your time or ours writing an article about a group of wines that are merely “okay”. They don’t merit your attention and they don’t merit ours either. We would rather keep searching until we find another winery we can tell our readers about that is worthy of their time and ours.
In order to seek out quality wines for our readers, we first have to be able to define what makes a quality wine, in an objective sense. For us that is a wine that exhibits ripeness, balance, complexity, intensity and appeals to the intellect. While controversial, we are prepared to go out on a limb and state that objective quality does exist in wine, that beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. All of the artisanal winemakers we have met with know this to be true. It is why they ply their craft with such passion. Quality in wine may be easier to detect than it is to define, but it does exist, and though it is not interpreted uniformly, it is what drives the winemaking community to make the best wines they can.
Quality exists in the objects of our appreciation, not just in the eyes of the beholder.