Features & guest posts | What makes a great wine?

Features & guest posts

What makes a great wine?

You don’t often get the chance to have a philosophical discussion about what makes a wine great with a winemaker that actually makes one. Let alone one who thinks more like a philosopher than a marketing man.

But my fascinating conversation last week with Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Chateau Certan (about which more to follow) caused me to collect my thoughts and try to define what it is that makes a wine really exceptional.

I should say, first of all, I’m not the sort of writer who regualarly tastes what are widely regarded as the best wines in the world. I’m not part of that wine-tasting circuit and I can’t afford them. And sometimes I’m disappointed when I do, but there are wines that have immensely moved me and restored my faith - sorely challenged at times - in the wine world.

First of all, perhaps what doesn’t count - or at least not in my book. Parker points - or other stellar scores - are not important though they may well be given to the type of wines I’m talking about. Nor do high prices though longevity inevitably carries a higher than average price tag. And although small is often beautiful it doesn’t necessarily disqualify a large company from making a great wine - Grange being a case in point.

Here’s what I think a great wine needs:

1. It must have the capacity to age. How long? I wouldn’t want to put a precise figure on it - it depends on the type of wine - but 7 or 8 years at least.

2. It must be complex and multi-layered. You should be able to find different flavours in every sip as the wine opens up in the glass and yet more in the evanescent trail it leaves as you swallow.

3. It should be balanced and harmonious. There shouldn’t be a jarring note - as there may be if you drink a great wine too young. Then it’s merely ‘potentially great’. Even if it’s old and fading it should retain a taste of its prime.

4. It should be true to the place it was made. The French talk about terroir meaning a particular configuration of soil, vineyard orientation and climate but I think it’s more than that. It’s about the vision and skill of the winemaker who first created it and those who carry on that tradition. I don’t believe wine is just made in the vineyard - and that’s particularly true of blends.

5. It should accurately reflect the vintage. That doesn’t mean it should be poor in the difficult years but that it should be different. The winemaker should be rigorous about selecting his/her fruit and willing not to make his best wine in a disappointing year. (Again, that generally needs deep pockets)

6. In fact the winemaker should generally be obsessive about detail and quality. At Le Pin, for example, the winery was specifically designed not to have any impact on the water table of the surrounding vineyards.

7. It should have a track record. You can’t make a great wine in one go - and besides (cf point 1) you need several years to discover if it is great.

8. It should be able to be drunk on its own with great pleasure. Sure, food may complement a great wine but it shouldn’t need it to be complete.

9. It should be memorable and not just because of the occasion or the company in which you drank it but you should retain an sharp sense of its taste and yearn to try it again.

10. It should have soul. It should sing. It should move you. Chateau Musar, for example, has soul though many would say it has defects that disqualify it from being great. I disagree. I think great wine is all about personality.

So, what do you think? Are there other qualities I’ve left out? What makes a wine qualify as great for you?

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Comments: 4 (Add)

Fiona Beckett on November 28 2012 at 08:51

Thanks, all. Interesting points, especially the need for consensus. Not sure about Vinho Verde but Muscadet certainly can age. Not sure it would qualify on other grounds tho. I must think about that too . . .

Winebabel on November 28 2012 at 00:02

A great piece on truly understanding why is is loved so much by so many. Totally agree with point 4 which is a great explanation of the nature of wine in to the visionary people who develop it. Though on point 5 I believe a wine maker should always strive for the best. Enjoyed this very much and thanks.

Steve @delongwine on November 27 2012 at 11:00

Excellent post - the only thing I would add is some sort of consensus. It's hard to be considered a great wine if only one person thinks so. This can be a hard one to gauge as head bobbling nods of agreement sometimes follow just one alpha taster.

Also, is the ability to age still a requirement? Wouldn't that rule out wines like Muscadet and Vinho Verde? Wait, I've had great old Muscadet. . . need to think about this one.

Tyrone : @winesonlyadrink on November 27 2012 at 10:28

Great post & really agree about personality but for me a wine's either great or not. All other rationalities are off, a la arts. I'm a peasant though, so a big gap between pleasure (higher) and price (lower) still works pretty well :-)

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