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What Makes a Wine Great? Maybe Not What You Think!

What makes a wine great?

I don't mean great as in "pretty tasty, I like it, it's got a nice beat and I can dance to it" great.

I mean eye-popping, life-changing, "the heavens opened ancient mythology style" great.

That's a tough question, even for those of us in the wine biz, because so few of us have actually tasted a truly great wine.

I'm going to give you my view of what makes a wine great - and it's probably not what you'd think.

But before I do that, I need to set the record straight about how I think greatness is judged in the first place...

Winemaking is more art than science. If you disagree with me on this one, then I invite you to read my previous post on the subject.

If you still disagree with me, then you might want to skip the rest of this article entirely, because the rest of this post will be drawing parallels between winemaking and art. For those of you who couldn't stand art class, I apologize in advance!

Personal preference doesn't matter. I don't like pilsner beer. Does that mean that all pilsners are no good, or that they can never achieve greatness? I love the works of Picasso. Does that mean all of Picasso's art is great? When you stop to think about it, it's obvious that greatness has nothing to do with any one individual's personal preferences (not matter how highly that individual might regard his/her own opinion...).

The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt seem watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates.

Collective preference does matter. The collective consciousness of a given society and its era in time does matter when it comes to greatness. This is borne out time and time again in art history - and in the annals of wine history as well. If you flip through the pages of Ancient Wine, or the superb Story of Wine, you will learn that the wine of the ancient Greeks and Romans likely would be too cloyingly sweet for our tastes today. The light red wines of Medieval times would no doubt have seemed watery and insipid to our Parker-ized palates. Times make the society; and societies make the collective decision on greatness.

Material matters - but not that much. Is a Picasso painting "greater" than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different? Probably not. In wine, while some grapes (such as Concord) may never make truly great wine, it's pure folly to discount any one of the "noble" grape varieties when it comes to greatness - all of them are capable of making a great wine. Unless you mixed them altogether. That would probably suck.
Is a Picasso painting "greater" than a Picasso sculpture, just because the medium is different?

Nature matters - and so does nurture. Old World winemakers will tell you that terroir - the nature and place from whence a grape came - is the determinant of whether or not the resulting wine can be great; the winemaker's job is to interfere as little as possible with the natural process. New World winemakers will tell you that it is trough savvy vineyard practices and the use of modern technology in the wine cellar that greatness is achieved. They're both right - start with a great pedigree, and finish with great care, and a wine may just achieve greatness.

So how can we measure a wine's "greatness?"

In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil offers 5 criteria that can be used to determine if a wine is great. Her take is as good as any other, so I'll share a synopsis of it here:
  1. Distinct varietal character - a wine exemplifies the true characteristics of its grape(s)
  2. Integration - the wine's components (alcohol, acidity, fruit, etc.) are harmonious
  3. Expressiveness - the aromas & flavors are clear & focused
  4. Complexity - like an artwork, the wine keeps you coming back, discovering more nuances each time
  5. Connectedness - the wine embodies qualities that link it to the specific place where it was made.
Not a bad list at all. I think it's missing an important element, however. To me, the most important.

So I'd like to add something to Karen's fantastic list: Great wine is like great art, or a peaceful meditation, or even a great life lived to its potential with humility and true grace.

Great wine is a Mystery.

By mystery, I don't mean a problem to be rectified, a secret to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved. I mean a Mystery like the seat of human consciousness in the brain, the origin of life, the feeling of love, and the nature of pure being.

Great wine is a true Mystery, because it is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that synthesizes our mental, physical, and spiritual selves; connecting us to ourselves, to each other, and to a place and time, and to the earth. The greater the wine, the less likely it is that any words will be capable of adequately describing the experience.

Great wine is a tiny miracle of the universe that cannot ever be fully explained.

Now, before you all start sending me lava lamps, crystals, or patchouli, remember the words of Albert Einstein - "There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle."

Which one would you pick?


(images: winefront.com.au, clevelandart.org, restaurantlacaravella.com, macedonian-heritage.gr)


Taster B said...

I pick everything! Great post Wine Dude. Very insightful.


Anonymous said...

I am a subscriber to the MacNeil school of thought.

However, she would probably argue (and I certainly do) that Collective preference does not amount to quality but only collective preference. That is affected by both the filter of the mode de temps and (the sometimes selective) utilization of available science.

Not to sound jaded, but flying metal tubes, television and electricity are miraculous to those who don't know or understand the science behind them. Living life as if nothing is a miracle is not exclusive to living it with joy.

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks for the comments!

redwinebuzz - I don't mean to suggest that living one way or another precludes joy. Alfred may have had something different in mind (those pesky physicists!)...

I suppose the Buddhists out there would simply state that living as if nothing is a miracle is living without fully realizing the mystery of life.

I would count myself among those who believe in science, but don't think that it can ever explain everything. Which is also not meant to preclude a scientific-only explanation for the universe. Or not.

OK, my head hurts now...

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