What’s the difference between a good and a great wine? While the enjoyment of wine is in many ways a subjective experience, there are nevertheless firm criteria used by MWs to establish greatness in a wine. The institute of Masters of Wine is a qualification that dates back to 1955 and is universally recognised as the ‘highest achievement in the global wine community’ with currently 289 members in total. This article will discuss those criteria as a meaningful way of assessing wine.
The world of wine is a fascinating place and part of that fascination is the diversity: the multiple styles that exist, the constant changing of vintages – perhaps more important in the Old world where wine is made in a marginal climate – and the various philosophies that are espoused as part of the recipe to make great wine. In this piece I will look at whether it is possible to be objective about what is essentially a subjective experience: tasting and enjoying wine.
The tasting experience is a subjective one. We all have preferences and prejudices and we all taste differently. We all have different thresholds with some of us are more sensitive to component parts of wine than others such as tannin and acidity. How then can we really separate great wine from really good wine? Is it possible to make objective statements in analysing a wine whether it is great or merely just good? In the Master of Wine qualification the way of assessing the quality of a wine is based on four factors that when combine, determine a wine’s quality. These are balance, length, concentration and complexity.
Balance this is perhaps hardest to quantify and difficult to explain without actually tasting a wine. Essentially though, the structure of the wine, that is to say the acids, alcohol, tannin and fruit of the wine, should have no rough edges – it should be seamless in its composition. When you taste the wine, the overriding feeling that you should be with is one of harmony with no alcohol, acid, oak or any other part of the wine ‘sticking out’. A truly balanced wine is effortless. Balance is an important indicator in determining whether a wine can age; a wine that is balanced to start with will always be balanced over time, but if a wine is not balanced to start with it never becomes balanced over time. In my early days in the wine trade this is what I was taught and I stand by it now having tasted thousands of wines.
Length is simply how long the flavour lasts when you taste it. In a simple wine it is over in an instant, in a great wine it is said to be “long” if the flavour lingers on the palate and stays there for a period of time rather than just being simple and one dimensional. Length is strictly speaking a measurement of time in how long the flavour lasts to the taster, but it often overlaps with complexity; complex wines are often long, whereas simple wines are never are. If you compare a simple pinot grigio with that of a grand cru white Burgundy, length should be one of the key differences between the two.
Concentrated wines have a significant depth of flavour. Concentration is often an indication of the ripeness of the grapes, wines from great vintages are often extremely concentrated, but this should be seen as an overall part of the wine rather than a stated aim. One of the reasons this occurs is that grapes from old vines give less juice, but the juice is more concentrated than that from a young vine. Concentration is an important part of a wines ability to age, as if it is too dilute then it simply falls apart over time whereas wines from ripe grapes have enough stuffing to last for long periods of time and also demonstrate their layers and nuances from year to year.
Invariably great wines have the capacity to age, in fact one could argue this should be another criteria in determining the great from the good. That said, the question of how long to keep the wine for and when best to drink it is a very subjective choice. Young wines can be enjoyed for their upfront fruit, brightness and immediacy of flavour and freshness. Old wines are a completely different experience, tasting and smelling completely different; tertiary aromas such as mushrooms , cigar box, cedar, and leather that appear emphasise more subtle intricacy and delicacy than size, volume and immediacy. These can often be lost to the untuned palate, and more often than not the flavour profile is one that takes time to get used to and even enjoy.
To quote one of the doyens of Napa Valley winemakers Andre Tchelistcheff “tasting old wine is like making love to an old lady; it is possible, it can even be enjoyable, but it requires a little bit of imagination.” Thus the question of when shall I drink X or Y really depends on the individual and how you like them. The best advice I was ever given is to buy a case of something you like when you taste it young, and drink a bottle a year. When it is perfect for you then you know you can enjoy the rest, otherwise wait! It is better to enjoy a wine on the way up then past its best.
The methodology I have just suggested then is hopefully a tool to help us decide the great from the good. When Masters of Wine describe a wine as great they will be judging it on the criteria of concentration, complexity, length and balance. As you become more experienced with tasting wine you will be able to identify these traits and be able to judge a wine more competently. You will know that you are some way to judge objectively when you can appreciate a wines innate quality even whilst not liking the said grape variety or the style. Who said wine tasting was easy?
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