What Makes a Great Wine?
My Wine Philosophy

Great wine is something elusive, yet perfectly natural and theoretically easy to produce. What is it that makes one wine mediocre and another amazing? How is it that two wines made from the same grape varietal, with similar techniques, can result in such different wines?

Great wine is also very subjective. No two people will agree every time on which wines are great and which are not. There will always be disagreements depending on individual perspectives and preferences.

In an effort to answer these questions and clarify my own perspective and wine philosophy, I would like to explain what great wine means to me, and what I look for in a wine, whether it is an inexpensive wine for drinking with take-out pizza or a special wine to age and then savor slowly on a special evening. Other reviewers may look for different things or have different tastes which is why wine consumers should know where the reviews they read are coming from, to get a better perspective and to know if they are likely to agree with a given critic or not.

The Art of Wine: A Living Expression of Nature

To me, wine is not just a beverage. Wine, at its best, is capable of so much more. Wine can act like a form of art, creating a sensory experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It can even be an emotional experience, practically bringing an experience wine drinker to tears. However, whereas other forms of art, music, painting, sculpture, are produced by a person, the art that is wine is a pure expression of nature, Mother Nature expressing herself through the manipulations of a winemaker. For me, the best wines are those that most purely and transparently express the natural personality of its origins. Therefore, the job of the winemaker is to harness this natural expression and to get it into bottle without interfering too much. If a winemaker manipulates the wine too much, too much oak, too much extraction, it gets in the way of the natural voice of the wine.

In other words, for me, a great wine is a living thing. It is a natural thing. It is an expression of nature. This is true of any style of wine. Some simple inexpensive wines fit this bill. They may be simple in flavors, without as much depth and complexity as a great wine, but if they are natural and alive then they have something to offer. There is a place and use for these wines. Likewise, great, complex and long-lived wines have their place as well. I cherish all these types of wines, they all have their place. On a hot summer afternoon, I love a nicely chilled simple Prosseco or Rosé. A big, deep, complex wine wouldn't be nearly as satisfying. However, that big, rich wine might be the perfect match to a grilled leg of lamb or even just to sit and contemplate while sitting by the fire. Therefore, when someone asks me what is my favorite wine I ask "Favorite for what?" Each great wine has its purpose and place.

This is one of the reasons I don't agree with using a 100-point scale to rate wines. It implies that there is an absolute scale on which wine can be judged. Nothing could be further from the truth for me. Is that simple, refreshing wine any less important than the big, complex one? In different settings both can be the perfect wine. As long as they are naturally made, pure expressions, both types of wine are worthy and are great wine. Let me tell you, when I was sitting by the old port in Cassis in Provence, France on my honeymoon, enjoying a big bucket of Moules et Frites (mussels and fries), that bottle of Cassis blanc was the perfect wine for that setting. That wine tasted better than any other wine in my life, washing down those savory shellfish and fries. Would a bottle of Chateau Petrus been better? No way. In another setting, the Petrus may blow away the humble Cassis blanc, but in that moment there was nothing better than the Cassis.

There seems to be a trend in the world of wine toward wines which are bigger, richer, and more forward and fruity. While there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, when wines are manipulated to reach this level, they loose something. Some wines are naturally big and powerful. I love Bandol, which is definitely a big, rich, muscular wine. But I also love German Kabinett's which are light, ethereal and silky. When a winemaker tries to manipulate a wine too much to make it a certain style, they obliterate the natural expression the wine could have been. The wine then speaks more of the technique than of nature. Whether it is using too much oak, pushing extraction of color and concentration, reverse osmosis or other techniques, these wines never quite do it for me. I like transparency and balance in a wine more than anything. A wine which is too big, too jammy sweet and too "over the top" isn't something that is pleasant to sit and drink, whether with food or alone. For this reason, I have moved away from many of the "top" California and Australian wines. Even many Bordeaux are made in this style. This is not to say that I don't like any California, Australian or Bordeaux wines, I am just much more selective with them. I don't like any wine, from any region, which is too modern and flashy in its style. I prefer more classically built, pure wines, which have a unique personality and life to them. Wines that are no homogenized and manipulated. It just keeps life much more interesting and beautiful doesn't it?

So what is the difference between a good wine and a truly great wine? For me, a truly great wine of the highest caliber has to have a few things, depth and complexity, balance, a long finish and finesse. The hardest to define of these is finesse. Great wine is often described as elegant, noble, or having finesse or breed. What do these descriptors mean? I remember being a young wine taster and trying to figure out what people meant by a wine being elegant. In essence, what is being described is the wine's mouthfeel, or the texture and physical sensation of the wine in your mouth. A truly great wine has a complete, seamless mouthfeel which can be described as silky, velvety or some other similar descriptor. While winemaking techniques can play into this, only the best vineyard sites can produce grapes with the most finesse. These wines have no hard edges, nothing out of place. They have been described as a perfect sphere, flawless and indestructible.

Terroir

What distinguishes a good wine from a great wine? Well just above I explained that complexity, balance, finish and finesse are a handful of things a great wine must have. But where does this come from? What determines which wines will have these things? Well if you are a modernist type wine maker you'd say that the wine maker him or herself can craft and shape the wine to be great. However, as I've pointed out before, for me, the greatest wines are those that are almost entirely crafted by nature, with the wine maker acting only as an enabler, allowing the terroir to express itself. So the answer to the question is, only great terroir can make a great wine. So what is terroir?

Terroir is originally a French word used to define the unique characteristics of a place which can affect the grapes that are grown there. In other words, very loosely translated as "a sense of place", terroir is the micro geography of a wine growing site. But it is more than that. It can encompass everything that influences the grape vines that grown in a given location, from the soil type, stones, bedrock, microflora and fauna, the exposition and grade of the slope, and the microclimate. Everything that impacts the vines growing there throughout the season contributes to a wine's terroir.

When a wine is made naturally, with minimal interventions, it is best able to express its terroir, giving the wine a personality that is dictated by the characteristics of that terroir. Not all vineyards are created equal however. Some are better suited to growing grapes than others or have more pronounced and distinctive personalities. Therefore, various vineyards, particularly in Europe have been graded and rated in various ways to indicate how great the terroir is. For example, in Burgundy, the very greatest vineyards, which consistently have the potential to make the best wines with finesse, complexity and depth, are called Grand Cru vineyards. Vineyards that are very good but not quite at that level are Premier Cru. So grape growers, wine makers and wine collectors have recognized the uniqueness and nobility of some particular terroirs over others.

There is great debate about how important terroir really is in producing great wine. In my opinion it is very important. Yes, a wine maker can manipulate a wine to taste better, but they cannot give it that life, that personality and shimmering vibrancy that a great terroir can. The wine will be homogenized and more a product than an expression of nature.

Also, some people think that a wine expressing terroir necessarily means that the wine tastes of the earth and rocks of that vineyard. While it is true that many wines can have a strong mineral or earthy component and other flavors that come from things in that microclimate, each terroir is different. While one may be earthy, another may lead to very fruity and bright wines. To me, a wine is expressing its terroir if it is alive and full of personality, whatever that personality is. It doesn't have to imply that the wine tastes like dirt. On the other hand, the term gout de terroir, roughly "the taste of the place", more literally refers to a taste of earth and stones that one picks up in a wine.

Great Wine Values

So you may be thinking that I sound like I am a hard man to impress when it comes to wine. How on earth can a wine fulfill all these requirements to be a great wine and still be affordable? Well, wine is just like any other commodity, its prices are determined largely by supply and demand. If a particular wine producer or region is very popular in the world wine trade at a given time then the demand is higher and prices will be higher. Likewise, if a wine is limited in supply, then the wine is harder to find and the prices go up. Therefore, the trick to finding great wine values is to find wines that don't have as great a demand and/or a larger supply. Doesn't that mean that the wine isn't good if there is no demand, you ask? Not necessarily! The wine world, like anything else, goes through phases. A hundred years ago or so, prices for top Savennières from the Loire Valley sold in Paris for as much or more than grand cru white Burgundy and Chateau d'Yquem (one of the most famous dessert wines in the world). Nowadays, most Savennières cost as much as 10-fold less than their Burgundy equals. Why? Has the quality of Savs dropped? No, in fact many of them are still arguably amongst the best dry white wines in the world. We just happen to be going through a phase where there is less attention on Loire Valley wines and more on Burgundy. I can't afford to drink white Burgundy very often now, while Savennières is a regular favorite.

Therefore, finding great wine values today is not that hard, you just have to be prepared to think outside the box, to explore regions, producers and even countries you may know nothing about. If you've never heard of Bonarda from the Oltrepo Pavese in Italy, then it is likely that others haven't either, and therefore the demand is relatively low and the wines are inexpensive. Does this mean they are not great wines? No. I think you are getting the picture.

In my newsletter, The Poor Man's Guide to Fine Wine, I try to bring a spotlight to these value wines. I review and discuss wines that may not be as famous as Burgundian or Bordeaux wines, but which can bring great pleasure for much less money. Does this mean I don't think expensive wines are worth it? No, there are many expensive wines that are absolutely stunning. But they have their time and place. They are great for special occasions. But for everyday drinking, I don't want plonk. I don't drink wine for wine's sake, I drink it because I love good, natural, pure wines. And these great, natural wines can be found for under $20!



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