What Factors Make a Wine Great? What a question, no?
Let's face it, most of us, if given the choice, will drink only the best wines out there. Which in some cases may be the most expensive. Of course some of us, me included, could only drink what we can afford, yet as you may see, there are great wines that don't cost you an arm and a leg. Now, price not always equals greatness, price depends not so much on the actual cost of producing a wine but on marketing, since a winemaker may decide to sell his/her wine at a specific price point, usually matching what competitors are offering.
Oftentimes, we find two wines in the same appellation and of good quality that cost so differently. Sometimes, it’s an issue of huge demand that drives the prices up, like in the case of some of the greatest wines from Burgundy, these are produced in very limited quantities and such a huge demand pushes the prices up. The cost of barrels will also push prices up, barrels are very expensive, so producers only age their best wines in them, (hint if the wine is aged in oak, it may mean it is good). A Winemaker’s or brand’s reputation can also push the prices up, a great review from the Wine Press will push prices up and cause the sell out of a particular brand or the other way around; a bad review can make selling a brand very hard.
I have seen way too many producers “parkerized” their wines, meaning they make wines to the appeal of very famous wine critics (like Robert Parker) and add to that an expensive ticket price. It will usually be a wine described as a “Powerbomb”, a wine where all the elements are very noticeable: good acidity, strong tannins that provide structure and ability to age, concentrated fruit, medium plus or more alcohol since alcohol will give a big body. I was told once, that these types of wines get better reviews because wine critics taste 100s of flights and flights of wines at a time and they decide the best ones are the ones that stand up from the crowd. But, what about other styles of wines? wines with lighter bodies?, or less structure?, should they be condemned forever? At least for me the answer is no. As I tell my students, always compare apples with apples, and not apples with lemons.
Now, diving into the topic at hand, what makes a wine great? Indeed I agree with the French here, a great wine usually comes from 1) a great terroir. Yes, I confess that I’m terroirist, I believe great wines are born in the vineyard, it is not possible to make great wine without having great fruit to begin with. Good maturation in grapes is key to make any good wine. And though grapes can grow anywhere, not every single appellation was blessed the same way, meaning with ideal conditions for viticulture. Some received better soils with good drainage, special vineyard microclimates that yield the perfect acid/sweetness combination, the perfect sun exposition and elevation, and of course very low yields. The French have defended this position always, and with reason, over the years they have produced some of the best quality wines in the world. So, is there any hope for the New World? I believe there is, since everyday we see more and more samples that can compete with the French coming from new world countries. Under terroir many things are included, like the age of the vines for example, since the older the vine the more concentrated its fruit, this is why when we see labels saying “made from grapes from 100 year old vineyards”. Old vines usually have low yields, and low yields produce more concentrated wines. Of course, the vine grower can manipulate yields with young vines too. Yes, a great wine usually comes from a great terroir, which is the perfect match of grape variety, with a soil and a climate that will make the fruit grown in plot A, better than the fruit grown in plot B.
Now, besides a great terroir, we also need 2) A great winemaker vision. Winemaking/ fermentation is a complex chemical process, where many things can be done to attain greatness and many can go wrong. Take for example, if the wine doesn’t have enough alcohol, let’s chaptalize it! (chaptalization is the addition of sugar, usually from beets, to get higher alcohol in wines). If the wine doesn’t have enough acidity, let’s add some, if I want specific aromas and flavors, let’s use yeasts A, instead or B, that are designed to improve the natural flavors/ aromas of certain varieties. If I want nice caramel notes, maybe use French barrels, instead of American barrels that will yield coconut flavors. If my wine is diluted, let’s do a reverse osmosis, a process that takes some of water out, to create a more concentrated wine. Should we filter or fine our wine? some critics prefer fining to filtering, since filtering remove particles from wine and with it, some of its flavors. So many decisions to take, and like in life, it’s always good to know from the beginning where we want to go and to have control over the whole process. This includes using the most updated technology out there to make wine. Many wine appellations improved the quality of their wines in the late 1980s when they updated the tech by buying temperature controlled tanks for example.
3)Typicity, in wine is something that many regulatory councils will look after, this is true especially in the Old World appellations (Europe) where in order to obtain a seal of quality and origin, the wines need to follow certain rules and show typicity. Typicity is the” je ne se quoi” element that connects all the wines for that category and geography together and in some cases, this also relates to vintages. It's connected to the geography and therefore terroir. This is why some critics disapprove of wines made from flying winemakers that go through different appellations in the world, creating cookie cutter styles, also known as "International Styles". Take for an example a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and a Pouilly Fume, they are made from the same grape variety but are completely different styles and anybody that tastes them can see this.
4) Ability to age is another thing to consider when talking about quality. Most wine professionals will agree that a great wine must have some ability to age. What does it mean? that all long lived wine must be of quality? Probably. Yet not only it is important to stand the test of time, but it’s important what happens inside the bottle during aging, i.e. the ability of any wine to develop complex flavors that are not seen/present in a young wine; the ability to improve with time. I think that here one has to compare among the same items, certain wines have a shorter ability to age, like maybe 2-3 years and we can’t compare these with wines that have an ability to age of 30 or plus years. However, good quality can be found in the first group as long as it is compared to similar wines/ styles.
5) Balance of the elements, I left this to the end, because this for me is the most important thing that a wine of quality should have: Balance! And this is not easy to get, many times I tasted wines with way too much alcohol, way too much tannins (though this can be solved by aging the wine for a while). High acidity is another problem, too much sweetness another problem. The only too much that I can tolerate is too much fruit, I prefer my wines fruit forward, so here at least for me, the more the better. However, too much overripeness is not welcome either, if I wanted to drink wines made of raisins, I would drink PX Sherry or sweet Amarone, (wines that were actually created as such). So a note to all producers out there in warm appellations, be very careful, and make an effort to preserve freshness, by not extending extra hang time.
Of course, we can’t get all this info described above from a label, so when in doubt, you can also use 2 more important tools, a) stick to good producers and b) stick to good importers. a) it is self explanatory, there are plenty of good producers out there, and also great/ star winemakers, so follow those, for example: Nicolas Catena, Piero Antinori, Angelo Gaja, Alvaro Palacios, etc. It may require some research but it's so worthwhile. b) Also follow a good importer, the name of the importer will always appear on the bottle, and I know what you are thinking, importers only care about making money. Yet most of them, also have wonderful tasting palates, so it is no surprise that you often like wines from the same importer. Some I like and know are: Europvin, Jorge Ordonez for Spanish wines, Thierry Thiese for German wines, Kermit Lynch, Vineyard Brands, etc.
Finally, remember as the wise Emile Peynaud said: “We drink the wine we deserve”, meaning that as long as (us) customers continue to drink mass produced wines without personality, these producers will keep their business. So let’s give our money to those who care and aim higher, after all, we are worth it! Cheers! Silvina.