What is a great wine? Is it enough to simply provide naïve pleasure, or must a wine make an eloquent statement? Wine is art and as Jean Anouilh stated-the object of art is to give life a shape. To many in the wine world, real wines convey a sense of place, a genuine originality. The relativity of experience impacts one’s evaluation. Greatness in wine is much like a profound expression of art or music, depends upon personal experience and is subjective. Even though there is no singularity, definition greatness in art, music, or wine, though difficult to define precisely, enjoys a broad consensus.
Sensory evaluation is subjective. Like many of the finest things in life, however, there is considerable agreement as to what represents high quality. As Robert Parker states “No one should feel forced to feign fondness for a work of Picasso or Beethoven, much less a bottle of 1961 Latour.” Exceptional wines emerge from a philosophy which often includes the following:
Proper varieties planted in the correct climate; expression of the vineyard’s terroir; purity and characteristics of the grape variety or blend to be faithfully represented; and minimalistic winemaking.
Most consider that the world’s finest wines emanate from fruit grown in well-placed vineyards with microclimates favorable to the specific varieties. There is no such thing as the best grape or best clone, simply one well-suited to its growing environment. In the US, consumer’s palates are not tuned to terroir. We want jammy fruit, lasting intensity. Such wines may fool our senses in the same way that our primary physiology responds to the fat in a McDonald’s hamburger. Many of these are “feel good” products, the vinous equivalent of comfort food (Randell Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards). Is this bad? No, not as long as they are well made. They can obscure our link to the vineyard, if a host of addition products are employed. Such obscurity may limit the pace of industry development. Such wines appeal to a certain attitudinally-challenged denominator and may be a key link to our biological predisposition to favor fruit over complexity.
Some equate quality with quantity. This is true, regardless of whether we are talking about degree of ripeness, oakiness, or tannins. Are we making wines that are easy to like, but sometimes difficult to love? Perhaps we need to concentrate on means of adding some texture without deforming the ethereal essential character of a wine. We should not have the illusion that we can or should control everything. Minimalistic winemaking philosophy, when possible, allows for an intrinsic character, so that what is placed in the bottle represents as natural an expression of the vineyard, variety, and vintage as possible. This requires restraint in the use of adjuvants, cold treatments, and filtrations.
The greatest obstacle to discovering the truth is being convinced that you already know it.
Dr Bruce Zoecklein is a Professor Emeritus, Enology-Grape Chemistry Group Virginia Tech.
His Enology Notes are available at www.vtwines.info.