What are the characteristics of a great wine? The following are a few features of a great wine adapted, in part, from Robert Parker (2008). Which of these do you agree with? What would you add or delete?

The ability to please both the palate and the intellect.  Great wines should offer satisfaction on a hedonistic level, and challenge and satiate the intellect. There are many delicious wines that appeal to the senses, but lack profundity. The ability to satisfy the intellect is subjective, but experts often prefer wines with multiple dimensions, both aromatic and flavor.

The ability to hold the taster’s interest. Profound wines could never be called monochromatic or simple. They hold interest, not only providing an initial tantalizing tease, but possessing a magnetic attraction due to their aromatic intensity and nuance-filled layers of flavors.

Ability of a wine to offer intense aromas and flavors without heaviness. In some parts of the New World it has been easy to produce wines that are oversized, bold, big, rich, but heavy. It has been said that Europe’s finest wines have intense flavors without heaviness. 

The ability of a wine to taste better with each sip. Most of the finest wines are better with the last sip than the first, revealing more nuances and more complex aromas and flavors as the wine unfolded.

The ability of a wine to improve with age.  Many consider longevity an indisputable charac­teristic of great wines. Some suggest their wines will age when they mean their wines will survive. They can endure in the bottle, but are much more enjoyable in their exuberant youthfulness. If you open a bottle and drink a glass and replace the closure, a wine with longevity should stay fresh for the better part of a week. Most New World wines are generally dead the next day, while many of the finer Old World wines are not. Why? To varying degrees, wines consume oxygen. Likely, longevity has to do with reductive strength or resistance to oxidation. Reductive strength is linked to the phenol content, lees involvement and possibly the nebulous concept of minerality (See Enology Notes #160). Minerality, or capacitance is thought to give the primary flavor a sense of soulful depth or relief, providing a shadow or added dimensionality. This could relate to a number of viticultural parameters and practices, including soil and the biological nature of the soil. This has been described as petrichor, the smell that a new rain liberates from rock. Others describe this as an almost electrical-type buzz provided by the wines finish. Some believe that this resistance to oxidative change is a sort of Rorschach test.

Whatever definitions of wine quality we adopt, we need to continue to evaluate our products and assure ourselves that our knowledge is increasing from one season to the next.

      Art is not the cultivated taste; it is the cultivation of taste – Nikki Giovanni

Dr Bruce Zoecklein is a Professor Emeritus, Enology-Grape Chemistry Group Virginia Tech.

His Enology Notes are available at www.vtwines.info.