A devious little question.
A question that sits around a corner with its foot held out hoping you trip. It’s a question however, that I am bound to try and answer.
Before I explain what makes for a good wine, I think we need to get a few things straight. Clean the ring before the fight begins. Go to the pond, fetch the ducks, and make them all stand to attention.
Let’s begin with one of my favourite xkcd comics.
It’s brilliant because it’s so silly, so true, and relates to some of what I do so accurately.
You see, the depths of a conversation about what a wine is, and how its quality is judged depends very much on your level of interest and understanding. I know that today, a number of years since I started taking a real interest in wine, my level of knowledge has increased and so has my ability to judge wines. However infinitesimally.
My favourite analogy here is with literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a brilliant novel, perhaps one of the finest ever written. Yet it can be maddeningly difficult. It takes time, study and patience for the brilliance to be revealed. That hard work pays off when seemingly haphazard structure, associations and stream of consciousness are slowly pulled into focus forming a picture of Dublin, man and life so intricate and tightly woven that you can only sit back and marvel at Joyce’s genius.
So let me try and help a bit, while offering an insight as to how I judge wines, and what type of wines I believe are best.
To be a great wine every aspect – its acidity, tannin, flavor, intensity, sweetness etc – must be in balance. Each part supports the other, and imagining the wine without one of them is to imagine a poorer wine.
Of everything I list here balance is the most important. When tasting wines that are not to your preference, balance is – I think – the best guideline to decide whether it is good or not. Big, very ripe, very oaky, massive red wines are not to my taste. However, if I taste one and find that it is in balance, then I need to frame my criticism or description of it in a manner that shows this.
Complexity is simply how many flavours, textures, aromas, you find in a glass. In a quest for describing complexity some American wine writers have taken to writing out long lists of descriptors. They resemble a most pretentious witch’s recipe book, and in my opinion do sweet bugger all for helping us understand wine. You know a wine is complex when after every sniff and sip a new level of flavor is discovered. Complexity makes a wine intriguing, difficult to put into words, and forces you to come back again and again.
As with all things vinous it’s not entirely straightforward. I have loved wines – and thought some excellent – which were not complex. They were beautiful in their simplicity.
How long the flavor of the wine stays in your mouth. The longer the better. Ideally, you want a wine to remain in your mouth revealing its complexity long after the liquid has gone. I will have a negative opinion of a wine whose flavour starts with such promise as it passes my lips, but absconds as soon as I have swallowed.
I am by no means fooled into believing price has no bearing in this conversation. In terms of absolute quality, I agree, that price has no effect. However, when I have to spend my hard-earned on a bottle, and it turns out to be a less than satisfying example, my rage increases in direct proportion to every rand I have spent.
Now we come to a more difficult part of this conversation, because we are sliding into the nebulous arena of personal preference.
I started hanging out with wine-geeks as I took the long road – I’ve merely set out – to become one, and found that so many of the wines they poured fascinated me.
How was it that they continued to open bottle after bottle of very good wines? The answer is simple. They knew their shit. They knew which producers and vintages made excellent wines, and they had gone through the long, liquid process of discovery themselves.
The wines I shared with them have shaped how I taste and view wines today. So these other aspects about what I think makes good wines (and the lack of which makes poorer ones) is personal, but it has developed from drinking many more bottles of much better wine than I ever would have if I’d left wine obsession alone.
Bite into a perfectly ripe apple or orange, and you understand freshness. That burst of clean, juicy fruit – your mouth in a Timotei advert taking a shower under a remote jungle’s waterfall – is freshness. It’s the acidity at work of course, but freshness is more than simple acidity. For me, it shows a wine that is full of life. Alive. Kicking. A fresh wine, logically, leaves you feeling refreshed. It cleanses rather than coats, it’s a song of praise rather than a dirge. Freshness means the wine begs you to take another sip.
I told you we were getting personal. What may be of interest to me may be of little interest to you; although, I am using it in a little more focused manner here. A wine that is interesting stands apart from the mountains of dross that line our supermarket shelves. Jamie Goode wrote recently:
About many wines there is little to be said. They are just wine . . . 90% of all wine is crap. We know that. We just need to be more honest about it, with ourselves and our readers.
Here’s a man I can get on with! Maybe “crap” was not the best choice of word, but the point is that too much time is spent discussing dull or average wines. I think this is Jamie’s point, that all the extra words given to run-of-the-mill wines – and I am as much at fault as anyone – make these wines into something they are not.
Phew. Slight tangent. With this in mind though, I think exceptional wines are interesting by virtue of their limited number. However, wines that are simply different are not necessarily good. We need to take interest (new variety, area, winemaking techniques etc) along with all the other ways we judge wine (balance, complexity etc). Interest alone does not make a wine good, but a good wine that is interesting elevates it to something special.
The Elephant Doing Ballet:
I love wines with forceful elegance, that have a weightless intensity, wines which are paradoxes in a glass. Intensity is another aspect of wine that you can judge. Intensity of flavour is generally a good thing, but not always. A wine that is intensely flavoured, but lightly textured and full of freshness, is a wine for me. It’s a wine, to personify, like an elephant dancing elegantly.
This intensity without weight is a signal for me that a wine is very very good. It is hard to communicate – which is why, perhaps, I invoke the elephant in a tutu – but I hope you grasp my meaning.
Now I will not deign to think I can tell you what is delicious or not, but let me try and describe it as an aspect of a wine.
Deliciousness in a wine is its ability to demand you drink more of it. It holds you at gunpoint, on the edge of the plank, shouting at you to take another sip. Each time you do you are transported – either on a magic carpet of complexity, or in a deluge of sheer pleasure – to a place that you must always return to sip, after sip, after sip.
Too esoteric? Maybe. I prefer wines with lower alcohols, that have not been made with lots of new oak, and are leaner in style; I seem to prefer wines made with less intervention – wild yeasts, no added acid, no fining or filtration. I love wines from the Mosel in Germany, and the Northern Rhone in France. I know there are amazing wines from nearly every place on the globe that plants vines, and I am trying to taste them. My personal tastes will change and develop, but all of the aspects I have described above will always be part of how I determine if a wine is good or not.