What makes a wine “good”? Isn’t a good wine simply one you like to drink? Yes – but there’s more to it than that. I’m a big promoter of “drink what you like when you like” when it comes to wine. Even if a wine is touted as the crème de la crème (the best of the best), it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the taste of it. However, what does matter is the quality of the wine.
But isn’t it enough to say a wine is good if I like it? Not really. People talk about quality like a matter of preference and flavor, but while there are a number of personal preferences that influence what people like or think are best, there are also a number of objective factors. These are set standards that most wine experts apply when rating a wine. While I support drinking what you like, when it’s a poorly made wine that you’re consuming, it hurts my heart.
I believe the consumption of poorly made wine by the public at large is a result of a lack of education about the standards to look for in a quality wine.
It’s also the result of sneaky marketing by some winemakers/wineries who make bad quality wine but convince people it’s high-quality wine. I actually had a comment made by one winemaker of a newer winery, who will remain nameless, that they’re not worried about making quality wine right now. Once they sell enough wine to cover their bills, then they’ll worry about making quality wine. Does anyone else see anything wrong with this premise?
Quality wine comes in all colors, degrees of sweetness and dryness, and different flavors. Here are four simple aspects to look at when considering the quality of your wine.
The first is the smell. Even before you take a sip, stick your nose in the glass and take a big whiff. Does it smell like wine? Does it smell fruity or perhaps floral? If so, it’s passed the first test. If, however, it smells like a wet dog or a wet newspaper you left out in the rain, a moldy basement, nail polish remover, rotten eggs, or burnt matches, it’s no good. It’s either corked or has a bacterial or microbial taint.
If that’s the case, it’s game over for the wine. Pour it down the drain and open another bottle.
If your wine passes the sniff test, the second clue to knowing if your wine is good is balance. Many winemakers talk about a “balanced wine.” Balance is an important aspect of a wine. If you have a bottle that is out of balance, you probably won’t like it even if you don’t know why.
When a wine is in balance, none of the components of acidity, tannin, alcohol, or fruit stand out as the main event. If the high level of acidity makes your eyes water or the searing levels of tannins feel like you drank wool instead of wine, or the alcohol burns your throat as you swallow, the wine is not balanced. If however, you notice a nice freshness to the wine, the tannins are supple and proportioned, the fruit is plentiful but not overpowering, and the alcohol is imperceptible, I would suggest that your wine is balanced. Congratulations!
Swirl the wine around your mouth and taste the wine. It will most likely taste of fruit but is that all? Can you detect other layers of flavor beyond the fruit? The more different notes and distinct flavor compositions you pick up, the more complex the wine. That’s where you get descriptors of flavor profile like plum, cherry, vanilla, or tobacco. The more of those flavors you can taste, the more complex the wine, and the more complex, the higher quality.
However, don’t count out simpler wines. They can be just as good as a more complex wine. For example, an Italian Pinot Grigio will have simpler flavors than say a Chardonnay from California, but still be a quality wine.
Lastly, and perhaps the easiest way to determine your wine’s quality is the length of the finish, or how long the flavors last in your mouth. You simply swallow the wine and see how long the good parts of the flavor lasts on your palate. The longer it lingers, the better the wine.
If, once you’ve swallowed, the flavor disappears immediately, it’s probably not such high quality. But if you can still taste the appealing characteristics 2, 3, or 4 seconds after, you may be onto something. When you can still taste the wine after 10 seconds or longer, you may have hit the quality wine jackpot!
Next time you crack open a bottle of wine, consider these four aspects of quality: smell, balance, complexity, and length. You’ll know immediately if it’s a quality wine or not. That’s worth drinking to – Cheers!