by Dwight Furrow
We who are absorbed in the philosophy of wine are usually preoccupied by questions about objectivity, meaning, the nature of taste, aesthetic properties, and other exotica that surround this mysterious beverage. But wine considered as an aesthetic object can never be wholly severed from the commercial aspects of wine, and no philosophy of wine is complete without taking into account the influence of commercial categories.
If you stand perplexed before the thousands of choices available on the wine aisles of your supermarket, or if it all tastes like fermented grape juice to you, here is a primer on distinguishing the good stuff from the ordinary.
Any discussion of wine quality must begin with a distinction between commodity wines and premium or fine wines. Commodity wines usually sell for under $15, although the “commercial premium” sector is growing rapidly and pricier wines will increasingly fall into this category. A quality commodity wine is reliable and familiar, with no obvious flaws, easy to drink and designed for immediate consumption. It will spring no surprises that would offend the casual drinker. Unlike the situation 20 years ago, when $10 might have bought you an attractively packaged bottle of battery acid, there are few bad wines on the market today. The technology of mass wine production has made extraordinary advances. Wine connoisseurs will think these wines uninteresting, but they may be full of flavor, food-friendly, and satisfying to drink.
Fine wines of quality sell for considerably more than $15, although you can sometimes find bargains. (There are many wines that fall in between the categories of commodity and premium, and price is no guarantee of quality.) Fine wines of quality will not necessary have smooth textures or familiar flavors. Their virtues may be hard to discern if you don’t know what to look for. Regular consumers of fine wines tend to be fascinated by the diversity of wine styles and the more discriminating are looking for a sense of place where the wine reflects the geographic features of the land on which the grapes are grown. Surprise is a good thing for these connoisseurs, and unusual wines with unconventional flavors may be welcomed. Some of these wines may actually be challenging to drink because they reflect the idiosyncratic vision of the winemaker or come from regions in which the flavor profile changes significantly from year to year because of weather variations. It takes experience and education to appreciate them. Such wines may be interesting even though they don’t hit your pleasure “sweet spot.” They are to be judged according to criteria that emerge from the aesthetic culture that surrounds them. To recognize quality, you have to be acquainted with that wine culture. This is why, in taste tests, untrained subjects will often fail to pick out the more expensive wines.
That said, there are some general criteria that all these various wine cultures look to as benchmarks and can be applied to quality commodity wines (up to a point) as well as fine wines.
Characteristics of a Quality Wine
Dense Texture or Mouthfeel
Most commodity wines will have lots of fruit up front and will taste full in the mouth because they are made with ripe fruit or have residual sugar, both of which create the impression of fullness. But as the tasting experience proceeds, many commodity wines turn watery, sour, or are simply soft and smooth, lacking presence or a firm finish. Quality wines by contrast have a density to them at the midpalate (midway through the taste experience) and some astringency (dryness) on the finish. Even lighter-bodied quality wines have some viscosity and will feel like silk or velvet, coating the mouth rather than simply feeling soft. A quality wine should have a pronounced and pleasing texture regardless of its weight. Harsh, aggressive, or rough wines are of low quality unless they are designed for long aging, in which case they should not be opened when young.
Not all quality wines are bold. Some can be slender and delicate. But quality wines that are delicate must have finesse. Their flavors and textures have intricacy and detail which are not delivered all at once but emerge as the tasting experience proceeds. Even bold, powerful wines can have finesse. In fact, this is the sign of greatness in a wine—power plus finesse.
Strong, Persistent Finish
The finish is the impression a wine leaves in the back of your mouth after you have swallowed it. Commodity wines tend to have a short finish with a pronounced drop-off in flavor, because casual consumers are put off by wines that are drying or have a strong aftertaste. By contrast, most connoisseurs of fine wines prefer a long finish with some astringency that comes from tannins in red wine or acidity in whites. Furthermore, in a quality wine, flavors persist all the way through the finish. Some wines may leave a burning sensation in the mouth because of high alcohol or have a bitter finish. These are flaws if they are excessive.
Commodity wines are simple with a few generic fruit and spice notes. Quality fine wines will have layers of fruit, spice, herbs, earth, and (in red wine) wood notes that give off different aromas each time you sniff. Which aroma and flavor notes a wine has doesn’t matter in judging quality, as long as there are no off-flavors. What matters are how many aroma notes there are, and how they work together to produce an integrated whole. One important element of complexity is evolution on the palate—a quality wine will show different aspects through the beginning, middle, and end of the tasting experience. By contrast, commodity wines tend to be linear without much development.
Balance refers to the relationship between sweetness, acidity, tannin, and alcohol. A wine is balanced when none of these components sticks out as being too much. Most commodity wines are balanced for the average consumer because these components are relatively easy to adjust in the winemaking process, and many large wineries do extensive market research to find popular flavor profiles. But more sophisticated wine lovers will find commodity wines too sweet and lacking tannin or acidity. Balance in fine wine has more to do with whether all the components are working together to produce a wine that is perceived as having good structure. The acidity should enhance the fruit, making it seem fresh; the fruit should enhance the tannins softening them so they don’t grip; the fruit should mute the sourness of the acidity. Balance in quality wines is a matter of the components working together, not simply staying out of the way.
Commodity wines often have murky flavors that don’t stand out. A quality fine wine will seem to leap out of glass and have clearly delineated flavors that are immediately apparent. However, keep in mind that some quality wines need decanting before they will show the full range of their flavor, and even the best wines can go through a “dumb” stage, where their flavors are muted.
Time in the Bottle
Because commodity wines are designed for immediate consumption, few of them will improve with age. Most quality fine wines in recent years have also been designed to drink when young. Nevertheless, they will have many strong components that must come together before they will show well, and will benefit with some time in the bottle. There is no rule for how much time they need, but for most wines, three years past their vintage date will give the wine time to settle down and become integrated. However, some quality white varietals such as most Sauvignon Blanc should be consumed when young since freshness of fruit is what they offer.
For more on the aesthetics of taste visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.