What Constitutes a Great Wine?

When you are out shopping for a wine, you will see wines priced from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.  The often asked question is, "can you taste the difference or are they really worth the added costs."  Some people have a dollar limit on what they will spend for a wine while others will pay top dollar for a wine.  The most important detail is to evaluate a wine based on one's own palate.  The proper technique for evaluating a wine is as follows:

  • Evaluate the color and appearance of the wine.

  • Gently swirl your glass to aerate or open up the wine and release the aroma and bouquet from the wine.

  • Take a fair amount of wine into your mouth, allowing all of your taste buds to come into contact with the wine to provide information on flavors, acid levels, etc.

  • Swish the wine around in your mouth and spit the wine out to detect acidity and tannins. 

  • Next, take a small amount of wine into your mouth and swallow to judge the length of time that the flavor lasts in your mouth before disappearing.

  • When tasting wines, avoid perfumes, after shaves, scented lotions, scented candles, etc as they will interfere with the process of smelling and evaluating the wines.

Now that we have established process for evaluating wines, "What is a great wine?"  This proverbial question varies between different types of wine drinkers.  It can be from a wine aficionado providing a recommendation, ratings, price, etc.  Do any of these provide recommendations that are based on our own palates or is it based on the fact that a knowledgeable wine connoisseur had recommended it therefore, it must be a great wine?   

Many years ago, I was asked to select two wines for a gentleman and his wife, of which neither were experienced with wines.  I asked a price range they were willing to spend and to my surprise the response was $200.  My first thought was that he could buy 8-10 bottles of different wines and acquire some appreciation as well as an idea of what they like or dislike.  Since he wanted two good wines, my selection was based on recommending wines that were going to provide a fabulous experience without approaching his $200 budget.  I selected the Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) and Belle Glos Pinot Noir ($40).  Both of these wines have a fine reputation and both would provide a pleasurable experience.  Did they really need to spend $200?  In my opinion the answer is no.  My take is that they felt the cost of a good wine was at least $100 per bottle.

Cost is one area used to define "Great Wines".  What about ratings?  So here is the dilemma for the wine aficionado:  How do we rate wines?  Do we use the 100 point rating system like Robert Parker (RP), Wine Advocate (WA), Wine Enthusiasts (WE) and Wine Spectator (WS)?  Below is John Vankat's (author of the Pocket Wine List) opinion of the 100 point rating system.

Wine Numbers
Numbers, numbers, numbers.  You see and hear wine numbers everywhere. 
Robert Parker gave this cabernet an 89.  This chardonnay was rated 91 by the Wine Spectator.  Wine Enthusiast said 86 for this zin.
I’ve been thinking about wine numbers ever since the “Chardonnay Challenge” appeared as a Wine Spectator cover story.  The Challenge involved two tasters, one an expert on California and the other on Burgundy.  They compared 20 California and 19 French chardonnays in a blind tasting, using the standard 100-point evaluation scale.
Sure, it was interesting to see which region “won” (it was California, by a nose).  But to me the most interesting result was that the two experts differed greatly in their evaluations of the same wines. Of course the experts sometimes agreed, but only on two of 39 wines — and they were one point apart on just two others. The differences? Well they ranged up to 13 points and averaged 5.1 points.
Five points in wine scoring is enormous.  The difference between 89 and 94 for example would be the difference between good and spectacular sales.  Ask any wine store. It’s BIG. And the differences weren't due to the regional preferences of the two experts.  No, the differences were due to the subjective nature of wine tasting.
So what do we take home from the fact that experts don’t agree? First, unless your genes and your environment have fortuitously provided you with exactly the same tastes as a wine expert, don’t be obsessed with numbers and depend solely on him or her to tell you what to drink.
Second, the common 100-point scale used by many wine periodicals is misleading, especially when the evaluations come from a panel of reviewers.  For example, one of the chardonnays evaluated in Wine Spectator received ratings of 95 and 82 from the two experts.  A tasting panel would average these and give a rating of 89, but note that this value doesn't convey anyone’s perception of the wine.
So should wine drinkers believe that there are real differences between wines rated 1, 2, or even several points apart by a tasting panel?  Obviously not.
But I’m not condemning wine evaluation; we all need advice in selecting from the hundreds of new wines released each week.  What I am condemning is the assumption that there is precision behind the numbers of a 100 point scale.  Can you imagine Siskel & Ebert giving TITANIC 96 thumbs up?  And then giving AS GOOD AS IT GETS 95 thumbs — as though that was a meaningful difference?
No, I’d use the 0-100 numbers only as a general guide.  In fact, I’d convert them to an A-B-C or 1 to 5 stars grading system. At Wine Pocket List, we grade on an A+, A, A-, and B+ scale. Anything lower and what good is a recommendation? But an A- wine at a great price makes it worth a taste.
I’d also ask wine periodicals to give us some help with this. Show people that wine evaluation is not an exact science and replace the inaccurate, deceptive 100-point evaluation scale with a simpler scale that is more likely to express genuine differences.  
Something everyday wine drinkers can understand, and use.  In short, get real.
John Vankat, PhD
The Wine PocketList

John Vankat brings up a very important point that unless the people judging these wines have your same palate, paying the extra money for a 95 point rated wine may be ridiculous.  I found from personal experience when brewing beer for competition, I had to increase the alcohol and hops to the maximum allowable for the beer in order to gain recognition from the judges and actually win awards.  The beers used in competition are far from what I make for my own personal consumption and enjoyment.  I have never been a hop-head and tend to drink Belgian, English, Scottish and German beers.  

Great wines can also be dependent on a given mood or occasion.  During an East Coast Grape of the Night meeting, a comparison was made between two top Australian Shiraz wines,  Molly Dooker Boxer and R Winery First Class.  I could not say that one was better than the other.  The Molly Dooker Boxer was a thick and heavily extracted fruit bomb that had a long lingering finish.  The R Winery First Class was more subtle, reminding me more of a French style wine,  slightly dry in the finish with well defined flavors on the palate. 

One member of our group stated that the Molly Dooker Boxer would pair well with a large, juicy steak adding that he would be in ecstasy.  Obviously, he favored the Boxer.  After some thought, my opinion was that it would depend on the situation and mood.  I would serve the First Class with a large juicy steak due to its elegance and have the Boxer while sitting in front of the fireplace on a rainy day.  Are either of us right or wrong?  Go back to the article by Vankat:  IT DEPENDS ON YOUR PALATE.  My rating on these two wines were both #1 on their own merits.  The caveat being the criteria that I explained above.  

In conclusion, my recommendations are to always judge a wine based on YOUR PALATE.  Do not let cost or point ratings make your decision on which wines to select.  There are many great wines that are under $20 to drink.  Look at Wine Spectators Top 100 and you will notice a number of wines that are not as expensive as one would think.  Wines are an adventure.  Taste and judge them for yourself.


 Rusty Sly