Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
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What Makes a Wine "Good"?
There are no short and simple answers to that question, but a few things can be said.
Freedom From Faults
First of all, and obvious, the wine must not have any actual faults, meaning things that the winemaker never intended. Such things can range from "corkiness" (attributed to defects in the cork, but often from other causes) to "Brett" (Brettanomyces, an unwanted yeast type that can infect wines), which is characterized by overwhelming barnyard or fecal aromas, and several more. Such faults are depressingly common (Wikipedia reports that "In a 2005 study of 2800 bottles tasted at the Wine Spectator blind-tasting facilities in Napa, California, 7% of the bottles were found to be tainted.") Lesson: if a given bottle of wine seems surprisingly awful, it may well just be defective, meaning not at all representative.
(When the waiter or sommelier at a restaurant presents a small sample of a bottle of wine as it is being served at table, the patron is not judging whether the wine is "a good wine": she or he is only verifying that the wine is free from fault. That is why knowledgeable patrons often merely sniff the cork rather than actually taste—defects will almost always leave a perceptible aroma in the cork.)
Personally, we feel that the importance of the look of a wine is much over-stated. The American Wine Society, for example, uses a 20-point scale of which 3 points are for appearance; that makes appearance 15% of a wine's total evaluation, which seems, to us, silly. We feel it represents a hangover from the days when not a few wines sold were so poorly made that they were visibly cloudy.
Now that is not to say that appearance is meaningless. Chiefly, when we get our first look at a wine out of the bottle and into the glass, we expect the color to suggest something of the wine's qualities: is the red an deep, inky indigo or a light, transparent purple? That matters to the extent that the appearance predisposes us to expect certain qualities of aroma and taste, even if there is not in fact a direct correlation. But appearance, we would say, is not nowadays a major quality in wines.
Say we have a sound bottle of some wine. What do we look for first? Well, we have to remember that what we usually call "taste" is intimately bound up with smell (or as it is referred to in wine terms, the "nose" of a wine); a blindfolded person with his or her nose closed off cannot tell the difference between a slice of apple and a slice of potato. Thus, the first step in "tasting" a wine is actually to smell it, because later, when the liquid actually meets the palate, the sensory impression will be strongly affected by the nose.
That's why serious wine tasters generally first swirl the wine around, then tilt the wine glass as much as possible without spillage before poking their noses into the glass to sniff it: they are trying to increase the surface area of the wine so it releases as much aroma as possible. As to the quality: a wine with a feeble or indistinct nose will not likely taste good. The "nose" will heavily influence our taste perception of the wine. We want an aroma that suggests what we expect from the wine, perhaps fruit, perhaps minerality, but something distinct, distinctive, and pleasant.
The taste of a wine is, as we said some ways up-page, ideally characterized by complexity. The various terms that tasters invoke in trying to communicate their taste sensations is long and, often, ludicrous, from tobacco to leather to blueberries to new-mown hay to cat urine (really!); one can be fairly well assured that most of those using such terms as "honeysuckle" or "tree moss" have never in their lives met up with half the things they cite. But that is not really a sarcastic poke at wine writers so much as it is a tribute to the difficulty of communicating in words an essentially ineffable experience. All that said, there are a few things we can talk about more definitely.
One is "balance". Even though most wines are fermented to completion, there remains some small residual sense of "sweetness" to them—not a sugary sensation (that would denote far too much RS, unless it is a wine designated as "sweet"), but still a vague aura. Also always present is acidity. In a well-made wine, those two sensations balance each other off. Neither "erases" the other: they achieve a synergy in which each can be sensed without dominating the taste experience, a balancing that enhances the wine overall. If there is too much acid in proportion to the sweetness, the wine strikes a taster as "harsh" or "stringy" or some other such term suggesting an unpleasant acidity. If there is too little acid, the wine will seem "flabby" or "tired", lacking the crispness that keeps the palate alert. Acids in wine are tremendously important.
Another readily discussable factor is "fruit". Curiously, no wine actually tastes like grapes (though Muscat may be an exception). But all wines have, to a greater or lesser extent, a quality of fruitiness about them. In a well-made wine, the amount (and nature) of the perceived fruit is quite important. Generally speaking (meaning there are always exceptions), wines with little deeper complexity want a compensatory presence of fruit, so as to have some distinct taste. As the underlying flavor elements—those things often described as "tobacco" or "leather" in red wines, or "butter" or even "butterscotch" in white wines—are more strongly present, the fruit quality ideally recedes to more of a background. In the modern era, when a few "name" wine experts (notably Robert Parker) each taste literally a hundred or more different wines a day, the wines that will seem to stand out, and will thus be more apt to get high ratings, are those with quite strong flavor qualities. Many such wines are extremely "fruit-forward" (as the terminology goes), and are often disdainfully charaterized as "fruit bombs". Obviously, many tasters consider excessively strong fruit flavors a negative, akin to presenting fruit juice with vodka.
Yet another taste factor is tannin. All wines contain some tannin, but it is a strong component only in reds. It has a very easily detected quality, described as astringent or, often, "pucker". Tannin is, however, not undesirable in red wine. That is because wine changes in the bottle with age, and the slow, steady conversion of tannins to other compounds plays a very large part in the improvement of (properly) stored wines over time. A relatively young red wine may be heavy on tannins, but that same wine, aged, may well be a gem. The "tricks" are two: one, the winemaker must try to balance the elements so that generous tannins do not repel while the wine is young; and two, the consumer must take the trouble to age tannic reds to a proper condition.
Another easily detected flavor element is the result of the winemaker putting the wine through malolactic fermentation. To again quote Wikipedia, "Malolactic fermentation (also known as malolactic conversion or MLF) is a process in winemaking in which tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape must, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid. Malolactic fermentation often occurs shortly after the end of the primary fermentation but can sometimes run concurrently with it. The process is standard for most red wine production and for some white grape varieties such as Chardonnay, where it can impart a 'buttery' flavor from diacetyl, a by-product of the reaction." Some people love a malo quality in their white wines; others feel it detracts from the basic nature of the wine type. Either way, it is easy to recognize (exactly by that profoundly "buttery" sensation), and characterizes a recognized style of wine-making.
Last but far from least, there is wood. Many winemakers expose many of their wines, notably reds but also whites, to wood (typically oak), usually by aging it in wood casks or barrels, though sometimes they "cheat" by throwing wood chips into the aging wine. The question of whether oaking improves this or that wine type, and if so how much might be wanted, is certainly a key factor in wine quality, but also one on which there is little agreement (hence August Sebastiani's now-famous remark "If you like the taste of wood, go bite a tree," sometimes also recounted as "go eat some toothpicks"). What can be said as a generality is that if the oaky taste dominates the wine, that will subtract from most people's enjoyment of that wine (as the Roman poet Terence put it, Ne quid nimis, "nothing to excess").
(Oaking of a wine is controlled by the winemaker is at least three ways: first and most obvious, the length of time the wine is left in the wooden container; second, the species and origin of the wood, including whether it is new wood or wood that has already been used to age wine, in which case some of the flavoring elements will have been reduced, making it milder; and third, the size and shape of the container, since the larger the container, the smaller the percentage of wine that will be in contact with the inner surface. Winemakers agonize over all three decisions.)
That is very far all there is to what makes wine well-made, but it gives you a handle on the basics. To see a rather longer exposition on wine tasting and wine qualities, try Jim LaMar's fine essay A Sensory User's Manual at the Avalon Wines site.
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