Is This Wine Good?
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
An ambiguous and complex question begging a yes or no answer. Nowadays the answer is usually yes because of technology and changing norms though a thoughtful response would first consider the meaning intended by the person asking the question, such as:
Would I like this wine? Most people want a "sommelier answer", a brief simplistic soundbite from an expert with some rationale while wine connoisseurs may want to engage in extended if not erudite conversation.
Do you like this wine? Sometimes seeking confirmation by another's palate and other times simply a query of curiosity.
Is this a high quality wine?
Is this wine a good value?
Does this wine have favorable reviews from professional critics or others I trust?
Is this wine typical, that is, does it taste like most wines made this year in this region from these grapes in this style?
Is this wine defective, that is, does it contain faults? (Flawless by Jamie Goode is a tough read but intriguingly extends the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi to wine). Interestingly, information and knowledge can influence one's appreciation of wine, such as by being more lenient of faults when a wine is labeled as organic..
Does this wine pair well with this food? Does this food pair well with this wine?
Should this wine be cooled or warmed or decanted before serving?
Should this wine be drunk now or aged further?
Should I bring a wine to an event where most attendees won’t appreciate it?
Would this wine taste good at high altitudes, such as during a transatlantic flight?
Do I want to drink this wine, that is, was it made in a manner or by those that I support? For example, vegans may not wish to drink a wine fined with animal products. Were the grapes grown in a sustainable manner, minimizing the use of chemicals? Was the wine imported before or after it was bottled (bottling at the point of consumption may reduce the energy used to transport the wine)?
Does this wine satisfy the commercial goals of the producer/distributor/retailer?
Learning to taste wine critically, that is, actively assessing what you are drinking rather than merely enjoying it, answers many such questions. There are several approaches to tasting depending on its goal: exams for CMS and WSET students focus on "What is it"?, rankings focus on "How good is it"?, and reviews focus on "Should you buy it"?
What may seem counterintuitive at first is that blind tasting, perhaps the most important approach to critical tasting, relies on sight and smell (the most important), as well as on taste/touch (palate). Each sense provides clues, that in combination with theory, leads you to making informed conclusions about a wine.
Roger Bohmrich MW, stresses the importance of following a systematic approach (e.g., using Michael Broadbent's classic approach), writing concise analytical notes, and controlling the setting (e.g., lighting, temperature, and glassware). Be aware that higher temperatures increase the perception of sweetness, acidity, and alcohol burn whereas lower temperatures increase bitter, astringent, and salty (not common in wine) flavors. Also note that tannic wines tend to taste better warmer.
Tim Gaiser MS, notes that building proficiency and consistency requires time, extensive repetition, and using the strategies of top tasters. He emphasizes the importance of using a consistent starting sequence, a focused state of concentration, using image-based memories for smell and taste, and a structured process to identify grapes, wines, regions, and vintages. Recognition of a wine's "signature" is vital to becoming a good wine taster.
Signature aromas in white wines are derived from use of new oak, pyrazines, terpenes, phenolic bitterness, botrytis, diacetyl, less contact, and TDN. Signature aromas in red wines are derived from use of new oak, pyrazines, rotundone, brettanomyces, carbonic maceration, and stem inclusion. The table below relates the aromas associated with particular chemicals in the wine, based on Jean Lenoir's Le Nez du Vin aroma inventory.
Similarly, there are particular chemicals responsible for the off-odors of wines with faults:
The common message spanning the different approaches to critically tasting wines is that anyone can become a good wine taster with sufficient training and practice.
Another useful approach to critical tasting, because it provides a framework to understand wine, is detailed by Jean Charles Viens in Grande Passione and Spirito di Vino Asia articles. It suggests first understanding the personality of a wine and then assessing its quality.
Vien categorizes the personality of white wines as sweet, light & fruity, smooth & medium-bodied, and full-bodied. For red wines the sweet category is replaced by an age & rare category. While I agree that it makes sense to compare wines with the same personality I'm not convinced that it is not reasonable to compare some wines simply because they have different colors. It's also unclear where sweet red wines, mature white wines, or pink wines would be classified in Vien's scheme.
The approach I prefer is comparing and ranking the quality of wines of a particular type with a similar flavor category (abbreviated style). By type, I mean whether the wine is still, sparkling, or fortified (see How Wine Is Made). I find it useful to abbreviate the style of a wine as sweet, delicate, smooth, or intense (the wine flavor categories discussed by Tim Hanni MW). This does not mean one should not explore the style distinctions Vien so aptly articulates but it does imply one can more readily decide which wines are comparable.
With this approach, it can be reasonable to compare a Superiore di Cartizze Prosecco with a tête de cuvée Champagne or a Provençal rosé with a delicate white wine.
Vien sets forth a reasonably objective approach to determining the excellence of a wine by considering the complexity and length of its aromas, the balance between its "hard" (acidity, tannin, CO2) and "soft" (alcohol and sugar) components, and the integration of these components so its structure is imperceptible. I say reasonably objective because measuring and ranking quality without involving human perception is not possible in practice, at least not yet. More importantly, it is not clear that higher quality wines would correspond to wines the consumer enjoys more or would be willing to spend more for.
Our personal perceptions of a wine are just as vital to our enjoyment as what the wine is objectively. Individuals with specific sensory capabilities will enjoy a wine based on their preferences as well as on the wine's organoleptic properties.
A common misperception, started by David Hänig in 1901 (not by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825) and furthered by Edwin Boring in 1942 is that your tongue senses particular flavors in specific zones (sweet, salt, sour, and bitter from tip to sides to back). In reality taste receptors for all flavors are located all around the tongue. Different people have a different number of taste buds and so have different abilities to perceive flavors. This does not mean some people are better tasters than others... they just perceive tastes differently.
Tim Hanni MW has introduced the notion of vinotypes in his book "Why You Like The Wines You Like". He suggests that one's "hardware", i.e., physiology or genetics, determines your perceptions, while one's "software", i.e. psychology, a summation of your learning and experience, determines your preferences. His analysis reveals that our perceptions can be measured rigorously and objectively and that what one person experiences is not what other's may experience.
Hanni groups consumers into those with sweet, hyper-sensitive, sensitive, and tolerant perceptions (based on the number of taste buds they have) and highlights wines and flavor categories that each group is likely to prefer. This approach helps direct a consumer to wines they are likely to enjoy (i.e., particular cells within the style-type grid above). Generally, consumers with sweet, hyper-sensitive, sensitive, and tolerant perceptions prefer sweet, delicate, smooth, and intense wine styles respectively.
I'll go out on a limb and posit that food changes one's enjoyment of wine more than wine changes one's enjoyment of food. I rarely, if ever, change the food I order in a restaurant because of the wine I want to enjoy. However I will change my wine selection to be more compatible with the food. Perhaps this is because there are many more wines than food choices on the menu. However, I can enjoy my meal and my wine independently regardless of how "bad" the pairing is. This is not because of my inexperience with wine but because of my enjoyment of both. In other words, pair wine with mood more than food.
There are many ways to pair wine with food. Perhaps the most reasonable approach is to pair food and wine from the same region. Another common method suggests pairing either complementary or contrasting components. Thierry Meyer suggests pairing based on the complexity of the food and wine, with all combinations appropriate. Tim Hanni MW notes that recommended pairings have changed over time (e.g., Fois Gras with red Burgundy per the 1938 Larousse Gastronomique). In other words, almost anything goes.
Traditional food and wine pairing recommendations are based on the fact that the sugar, acid, bitterness, fat, umami and condiments (spice, sauce, or preparation) in our foods impact our perception of the sugar, acid, tannins, and alcohol in our wine:
For example, because an acidic food decreases our perception of acidity in wine we may want to select a wine higher in acidity so it doesn't taste flabby. Similarly, we may want to pair spicy hot food with a wine with low alcohol to counteract the perception of increased alcohol burn. The main pairings to avoid are bitter foods with tannic wine and salty foods with high-alcohol wine because the bitterness and alcohol burn are magnified.
Traditionally, sweet wines pair well with sweet, salty, and spicy foods while acidic and tannic wines pair well with acidic, salty, and fatty foods. This encompasses the traditional advice to pair either complementary or contrasting components.
Rather than pairing food and wine by taste categories, Dornenburg and Page interviewed sommeliers to recommend their favorite food-wine pairings. The following table lists some examples of foods these experts believe are best with specific beverages.
With respect to sommeliers, chefs, and wine bloggers, I'd suggest being careful that your food and wine pairing recommendations don't discourage consumers from enjoying a wine they really want regardless of the food they have ordered. If the diner needs help selecting a wine, for whatever reason, a recommendation based on the wines they like or dislike and their price range should suffice. Upselling for its own sake is doing a disservice to both the consumer and the establishment, and ultimately the entire wine industry.
Lenoir, Jean, Le Nez du Vin 54 Aromas, 2006, ISBN 2-906518-29-8
Goode, Jamie, Flawless, Understanding Faults in Wine, University of California Press, 2018
Dornenburg, Andrew and Page, Karen, What to Drink with What you Eat, Hachette Book Group, 2006, ISBN 978-0-316-07797-2