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Assessing wine quality  

What is quality when it comes to wine? This is a crucial definition. Consider two wines, a generic red wine from the South of France and a first growth Bordeaux from a good vintage. One retails for just a few pounds, the other for a hundred or more. Why?

If a glass of each is poured, you’d have in front of you two glasses of fairly similar-looking red wine, and there’s a good chance that if they were both served to guests at a party, they’d be drunk without comment. So what is it that makes people value one very highly and not the other? What is the ‘quality’ factor in wine, and who decides what makes one wine plonk and another priceless?

Two wine worlds
In our discussions of wine, we’re heading for trouble if we fail at the outset to recognize that there is no single homogeneous entity called ‘wine’. Rather than there being one world of wine, there are actually two rather different ones. This distinction needs to be borne in mind.

The first is what I’ll call commodity wine. Most people make no other quality distinction with their wine other than whether it is acceptable or not; they treat wine as they would bread, sugar, instant coffee or baked beans. Their main purchasing criterion is that the wine should show acceptable quality at the lowest possible purchase price.

More discriminating consumers might still treat wine as a commodity but make a basic style distinction, for example preferring Sauvignon to Chardonnay, or Italian or Spanish reds to those from Australia. Typically, though, such consumers will have limited intellectual curiosity about wine and will be happy to stick to reliable brands, with the familiar taste being part of the appeal – they don’t want too many surprises.

The second world of wine can loosely be dubbed fine wine, although this term is probably a little unhelpful. This is where consumers are looking for something more in their wine. They are interested in the diversity of wine and the way that it can communicate a sense of place. In contrast to the commodity wine buyer, they like surprises. And they are prepared to pay more for wines that are ‘better’.

Of course, this division of wine into two rather different markets is a little artificial – you could make a case for a third wine world occupying the middle ground between commodity and fine wine – but it is helpful for the purposes of this argument.

The reason I mention this distinction is because the discussion of wine quality here refers largely to the second ‘world’ of wine, fine wine. Such distinctions are applicable also to commodity wine (after all, it is possible to compare cheap and expensive wines side by side), but are less useful, and can even be unhelpful. Just because a wine expert thinks a commodity wine is of low quality doesn’t mean that the wine in question won’t be commercially unsuccessful or unpopular with consumers. Factors such as marketing, avialability, packaging and pricing are probably more important in determining the success of commodity wines than absolute quality.

Defining wine quality: a thought experiment
To begin our discussion of the nature of quality in wine, let’s take a test case. Imagine you have a friend who has never drunk wine before, but is curious to try it. You present her with 20 glasses of wine, each different – some cheap, some expensive. You ask her to share her opinions of the wines. Let me ask you the following questions.

1. Do you think that she will be able to recognize the better quality wines in the line up?

2. Do you think she will enjoy the more expensive wines more than the cheap ones?

3. Do you think her views on the quality of the wines she is tasting will be critically useful?

Here are my thoughts.

1. I don’t think she would reliably. She might spot some of the cheaper wines as being less concentrated, and assume that the more complex, intense examples are more expensive. But this would be a rather crude index of quality. In many cases, she might struggle to discern significant differences in the wines. It’s likely she wouldn’t have much to say about many of them because of a lack of a working wine vocabulary.

2. Likewise, I think that she might actually enjoy some of the simpler, cheaper wine styles than the more challenging expensive ones. Cheaper wines tend to be made in a more accessible style. 

3. Not at all.

What can we conclude from this thought experiment? First, recognizing wine quality relies on learning. It is only through the processes of repeated exposure and learning that we begin to discriminate good wines from bad. This leads to the question: what is the body of knowledge that we must learn from?

Second, distinguishing quality involves moving beyond hedonia: our innate preferences don’t help us all that much in wine appreciation. We have to move beyond what instinctively tastes good to be able to appreciate what really is good. Of course, wines that taste bad are usually bad wines, but it is possible that novices will find serious wines a bit too challenging at first.

It can also be seen from this that as we experience wine on repeated occassions our tastes will change. If you educate your friend about wine, her preferences will evolve.

Cultures of wine
Wine quality, therefore, is something ‘outside ourselves’. In wine appreciation, we are effectively tapping into an aesthetic system or culture that is outside our own biological preferences.

This is complex because there are actually several different overlapping cultures of wine, from the mainstream, traditional culture of fine wine, to the rather different critic-dominated fine wine culture in the USA, to the popular supermarket-wine-with-TV culture, perhaps with several others in between.

A South African wine nut who drinks exclusively South African wines will not necessarily be able to have a meaningful dialogue about wine quality with a wine nut whose tastes are restricted to the French classics. But in as far as it is possible to define a particular wine culture, each culture will be self consistent with each participant sharing broadly similar ideas of wine quality. The system is self referential, with what comes next building on what goes before.

None of this is explicit, of course. The way the wine trade operates is to assume that wine quality is a universal attribute, something that can be recognized and shared by all. The message is kept as clear as possible by the existence of exams (such as those run by the WSET, and the MW qualification) which attempt to nail down an orthodoxy about the wine world. The fact that noise is present in the system from these clashing cultures of wine—and also individual differences in perception, a topic I’m not addressing here—is obscured by the noise is introduced by the rapid pace of change in the wine landscape.

The suggestion that notions of wine quality aren’t absolute, and that there are a number of different, only partly overlapping cultures of wine, has an important implication. The definition of wine quality can be changed; it’s up for grabs. While many concepts about what makes a great wine are enduring and span the majority of wine cultures, there is room for fresh definitions of what makes wine great.

I’ll leave this piece rather open ended by posing a final set of questions:

1. If definitions of wine quality are open to negotiation and change, who gets to decide what is good and what isn’t, both currently, and in the future?

2. Would our communication about wine be enhanced if we recognized and made explicit different cultures of wine?

3. What is the role of learning in wine appreciation?

4. Is there a universal definition of quality that can be applied to all wine styles?

5. And, finally, are definitions of quality context dependent?

The philosophy of wine

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