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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
philosophy of wine