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What is a fine wine?

I was browsing through wineanorak.com site when my front-page billing as 'fine wine specialist' made me stop and think. My first though was simply that 'fine wine specialist' was somewhat stretching the truth! However, it also got me thinking about what exactly is a 'fine wine'. It isn't so easy to define. Gather a series of expert opinions and you might see a pattern, but get those same experts to specify individual wines and you'll then see the disagreements begin.

We know what makes us tick, and it's easy enough to say which wines we prefer. But what should a fine wine should taste like? 'Fine' implies quality of the highest order, but just think for a minute just how subjective the term 'quality' is, and try to explain it in a sentence or paragraph. The dictionary definition of 'quality' includes the term 'degree or standard of excellence' and words such as 'superiority'. 'Fine' is defined on multiple levels and includes the descriptors 'polished', 'elegant' and 'refined'. But isn't it hard applying them objectively to any product, including wine? Isn't one person's perceived quality different from another's?

So let's try to see what sort of descriptors we can use to label fine wines. The words banded about include balance, complexity, length, concentration, focus, typicity, elegance and (even) power. Some of the more flowery terms that tend to find their way into merchant's tasting notes include class, breed, authority, aristocracy and polish. These all infer fineness. However, to me these more flowery terms just sounds pompous. It's almost as if some commentators think that fine wines possess inexplicable characteristics that are conferred through terroir or innate status, and their classification should never be doubted.

Of course where a vineyard is situated (assuming that suitable grape varieties for the site are grown), and who produces the wine, are of core importance to the quality of the wine. But what if the year was poor or the wine making flawed? Is a wine fine one year and possibly not the next? Is 'fine wine' a status symbol which once conferred, is rarely rescinded? Or is each individual bottle of wine to be judged in the cold light of day -- on its own merits -- and classified accordingly?

How do critics distinguish fine wines? Clive Coates mainly uses a verbal rating. He has categories such as 'Very good', 'Fine', 'Very fine' and 'Grand Vin'. So few wines are 'Grand Vin' (I read that as 'benchmark', others will interpret it as 'perfect') that this would be too restrictive a grouping to encompass all fine wine. If you turn to Parker, then you could perhaps use his 'outstanding' rating of 90+ to indicate a 'fine wine' and you'd probably find he would agree this is a good cut-off point. But then these two raters aren't even in general agreement much of the time, especially when it comes to certain wines or regions; one man's fine is another's poor. So if even two respected critics can't agree what is or isn't a fine wine, where else do we turn?

I believe it's nothing more than a balance of opinions. If you think a wine is fine, then for you it is. How applicable your 'fine' rating is for others will depend largely on whether your own personal preferences correlate to those of others, but also on how good you are at defining and noting those criteria. The idea that a producer's wine is 'fine' whatever the vintage, because of the track record and prestige (and possibly also price) -- for example, Château Latour -- has some merit, and is the definition used by many brokers and auction houses. But I prefer to use a definition of 'fine' that relates to specific, individual bottles, and let my own experiences govern what I find best in a wine.

The loose criteria I use to decide whether a wine is fine or not are as follows.

A wine must be equal or greater than the sum of its parts. No component should dominate (e.g. it shouldn't be too acidic, tannic, fruity, alcoholic). A wine's balance may be questioned when young yet is still might improve with age (e.g. tannins); however, fine wines do strike a balance which should still be evident in youth.

t's important that the wine experience is not too fleeting, it should linger in a positive manner.

t must have many facets to its nose and palate so the overall experience is not too straightforward; rather, it should have a changing, somewhat enigmatic side which makes it more fascinating and rewarding than most wine.

Personally, I prefer the wine to reflect the highest achievements from within it's given region and style. However, we must remember that being satisfied entirely with what has gone before is no way to make progress!

From the above it should be possible to arrive at a loose definition of 'fine wine': one that shows elegance matched with concentration and interest. These are my characteristics of fine wine. However, wine is an inexact science, and there's always room for manoeuvre!

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