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conferred, is rarely rescinded?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
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
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.
It's important that the wine experience is not too fleeting, it
should linger in a positive manner.
It 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
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