Some thoughts on wine quality: an intrinsic or extrinsic property of a wine?


How do we define quality in a wine? Is it an intrinsic or extrinsic property of the wine? That is, is quality something that a wine possesses independent of the occasion of drinking, or the drinker, or not?

The most useful definition of quality is fitness for purpose. We can no more ask someone what the best wine is than we can ask a carpenter what the best tool is: if a nail needs to be knocked in, a hammer is better than a screwdriver.

So in terms of a wine, whether or not it is high quality depends on the context of drinking, the winemaker intention, the person consuming the wine, and the way the wine is served. Wine quality is to large part extrinsic not intrinsic.

Context of drinking is vital. It’s a warm summer’s day and you are dining al fresco in sight of the sea. In this context, for most people, a crisp, pale rosé, well chilled, would be an extremely high quality wine, whereas a young first growth Claret from a great vintage would not be at the same quality level, even though in a neutral setting most tasters would declare the latter to be the better wine. But even at that same table, to a novice taster a cheaper, darker coloured, semi sweet rosé might be considered better quality than a more sophisticated Provence rosé.

How the wine is served is also a quality factor. The same Provence rosé is a much higher quality wine when it is served chilled from a nice Zalto glass than it is served at room temperature from a Paris goblet. Packaging matters too: a nice label design can create expectations, and the wine may well be perceived as being better because of this.

The drinker also matters a lot. An obvious example: a mousy red wine is faulty to a taster who can detect mousiness. Yet a proportion of people don’t get the gout de souris, and for them, quality is not affected. More subtly, while I have been in New Zealand (for the last couple of months), on many occasions I have been drinking with wine winemakers. I’ve learned that, generally speaking, winemakers are much less tolerant of wine faults such as brettanomyces, oxidation and volatile acidity. If they can detect traces of these, they tend to reject the wines. This is because as winemakers, they need to be very sensitive to the first signs of any problems in a young wine. I have other friends who drink a lot of natural wine and are much more tolerant of wines where there are traces of ‘faults’, but in the context of the wine they play a background, supporting role.

Does winemaker intention have a role in quality? This is an interesting question. If a winemaker sets out to make a wine in an oxidative style, is it any better than a wine that has seen the same amount of oxygen, but in the latter case because the winemaker was careless or incompetent and didn’t protect the wine? Aside from whether or not you can tell the wines apart, I incline to the view that winemaker intention is part of quality. If a wine turns out a certain way because the winemaker intended it, it is a better wine than a wine that turns out the same way but this was never the intention of the winemaker.

For all these reasons, I would argue that a critic score for a wine is not an indicator of quality. In order to score wines at all, a critic needs to strip them of as many of the extrinsic factors as possible, but by doing this they are removing factors that are vital for wine quality. So, instead, a score has to be seen as an attempt by a critic to rank wines numerically according to their intrinsic drivers of quality. Even a blind tasting, though, will bring in some extrinsic factors: greatness in a wine is decided by a community of judgement. We are operating in an aesthetic system or systems: cultures of wine. A score is merely a useful shorthand trying to place a wine within this aesthetic system, but it’s not an objective marker of wine quality, nor a property of the wine.

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