One of the questions that really interests me is this:
What constitutes a great or ‘fine’ wine?
Allied to this is the follow-on question:
Who gets to decide that a wine is great?
I’m aware that these questions could take a long time to answer. So here’s my top-of-the-head, partial answer.
I like Hugh Johnson’s definition of fine wine: wine that you want to talk about. Not all wines are worthy of discussion, or merit contemplation. But while Hugh’s definition is a good one, it is perhaps a little too broad and a little too comfortable. There are many wines that I can talk about, but which I wouldn’t claim to be great or fine.
Fine wines are thought-provoking; they have something to say. They enthral; they inspire. These qualities don’t exist in the wine. They are the result of the interaction between the wine and a taster, and the qualities are a property of the taster in response to the wine.
So who decides whether a wine is great? The simple answer is the taster. Not all tasters respond the same way to a particular wine, though. Even experts disagree.
With many great wines, which have distinctive personalities, we can’t expect consensus on the part of experts. So fine wine can’t be distinguished simply by consensus among experts.
What about the market place? Fine Wine merchants tend to work with wines that have a secondary market, and which are valued highly. But this an unsatisfying way to decide what is great. There are plenty of expensive wines that I wouldn’t categorize as fine – take, for example, modern international-styled red wines with lots of ripe fruit and oak, and heavy bottles with extremely deep punts. Some of these are seriously expensive and get stellar critic ratings, but they are utterly boring and hard to drink.
So we are back to the taster. I have a pretty good idea in my own mind whether a wine that I am tasting is fine or great. But it would be arrogant for me to claim to be the arbiter of wine seriousness. However, I do find among my colleagues and friends that there is a more or less common taste shared among those who – in my opinion – really get wine.
While everyone is entitled to their preferences, which are subjective, there is some level of objectivity to wine tasting that moves beyond just preferences. Because of this objectivity, not all opinions about wine are equally valid. No one can tell you that your preferences are wrong, but your opinions about wine can be.
I’ve noticed that in recent years a new generation of wine people have emerged who seem to get wine – a group that encompasses winemakers, retailers, critics and agents. They have a more-or-less shared taste, in that they prefer elegance over power, dislike over-ripeness, delight in wines that express a sense of place, aren’t afraid to explore new flavours and lesser known regions, and at the same time respect the classic European fine wines.
These are the people who should get to decide what is fine and what isn’t.