What is 'fine' wine? Who gets to decide?

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.

26 comments to What is ‘fine’ wine? Who gets to decide?

  • Interesting.

    You can take a degree in “Fine Art”, but not all art students are, or ever will be, “fine” artists.
    The one thing that has to be true is that it is for others to decide what is or isn’t fine, not for the product’s creator.

    For me fine wines are those that make me really think about them, about their structure, provenance, character and style. Some expensive wines don’t make me think, some inexpensive ones do.
    I do think that fine wines need to have persistence/finish though, which does rule out the really cheap.

  • Eoin Corcoran

    Interesting piece. Surely all opinions about wine are valid just none as valid as your own. Those who agree with you reinforce the idea that your opinion is correct but it does not necessarily make it so. In general I would fall into the elegance over power camp but sometimes….
    Great wine is a wine that is great to the taster and it may not be great to everyone. One of the things I really like about wine is the variety and diversity of styles, while they may not all be to my taste or preference and I may not consider them ‘great’, I am glad they exist.
    I am not sure how important it is to determine what is fine and great wine. It seems that once a wine is categorised as such it will quickly become unattainable to the likes of me and therefore I will never taste any ‘great’ wine.

  • Chris Williams

    My personal criteria for “fine” wines are:

    -Must taste good (Amazing how often this is forgotten).
    -Have a sense of place.(The wines birth certificate, its origin discernable)
    -Refreshes rather than tires, the mind, body and spirit.
    -Stimulates contemplation and reflection.
    -Posseses balance, tension and vivacity.

    I am very open to adding to this basis list.

  • Why do we assume that “fine” and “great” are interchangeable terms?

    Isn’t “fine” a category incorporating historical, cultural and financial factors – whereas “great” is a quality judgment?

    That’s why you have merchants with a “fine wine” category, but not one labelled “great wine”.

    Surely you can have great wines which aren’t fine wines, just as you can have fine wines which aren’t great?

    Or should that be “Sadly…”

  • Red

    An interesting topic, but one which I think ultimately defies any objective truth. Perhaps a bit controversially, I’d suggest that in the long term, price is actually as good a determinant of “fine” or “great” wine as any. Yes, I know wine can at times be a slave to fashion, and that there are plenty of expensive wines that are ultimately very average, and plenty of underrated, cheap wines that are wonderful. I think, however, that these mispricings are often short lived abberations. There are in the longer term, enough people who “get it”, as Jamie puts it, such that wines that vintage after vintage deliver genuine ageability and complexity, will ultimately be priced above their peers.

  • I pretty much agree with Chris Williams, stressing the accent on “have a sense of place”. I can’t find enjoyment any more in a wine if it doesn’t speak of the place where it was made.
    Another important addition to the list in my opinion is: label integrity. It must do what it says in the tin. I’m sick and tired of seeing wines that claims to be Sangiovese 100% (for instance) and are pitch black and smell of blueberries. The sad thing is that, sometimes, such wines are used in wine courses to explain people what that particular wine should taste of, completely misguiding the audience.

  • You should decide what is fine for yourself. If you want to tell others what is fine, at least you should taste the wine totally blind. Otherwise a good part of the percieved greatness can come from the label influence. Why the well known wine critics are not rating wines without knowing their identity? Because with the imprecision of taste and smell they would soon lose all their credibility. The label is necessary to recognise the so-called greatness with consistency.

  • James Davis

    Always makes me laugh when you drive / walk past the shoddiest pub that you know is selling something dreadful and it markets “Fine Wines” as part of the offer

  • I think Johnson’s definition is too subjective: “wine that you want to talk about”.

    You are right when you say: ” 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.”

    Instead, I propose the following: (second half of my post: http://shutupandmakewine.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/ch-ch-ch-chaaangeeeees/)

    “aromatic and flavor precursors (along with acid and tannin levels) are: 1) coded for by the DNA of a specific clone or cultivar, 2) their production and expression is modulated (affected) by growing region as well as 3) growing practices and harvesting decisions that is at the core of identifying varietal and site typicity. In all fairness, not every grape produces wines as aromatically distinct as Gewürztraminer, or Pinor Noir (a clean one) or Cabernet Sauvignon, but the the less distinct varieties still do have a typical profile.

    When one understands that whole concept, evaluating and rating wines based on preference and enjoyment becomes a null endeavor. The only method of objective and meaningful evaluation and rating wines, then, is one based on the 1) degree of fidelity of the wine to the aromatic and flavor components coded for by the DNA of the component grapes in a wine, and 2) the degree of complexity with which those are expressed while 3) avoiding flaws related to microbiological factors as well as problems originating during the remainder of the élevage such as oxidation, excessive use of additives, oak, etc.”

    Thus, fine wine is that which expresses the DNA of the grape with complexity and finesse as well as one that incorporates élevage-related characteristics with finesse and balance.

    Of course, one has to consider the wine in its regional context and there is the inescapable fact that even the most expressive examples of some varieties are not as distinct as Riesling (for example). Still, I think an examination of the possible expression of organoleptic characteristics of such grapes can lead to a foundation of what is typical, what is poor and what is superb.

    Admittedly, this paradigm is on most solid footing when one deals with 100% varietal (Mono-cépage) wines. This has been a reliable paradigm/scheme for me when dealing with California wines, which for the most part, are varietal (at least on the label….).

    But when we look at Poly-cépage wines like Bdx or CNdP, things get a bit trickier. Do we want one variety to shine through and dominate? Do we want to identify a sublime synergy of the grapes that comes through only in the blend?

    I suppose that is achievable. Not easy, but achievable. Where there is a will, there is a way.

    I would propose that, in order to achieve this, part of the “will” has to forgo the subjectivity of a wine “speaking” to a taster.

  • You know, saying things like: “No one can tell you that your preferences are wrong, but your opinions about wine can be.” did not win me any fans (or not many, at least).

  • It’s a thought provoking topic, and I was with you till towards then end Jamie. But I found the direction you headed to be somewhat contradictory.

    Earlier in the piece you way that “fine wine can’t be distinguished simply by consensus among experts” and then go on towards the end to describe a subgroup of experts who you conclude “are the people who should get to decide what is fine and what isn’t”.

    What is so inherently good (and “objective”) about the opinions of this emerging group? What makes their preference for wines of elegance over power (for example) superior to the great masses of wine lovers who enjoy rich, ripe, powerful wines? Can fine wines – wines that provoke discussion, thought, contemplation – only be those that are elegant? Surely powerful wines are capable of expressing terroir and a sense of place too.

    Ultimately, I probably agree most with what Red wrote earlier, about price being as good a determinant of fine/great wine as any. Let the market decide.

  • Richard

    Examples of subjectivity – experts disagreeing and critics rating stellar wines higher than Jamie thinks justified.

    Examples of objectivity – people who ‘get’ wine. Naturally this latter group includes Jamie.

  • Steve Connolly

    Surely it’s just anything over 95 points! Only joking. My only contribution would be that a wine should probably have at least 10 vintages under its belt before being considered “fine”. However, I’m still not sure if we need any such category

  • Richard

    You may have missed an earlier post where Jamie gets at just the tip of the iceberg why “experts” disagree.
    Most of today’s “experts” claim their bona fides as years of tasting wine.
    To which I say: you can be with thousands of woman and still be a lousy lay.

  • That last line should read: “you can be with thousands of women and still be a lousy lay”

  • Richard

    SUAMW – think I saw the post – it’s a favourite topic in various forms.

    I’ve no problem with Jamie saying ‘I’m right’ but too often he adds ‘…and therefore you are wrong’ and justifies this with a spurious claim to objectivity.

  • Jamie

    On this subject, could any of your fine readers recommend a decent hardback book on Bordeaux?

    What should I plumb for?

    Thanks in advance.

  • gfdo

    It used to be that fine wine was not jug wines and pop wines and fighting varietals. Fine wine was estate grown and bottled and also had a history of being crafted and a reputation of being worth the money paid for it.

  • gfdo

    OH sorry forgot, fine wine and great wine are not always the same thing.

    Great wine was fine wine that was particularly outstanding due to high quality, limited production and vintage.

  • Richard

    Perhaps the foundation (if not the reason) for why Jamie says “I’m right…and therefore you are wrong” is how he’s coming to his position (and how the person he says is wrong comes to theirs.
    Jamie is one of the very few people who publicly speak about wine who uses their scientific background to understand the subject. By way of comparison, those he might say are wrong generally speak of things they have imagined or based on “research studies” they did not carefully scrutinize.

    But as I said in an earlier comment: most wine people will have none of this scientifical, evidence-based logicisizing. Talking to them is like a nuclear physicist trying to explain to an alchemist why they cannot change lead to gold…..

  • It is I, King Krak, who gets to decide this.

    Next issue, please. :)

  • Andrew Halliwell

    I agree with Mark. Basically I was pretty much with you to the end, but the last bit to me seemed a bit subjective. I’m happy to explore new regions and different varietals, but sometimes I enjoy powerful wines and sometimes elegant wines and sometimes somewhere in between. I don’t think power is bad. The best quality I think there is in a wine is balance.

    As for sense of place everyone claims to want that these days. But what does it mean? Say you grow Cab on Waiheke Island, what does it mean, you want your Cab to taste like a smallish rural island near a biggish city? Or you want it to taste of being 36’47 South? You want it to taste of rugby?

    There are many delicious wines that would be hard to pin down to a region, even by an “expert”. Are these not fine? So maybe fine wines means those that could only come from a certain region, due to their unequivocably strong regional identity?

  • I hate the term ‘fine wine’ Wine is a fine enough term on it’s own. It should be an inclusive category, not one that divides or puts class or knowledge barriers up. I hope that the wine industry ditches the term altogether. I’m all for reviews and discussion, I also understand that some wines can be better or more complete than others, but I would prefer if these were all just discussed as wines. Its a bit like ‘fine dining’, that needs to go too, its just dining for a lot of extra pomp and £££!

  • Tom

    I think Hugh’s definition is almost spot on. You can decide alone if a wine is great; but sharing, discussion and consensus are what can confirm it.

  • I believe the terms “fine wine” and “table wine” to be out-dated. In French (I live in Bordeux) there is definitely a distinction between “les grands vins” (great wines), “vins fins” (fine wines), and “vins de table” (table wines), although the modern defining points of all three are becoming blurred every day. But, I do heartily agree with Jamie and somewhat insist that elegance and smoothness of texture must be inhernet qualities of “fine wine” if we continue to use this term. I believe that now more than ever, tasters and winelovers are yearning for wines that naturally express themselves and aren’t overworked for extraction or more concentration. We are tired of these big fruity modern concentrated grape juices!

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