Article By: Sandy Block, MW
Whether we're discussing wine, food, literature, art, athletics, or life itself, there are virtually no clear, uncontroversial standards. Much like love, you can't prove its existence, but most of us would say you know it when you feel it. The fact is though that "great" means something a bit different to everybody - there are people who throw the term around quite loosely and others who are more restricted in its use. There's an inevitable cultural bias as well, where what plays well in London doesn't necessarily in Paris or Tokyo. In relation to wine, however, acknowledging that pronouncements of greatness are matters of opinion rather than empirical fact does not at all mean that quality assessments are purely arbitrary. Each point of view and each palate may differ, but some rest upon a stronger foundation than others. Some, of course, are based on better information, deeper understanding and a greater depth of experience. They do and should command more weight. There may also be an unequal distribution of tasting talent whereby some of us have a more finely tuned set of tasting equipment than others. But even granting all of these circumstances, there are many different but equally valid aesthetic criteria at work that defeat any efforts at universality. To some experts greatness can only flow from a wine's origins in a particular, distinctive terroir. According to this viewpoint the very definition of quality is that wine reflects the individuality of its vineyard. It must express a sense of place, of "thereness", to paraphrase Matt Kramer, whose Making Sense of Wine and related volumes argue this point quite passionately. Others, equally qualified to judge, dismiss the terroir standard altogether, upholding a more relativistic approach. Quality, to them, relates solely to a wine's ability to provide increasingly profound levels of sensual pleasure - the more delicious, the greater the quality. This, of course, is tacit admission that a wine which is great to me may not be to you, and that there are no ultimate tests besides our own palate preferences. In the words of the late influential French oenologist, Emile Peynaud, "Everyone drinks the wine he or she deserves." (Emile Peynaud, The Taste of Wine, London, 1987, p. 22O).
Still, despite disagreements about criteria for quality standards, there appears to be at least one area of broad consensus among authorities addressing the question of attributes essential to making great wine. To qualify, most agree, a wine must be capable of improving and developing significant new characteristics over a relatively long period of time. Higher levels of wine quality are linked with this potential to change from one state into another one, from raw, youthful "unresolved" fruit flavors, as is often the case, into a more nuanced, harmonious-tasting beverage. From a roughly tannic state, where the flavors are somewhat masked, to a softer, more integrated one. According to a classic formulation stated by British Master of Wine Serena Sutcliffe, "The very greatest wines should have a potential for ageing, for improving with maturity and developing more complex flavours (sic) and increased depth of taste." (Serena Sutcliffe, Editor, Great Vineyards and Winemakers, New York, 1981, p. 23). Aging capacity, in other words, is the necessary condition.
How true this remains in the light of new technical advances and a resulting evolution in popular tastes, is an open question. How and why some wines can age constitutes a large subject of study, and there is certainly a mystique surrounding antique bottles. We understand much better today the mechanisms by which wines are able to age in bottle, and also the natural conditions that create ageworthy wine. Winemakers are taught how - if they choose to do so, they can create wines with greater aging potential. In my experience, however, not everyone likes the drinking sensation one receives from a so-called mature wine as much as they believe they're supposed to like it lest they're judged by peers to have pedestrian tastes. The cost of a bottle can cow even the most confident connoisseur into silence. Great wine, mature wine, rare wine, expensive wine, aren't the terms related? If everyone seemingly agrees that there are certain acknowledged classic vintages and people are willing to pay large sums of money for a wine with that type of pedigree, then perhaps if I don't think a particular wine of this provenance is "great" the problem's with my palate rather than the wine.
The interesting thing about tastings of several vintages of older wine, particular so-called "vertical tastings" of wines from a single property or company, is that many of the greatest accolades applied to these wines refer to their retention of youthful characteristics despite their age. In other words, a wine that retains the vigorous charms of youth generally attracts more praise than one that has lost some measure of its flavor intensity and is somehow judged to have weakened or faded. Accolades of greatness are sometimes attached. So the highest respect is accorded to age so long as wines don't taste their age.
This viewpoint reflects a new aesthetic paradigm at work. At an earlier stage of our scientific understanding of viticulture and oenology, it may have been absolutely necessary for a larger number of wines to age for a lengthy period of time in cellars in order for them not to taste harsh and disjointed. Nowadays we have techniques at our disposal, both in the vineyard and the winery, to create balanced flavors and textures without recourse to a long required "settling down" phase of several years. The elements come together sooner, and many good quality wines from classic regions are consumed in a state of relative youthfulness that only twenty years ago would have been ridiculed as the vinous equivalent of infanticide. Experience tells us that today young wine can taste good, wonderful, even delicious.
Can it, however, achieve "greatness"? In my experience, yes. There are whole wine categories today that, in their context and served in the proper manner, provide the highest degree of pleasure but must be consumed young. Do they resist oxidation in the same manner that wines traditionally accorded the "greatness" tag do? Do they fall apart immediately? No, although enologists can produce some of them in a manner that would make them less vulnerable. But merely resisting bacterial or oxidative breakdown is not a guarantee of improvement. There has to be a certain potential there at the start. There are wines I have had that I would consider great which have virtually nowhere to go because they have already, after a few short years post-vintage, reached their full potential. If they do "keep", as many can, they don't taste even one degree better. Delicious soon after release, they can only go downhill.
So what, according to this scenario, is greatness? Perhaps my working definition is looser than others, but it's a wine that is as near perfect-tasting in its context as it's possible to be. I'm reminded of my first visit to the Rhone Valley, before I had studied wine very deeply, and of an appointment I had one of the top properties in Tavel. The proprietor served me his wine, his one and only wine, and it was absolutely delicious. It was a hot early fall day and the pale coppery Rose was ideal with a pate de campagne, its earthy cherry flavors accented with hints of herb and spice. The proprietor told me about the wine, showed me the vineyard, the rows where the Cinsault was planted, the sites for the Grenache and the Syrah, and he walked me through his chai, beaming at the relatively new stainless steel fermentation tanks that had allowed him, he said, to capture so much of the fruit from the vineyard. And then we were done. While I should have been satisfied, I asked him if we could perhaps taste some older vintages so I could see how this marvelous wine develops. "But," he said, "I don't have any. My wines don't age." I didn't believe it. I thought he was not proud of his older wines because they were made with old inferior equipment. The wine I had tasted was so good now, I imagined how amazing it would be in only a few years. Back in the US I bought a bottle and put it in the cellar. Two years later I had learned a little bit more and began to worry about the condition of my precious Tavel. When I opened it up it was vinegar.
Although I love good Rose, this is not to suggest that most, or even very many, Roses I have tasted I would judge to be great in quality. But there are some, of quite diverse origins, and none of them age very long with the exception of a Rioja Reserva Rosado I had some years ago that was rich in extract, long in flavor and agonizingly delicious. Agonizing because I knew it was a rarity that I would most likely never experience again. But there have been others that were more youthful: brilliantly acidic Cabernet Franc-based Roses from Touraine, nuanced in flavor and mouthwateringly balanced, and soft and elegant Roses from seacoast of Provence, made from modest grapes but scintillatingly delicious.
Probably my two most distinctive examples, however, of wines that I would sometimes consider great but that begin hitting a downward slope after their third birthday, are Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier from anywhere. Two divergent wine categories, with dramatically different flavor profiles, but with identical lack of suitability for aging. The price that top quality Sancerre and Condrieu, or even California Viognier, command nowadays leads many to think just the opposite, that they can develop in bottle. On the one hand, a Loire Sauvignon's searing acidity might cause us to expect it could easily withstand the ravages of age. Some few may, but never in my experience do they seem to get better as opposed to just older. The charm, the beauty, the mineral nuance is all there by the third year after the vintage. In their own terms, on my palate at least, the best one are perfection. On the other hand there is little in the Viognier grape to preserve it from oxidation, but there is a suggestion of greater exrtract and even some phenolics that makes one think of ageworthy red wines. In general, Viognier starts to go seriously down after about four years. Not only does it lose its youthful florality, spice and fruit, but oxidation usually sets in, even in ideal conditions. A bit of honey can develop, but this is more than offset by the tired, lifelessness of the fruit. Brilliant young, great even, but virtually undrinkable a half dozen years later.
What about some other white wines where I have tasted greatness, as I'm defining it, but which do not age? Wines from the Rias Baixas region of Spain made from the Albarino grape, and a few over the Minho in Portugal, produced from the same grape spelled Alvarinho there. This is a really ephemeral wine, brilliant when first vinified, but fit only for a salad dressing a few years later. The Godello grape from Valdeorras, in Northern Spain, is in much the same boat - lush, soft and fragrant, but without any capacity to develop at all. Pinot Blanc, brilliantly soft in texture, with a suggestion of sweet spices in the finish that fades away after about three years. Like the Iberian examples, a wine that you have to listen to closely to appreciate what it offers, and then it's gone quickly. Fiano, from Southern Italy, is nutlike and creamy, with touches of white pepper and sage. There are others. Even reds, my favorite example being Dolcetto, which is not an easy grape to do well. But when it's good it's great. And no one's ever shown me one that was better five years later. Zinfandel's more controversial. Let me just say that I almost always like them better before they turn five, and I've had several I would term "great", many of which I put away for longer and have been disappointed.
The counter argument is that all of these wines are fine as far as they go, but they can't be great because they're not subtle or complex. Everything is right there on the surface, readily apparent in the wine's youth. This is my definition though. Greatness reflects perfect suitability for a particular situation, not all situations being the same. It's highly contextual. Most wines don't need to age any more. There are great wines that do and great ones that don't. This is not about New World palate versus Old World palate. I don't believe in that. Personally I've had some peak experiences with wines that are older than I am, which at this point is saying a lot. I thoroughly enjoy them, but I can't really say they're "greater" than some of the wine examples mentioned above. They're just greater for different situations. Don't be misled by high price tags or astronomical reviews. Greatness is in the eye of the beholder and you can sometimes find it, if you look, in unlikely places.