It’s a question that has challenged newcomers to wine and sommeliers alike because there is no simple answer.
Compounding the confusion is the fact that the answer can be different for different people.
Over the years, I’ve discussed this topic with winemakers, wine judges, wine sales people, wine stewards, sommeliers and literally hundreds of wine drinkers whom I’ve encountered at an array of wine-tasting events.
One wine drinker may have put it best when she said, “I just know a great wine when I taste it.”
But is it really as simple as that?
I don’t think so. After all, many red wines inherently can “show better” than many white wines simply because of the layers of aromas and flavors they are able to exhibit. Does that mean every Cabernet Sauvignon is going to be better than every Sauvignon Blanc?
In a word: No.
You may have sat down at a casino bar to play a little video poker and ordered the “house red.” In most cases, it will have been served out of a double-sized (1,500-ml.) bottle that has been opened for several days, and perhaps even stored in a refrigerator.
Trust me, that’s not a red wine that will be more enjoyable than any Sauvignon Blanc I have around the house.
So what does make a great wine? I think it’s a wine — whether red, white, sparkling, rosé or sweet — that possesses these characteristics:
- An engaging aroma.
Some will be more complex than others, but what I don’t want to encounter are off-putting nuances — even if they may be somewhat characteristic of the variety. (This is perhaps the most controversial of my assertions, because fans of “natural wines” will argue that such aromas should be embraced.)
- Pleasant flavors.
These can range from fruit notes — cherries, berries, plums, etc. for reds… apples, pears, citrus, etc. for whites — to spice notes ranging from cedar to pepper.
- A finish that invites another sip.
This is a lingering impression that seems to “summarize” the swallow, from the various flavors of the wine to how it felt in the mouth. A long finish, with enjoyable flavors, is a key aspect of a great wine.
But there’s one additional factor that a majority of winemakers have told me trumps all the others…
A wine can’t be great unless its aromas and flavors are in harmony with one another. This means that when smelling the wine, one should be able to smell all of its nuances, but no one note should dominate the others. The same holds true for the flavor spectrum.
Just like a perfectly prepared casserole — in which the flavors of the meat, the vegetables and the sauce all complement one another to create a delicious whole — a great wine reveals multiple characteristics that all complement each other. The aromas and flavors will vary from wine to wine, but that “harmony” will be present.
Another way of putting it: When a wine has an engaging aroma, pleasant flavors and a finish that invites another sip, chances are it is in balance — and has a chance of being considered great.