THE BELIEF THAT A FORTUITOUSLY-SITED vineyard can consistently produce wines of exceptional quality is at the very root of the notion of cru and appears to reach back to Pharaonic times. From the medieval era to the mid-twentieth century the English relied upon the reputations of blender-shippers at the port of Bordeaux (above) as a warranty of quality. The various national systems of geographic designations (AOC, DOC, Pradikatswein, etc.) are at bottom all efforts at quality-assurance.
The wine world has always been obsessed with the representation of quality – nonetheless, quality remains an elusive concept. This is in part, I think, because while all material objects have properties – the property of being large or of being blue, say – it’s not clear that quality is a property in quite this same way.
When we talk about quality in wine what exactly are we talking about?
What quality is and how it shows itself is a question of real interest to those of us who write about wine or attempt to conscientiously sell it, since so much of what’s expected of us involves interrogating wines with exactly this in mind. At the Central Bottle tasting table from week to week we’re often talking about what makes a particular wine good, but from time to time the conversation will drift off into what for me is an even more interesting subject: when we talk about quality in wine what exactly are we talking about?
I don’t have definitive conclusions to share on this subject, but I have some ideas that seem to have taken root as I’ve noodled this over the years. I’ve managed to squeeze them into the five observations that follow, each with a brief explanation but in no particular order.
1. Quality is independent of category, style, and personal aesthetic. A dry, savory, wood-aged red Rioja and a brisk blanc de blancs Champagne represent wholly different categories of wine; and each transferred to a New World site would result in a dramatically different style of wine. Whatever quality is, it has to be something that even wines as different as these can be shown to have in common. We should all be able (or at least willing) to detect quality across category and style even when the winemaker’s aesthetic isn’t one we share or even particularly like.
2. Quality isn’t the same as ‘more.’ Excellence implies sufficiency but it’s not a straight line from ‘more’ to ‘better.’ At some point reaching for more tips you over into excess (alcohol, ripeness, extraction, oak) and quality is actually degraded rather than improved. In my experience ‘more’ is almost always a style decision rather than a quality decision. The Aristotelian Golden Mean applies here.
3. Quality generally costs money but can’t be reduced to money. As a rule, every step a winemaker takes to improve the quality in the vineyard or the cellar adds expense – and for wines costing less than (let’s say) $60 at retail there’s typically a direct correlation between the costs of production and the price on the shelf (the markups taken by the various middlemen being more or less fixed). Investments that raise the price of wine much beyond this are not likely to be of a kind to actually improve quality since it’s a good bet they are earmarked for (1) marketing; (2) turning the winery into a tourist destination; (3) adding machinery that needlessly technologizes the wine, or (3) falling afoul observation #2.
4. Quality is a product of both nature and craft. Like wine itself, quality emerges out of a partnership between certain persistent natural processes and the hand of man. We fully acknowledge nature’s role when we accord certain parcels of ground cru status regardless of who is working them. (Who doubts that if one day no one worked Richebourg it would still be Richebourg Grand Cru?) But it’s equally true that without the intervention of winemakers, nature would be making splendid vinegar, not magnificent wine. Strange, in a way, that we don’t have an equivalent system to recognize the elite among winemakers. Maybe one day we will.
5. The pursuit of quality has limits. A tough one for Americans to agree with, I think, since we ingest a faith in continuous improvement with our mother’s milk. But once a grape has been identified with a place and good vinification protocols have been established for it, you have the possibility for the two to have a long, successful run together, for a notion of terroir to emerge, and for a sense of historical continuity settle in. There comes a point when its reasonable to be satisfied with the quality we’ve attained and not confuse innovation with improvement.
In part 2 next week I’ll address the question of whether quality is actually something we can taste and if so, how. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll do some noodling of your own and next time you’re in let me hear your own observations.
I promise to give you my full attention – over a glass of quality wine, of course.
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