I WENT OUT ON A LIMB last week trying to come to terms with what quality amounts to in wine – in some cases backing into it by suggesting what quality isn’t. I inched further out on the same shaky branch when I promised that in a subsequent post I would have a stab at whether quality can be tasted in wine – and if so how.
It’s a stubborn subject I’ ve been noodling for years now. What makes the effort particularly difficult is my own conviction that quality has to be able to be interrogated impartially – meaning it has to be considered quite apart from matters of the wine’s style and one’s own personal preferences.
When I ask about quality I’m asking about something that any wine made from a responsible varietal growing in a responsible vineyard under the care of a responsible winemaker should be able to deliver. The subject isn’t elite wine – its sincere, craftsmanlike wine. To see just how little progress I’ve made, do read on. Points appear in no particular order . . .
1. Quality means enough wine in the wine. The phrase comes from British wine guru Jancis Robinson who in one of her early books on tasting wine defined ‘body’ as ‘how much wine is in the wine.’ Now, when tasting, it’s almost always the first thing I notice. Per Part 1 point 2, more body is not always and necessarily better than less, but it is a fundamental requirement of quality wine that the yield per vine is low enough to naturally concentrate flavors and aromas to a satisfying degree. I cannot think of a more basic obligation the winemaker has to his constituents – unless it’s that his wine shouldn’t actually hurt them.
2. Quality tastes like a chord sounds. Yes, I am a little obsessed with musical analogies. They seem to come readily to my mind and often represent the best solution when trying to explain something I don’t quite understand myself. In this case, I refer to the way a chord presents a cluster of notes, struck together or in such quick succession (arpeggio-style) that they give nearly the same effect. Well-bred wines generate a similar effect by eliciting a flush of sensations not easily resolved into discrete parts and sustaining them for moments before allowing them to fade away in a succession of ever fainter echoes. It’s one of the things I most admire about quality wine.
3. Quality is balance, but appropriateness of scale and proportion, too. There’s a reform group out there led by somm Raj Parr dedicated to bringing balance back to California pinot and chardonnay (God bless their sodden little hearts). The group, In Pursuit of Balance, has a manifesto (of course) that reads in part a wine is in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed. I’m perfectly down with balance, so defined, as an important marker of quality – but almost always overlooked in discussions of balance are two related measures: scale and proportion. For me, scale is just size and proportion a way of talking about how harmonious the overall whole effect is. Scale and proportion are always the most likely victims of the quality=more thinking I deprecate above. The fact is too-big wines can be balanced but still be too damn big. A wine can also be technically balanced but still present as something ungainly – with one leg longer than the other, so to speak. A quality wine is appropriately balanced, scaled, and proportioned.
4. Quality energizes, rather than fatigues. Here’s a simple one. Wine’s primary task is to refresh our palates at table and keep us moving with enthusiasm from course to course. It’s true that not all wine is enjoyed as part of a multi-course meal, but in every case wine should be an appetizing thing, a kind of perpetual motion machine that generates its own momentum in the direction of the next sip. Wines that lack this essential feature are suspect. Even worse are those that actually wear you out. The franker sort of commercial wines always give themselves completely away on this point.
5. Quality engages, then sustains the interest it arouses. Here I’m speaking of intellectual rather than physical engagement — as in (4) — and thinking of the ways finely-made wines at whatever price have of arresting the attention and holding on to it. The holding on to it part is critical here because though winemakers have all kinds of tricks for grabbing attention, there are no tricks by which to engage a vigorous, curious mind that’s been around the block except by being genuinely and authentically and persistently interesting. Quality wines know this somehow, and don’t play games.
6. Quality isn’t always beautiful. There’s an intangible element that telegraphs quality in wine – that says here is something a conscientious winemaker put her heart and soul into, making no attempt to disguise weak spots that couldn’t be helped, and cutting no corners that weren’t absolutely necessary to cut given the price she could expect get for her work. I can’t say how I sense this, and don’t pretend that I’m always right about it, but I know that sometimes I feel this very strongly even when the wine is something that isn’t entirely delightful, isn’t beautiful. Too-young wines often aren’t. Too-old ones aren’t either.
Quality and beauty don’t always go together. It works that way with people. It works that way with wine.