Issue 30

The Characteristics of a Great Wine

The Characteristics of a Great Wine

After tasting a great bottle of wine, have you ever asked yourself why you liked it? Most people willy-nilly take in the hedonistic pleasures that the wine evokes without any analysis. The purpose of this article is to outline the characteristics of a great wine, so that the next time you enjoy a bottle of wine, you can put a little thought into your tasting experience.

Putting these thoughts together will significantly enhance the enjoyment you derive from the wine; what’s more, it will lead you down the path to becoming a sophisticated wine taster. In regard to quality, consider these three major features: balance, complexity, and aftertaste.

Balance is a measure of the harmony of the ingredients in a wine. In a balanced wine, all of its elements are in just the right proportions. Unbalanced wines will have a lopsided feel. One or more of the wines characteristics will be out-of-kilter. Balance is a play on the adverb “too.”

Unbalanced wines will have one or more defects: They will be too weak, too strong, too harsh, too soft, too tart, too astringent, too sweet, too heavy, too light, too cloying, or too simple, etc. Balance also applies to food. Dishes that are too salty, too sweet, too tart, too greasy, too heavy, too light etc. are likewise unbalanced.

The second characteristic of a great wine is complexity. The term refers to the variety of different scents and flavors that are detectable in a wine. Lemonade is a drink with only one flavor—lemons. Although the drink may be refreshing and enjoyable, it is a simple beverage.

In a high quality wine, there is an explosion of both fruity and non-fruity scents and flavors that depend on the type and style of the wine. For example, in a California Cabernet you might find scents and flavors of black currants, black cherries, plumbs, cedar, scorched earth, anise, mint, pepper, tobacco, chocolate, coffee, truffles, mushrooms, earth and minerals. Many of these scents and flavors evolve as you drink the wine.

The single best indicator of a high quality wine is the character of its aftertaste. Aftertaste (finish) is the residual flavors that you experience after the wine has been swallowed. Great wines will have a long, lingering, hedonistic finish that is concentrated, complex, balanced, and completely free from defects.

The next time you taste a wine, ask yourself what its most outstanding trait is. What makes it stand out? What is its essence? What makes it pleasurable? I think you will agree that it is the finish. The finish of a wine is like a fragrant flower that suddenly blossoms after the wine leaves your mouth. The finish of a wine is its soul.

Aftertaste is what separates a good wine from a poor one, and a great wine from a really great one. Cheap wines will have a short finish, or no finish at all. The flavors in the wine appear to suddenly fall off a cliff into and into the abyss of insipidity.

There is, however, one caveat: You must evaluate wines at full maturity. Wines that are immature will often times be tart, tannic, and lacking in flavor. Many of the great Bordeaux wines can appear aggressive and lacking in the sensory characteristics of high quality when in their youth only to blossom into magnificent wines at maturity.

California Cabernet Sauvignon wine takes on the average 5-7 years or more to mature; some red Bordeaux wines can take decades. With a few exceptions, most white wines are drinkable as soon as you purchase them.

If you are looking for good quality wines that are ready to drink at or shortly after you purchase them, try a moderately priced Australian Syrah, Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot. They can be very affordable and often represent excellent values. However, these ready-to-drink wines will never obtain the sophistication of the likes of a fully matured Cabernet Sauvignon or great Bordeaux.

During the several years time span required for these high quality wines to mature, a magical transformation takes place. At maturity these wines are a wonder of nature. They are silky, soft, impeccably balanced and gifted with a phantasmagoria of exotic complex flavors that extend out into a long and hedonistic aftertaste.

John Fischer

John Fischer

Dr. John Fischer is a member and two-time president of the Omaha Branch of the International Wine & Food Society, past director of the Nebraska chapter of LADV, and the founding member of the Council Bluffs Branch of the International Wine & Food Society. He teaches a course on matching wine with food at the Institute for the Culinary Arts in Omaha and is the author of the books, “The Evaluation of Wine – A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Wine Tasting” and “Wine and Food – 101.”


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