A Good Wine, A Wine Without Faults

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I can’t stop obsessing about defining what makes a good wine and why people drink the wines that they drink. These are two separate yet related questions. My goal is for my readers to leave with more questions rather than pretending I have all the answers.

 

Who defines what makes makes a wine good and what is the definition of good in this circumstance? I suspect the definition will vary depending on who you ask.  I believe the answer to the second question, why people drink what they drink is complex but often comes down to two major reasons: the first being they enjoy it and the second is they believe it’s a good wine (which leads us back to the first question) of what is a good wine and who decides that.

 

There are so many potential factors that can contribute to making a wine good or great. It’s easier to begin with the definition of poor quality wine or a wine that has fault(s). I will use the quality definition put out by winemakers because they are the wine creators, which lends their viewpoint more weight. Despite probable variances, I do believe there is some basic definitions upon which most can agree is a good wine, or as Robert Parker would say a ‘soundly made’ wine.

 

Yair Margalit’s definition of a wine fault is something that would disqualify a wine from meeting the minimum standards to be what we would call a good wine from his book Concepts in Wine Technology, Small Winery Operations (241). It’s perfect because it gives us that minimum threshold that a wine must exceed to meet the ‘soundly made’ standard.

“ A wine fault is a major problem caused by sufficient concentration of a component that seriously reduces wine quality up to a point where the wine is undrinkable. All flaws and faults are caused by some inappropriate treatment of the wine during cellar operations or afterward in the bottle. The final reason is always a certain specific compound or compounds found in the wine.”

 

Some common examples of faults:

• Hydrogen Sulfide which is a common fault, a smell of rotten eggs.
• Over-processing: the author uses this to refer to a set of winemaking practices which are done improperly which can lead to elimination or reduction of desirable aromas and flavors, or other less undesirable flavors such as papery or earth taste from over filtration or overoaking flavors
• Oxidative components form from wine’s exposure to oxygen like acetic acid which give off a vinegar smell
• Cork Taint which results in moldy, musty off-flavor
• Brettanomyces a yeast which produces barnyard and off flavors and can also produce acetic acids

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, merely to help you cement in your mind an example of a fault versus a style preference.

 

Let’s recap: a wine fault is anything present in a large enough concentration to where the wine is undrinkable. Some faults in small quantities are considered interesting, which is presumably why Margalit defines a fault as existing in a significant concentration. Think about if you’ve ever forgotten about a bottle of wine that was opened and tried drinking it and immediately spat it out because it was like swishing your mouth with vinegar? THAT’S A WINE FAULT. Got it, wine fault = not good in caveman speak.

 

We’ve established a good wine as one without faults. Now how does the wine critic’s interpretation of a good or superior wine differ from that a good wine being a wine without faults. This is where things get murky. In my mind, good means I will enjoy drinking it (assuming it the wine is to my individual preferences, but nothing in the inherent quality of the wine will prevent me from enjoying it). Once you enter the world of critic ratings , the idea of a good wine seems to be inherently different.

The definition of good in the english language:

—desired or approved of, or having the qualities required for a particular role, which in this case could be purchased and enjoyed by people.

 

The best way to understand the difference between a good, sound wine and  critic’s version of a good wine is to look at their rating systems. Here’s Robert Parker’s rating system. He’s widely known and recognized for utilizing a rating system for his wine tastings.  Parker’s system is predicated on reaching a minimum level of quality absent from faults to have a passing score. https://www.robertparker.com/ratings

Here’s the description of his system from his website:


96-100:
An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.
90 – 95:
An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.
80 – 89:
A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.
70 – 79:
An average wine with little distinction except that it is a soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
60 – 69:
A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.
50 – 59:
A wine deemed to be unacceptable.

 

In this example of a wine rating system, good does not mean a wine without flaws or faults, it must also have ‘character, fitness and flavor.’ Also, good or soundly made wine is equated with a C rating which as we all know is mediocre at best, certainly in the world of wine that perception is nothing to strive for. It automatically sets up a soundly made wine as less than the best.

 

A later rating system which is used by the Wine Spectator.

• 95-100 Classic: a great wine.
• 90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style.
• 85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities.
• 80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine.
• 75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws.
• 50-74 Not recommended.

Here a good, solid wine with no flaws merits a B- Score, which again in terms of popular knowledge is definitely better than mediocre, more like a not bad level rating.

 

Our final example of a rating system  which does not use a grade based rating system, is via the Reverse Wine Snob https://www.reversewinesnob.com/p/rating-system.html which looks at taste and price point to computer an overall value score from 1-10, with 10 being a great value buy and 1 being a very poor value buy. He maxes his wine price points at slightly over the $20 price point. I couldn’t find a breakdown of his tasting quality scale, but it is certainly a different look at rating wines.

 

This should begin to illustrates the difficulties with rating wine, all the rating systems are different! I’m not concerned with how the numbers and descriptors between the two systems don’t align, but more with the the gap in definition between a good wine with no faults and the implication that wine is worth drinking ( and generally subsequently buying) There is an implicit implication that a wine with no faults does not unequivocally translate to a wine worth drinking. A wine must possess certain other characteristics which meet specific expectations of wine critics to be deemed a quality level worthy of consumers.

 

I think the rating system overall have been great for consumers. It’s a method of simplifying the largely overwhelming world of wine for consumers. It’s made it more accessible. I use critics ratings as shorthand all the time for shopping when I’m in a hurry, with no time to research or even read labels (hello wine shopping with a toddler is possibly among the worst ideas ever) They help us sort through thousands of wines to find the interesting one or the ones we might enjoy. However. Caveat Emptor.

 

 

The rating systems act as an overarching purveyor of taste. What I don’t think is said enough is that the wine world is an industry of opinions and preferences and taste makers; certain people’s opinions and preferences have more weight.  But when it comes to drinking and enjoying wine, you should never discount your own preferences simply because they diverge from trend, someone else’s favorite or because a wine only ranked with an 87.

 

Let me digress a moment here, but the digression is ultimately relevant to the point of this I swear. I took the Intro to Sommelier class put out by the CMS. An overarching tenant preached by the organization and the M.S.’  leading our class was that  service came before everything  and that there was absolutely no place in this business for ego. Translate that into real world wine service: the best wine is the wine your customer wants to drink, leave your own preferences and opinions at the door.

 

The salient point is from a wine production standpoint, if a wine has made it to the sale shelves, it has most likely been soundly produced and is free from faults. It is safe to say that to a certain degree wine quality is indeed based on the tongue of the drinker despite the prevalence of wine ratings and volume of criticisms that would suggest otherwise. Live and let live, if a wine can be swallowed without being gagging you and some group of people otherwise enjoy it, then why not?  We live in a world of varied tastes, backgrounds, histories, cultures, get your weird or average or expensive wine freak on. 

 

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