Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What constitues fine wine?

I've been following some discussion on what wine drinkers believe defines wine as objectively good. Rather predictably, chaos and arguments soon follows as wine preference is largely based upon an individuals' taste. One man's stinky, austere wine is another's complex, restrained wine, for example. Nonetheless, I believe there can and should be a framework for discussing 'fine' wine. I believe 'fine' wine has all of the following:
  1. Layering of sensory impressions. Essentially a wine with distinct aromas, a beginning, a middle and an end on the palate.
  2. Capacity to develop with time in bottle. This could be several years or decades as long as there is substantial change due to age.
  3. Typicity of region, variety and/or house style, i.e. character. Probably this is broad enough to allow even the "International Style" into the discussion, but it's important that a wine has some context into which it fits.
I believe that the key here is to separate personal taste as much as possible from the guidelines. There is a certain school of thought that says, "I like it, ergo it is good." If you like it, buy it, but liking something does not make it high quality. I like Whoppers and Grilled Stuft Burritos for example, but these are simple, low quality foods based largely on greasy flavors. They are not examples of 'fine' dining though I do enjoy them on occasion.

I also believe that "great wine isn't cheap and cheap wine isn't great" applies here as well. Depending on style and region, 'fine' wine doesn't have to be incredibly expensive. But it will certainly cost more than standard mass-market wines (unless you get lucky). That's because more careful vineyard management and greater labor and time investment is almost always required for wines that meet the above guidelines.

By nature, this discussion is neither completely one of relativism nor one of absolutism. I view it as fundamentally a pluralistic subject. There are a variety of tastes and styles in wine, and many of these can pertain to 'fine wine' even if they are seemingly incompatible. Essentially it is a case of "different but equal." This is important because relativism allows consumers to settle for mediocrity simply because it has a flavor profile they like, while absolutism allows a few critics to impose their opinions upon all as fact. Adopting pluralism is the key to advancing discourse in the wine world, and setting broad guidelines for 'fine wine' is a start in this direction.

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