We all have our favorite wines, but what is it that makes one so much better than another. Is it price? Not always. From white to red, sparkling to rose, there ARE factors that cause one wine to be of greater quality than another of a similar type. Some key words that we use in the wine industry to describe a wine?s quality are: clarity, concentration, balance, length & finish.
I?m going to teach you what each term means and how you can use them to describe and determine a wine?s quality. You?ll be the life of the party and impress all who converse with you. Keep in mind that there is no way to emperically prove to someone else that one wine is better than another. That?s not the point here. If that were the case, would chardonnay & cabernet still be grown on almost every continent?
Is it pure? Is it focused?
When it comes to measuring a wine?s clarity these are the two questions you must ask. You might have heard a wine being described as laser-like or vivid. These are perfect adjectives for a wine that expresses clarity. Clarity is most apparent in white wines because they are less likely to be altered by oak aging. Wines such as Austrian Gruner Veltliner, German Riesling & Champagne possess tremendous clarity. They are incredibly pure examples of the dynamic relationship that grapevines can have with their respective soils. Try a Syrah based red from the Northern Rhone Valley appellations of Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, St. Joseph or Cornas if you want to try a red wine of clarity. The excellent vintages of 2003 and 2005 produced profound wines in this southern French region, albeit in some cases the ripeness may overpower the wine?s clarity.
Paging Dr. Vankman for concentration experiments
Concentration may be the most self explanatory of all five terms. The best ?DIY? test to analyze concentration is simple: when you take your first sniff or sip, pick out the most prominent scent or flavor. Focus on that one attribute for a minute or so and enjoy it; if it?s not too difficult. On your second taste try to center on all the other attributes that the wine possesses other than the original one. How difficult is it to do so? If you are enjoying a more complex or cerebral wine you might find many more interesting facets. Most often you will find that the difficultly or ease of this test determines how much or how little the amount of concentration is. Concentration can also be described by what it is not: diluted, bland or flabby. Wines with higher alcohol, i.e. fortified wines (Port, Marsala, Madeira) and late harvest dessert wines, tend to have lots of concentration. Sometimes people can be turned off by a wine with too much concentration. Balance is the reason why.
Steady as She Goes
When we think of balance what comes to mind? An equation, a teeter totter or those damn ninth grade geometry proofs may come to mind. NOT! [note from editor: We were going to remove this for Jake’s sake. But we felt it was so awesome that he was rocking slang from ’92. Next week The Wine Guy’s going to drop some fashion tips on Cross Colours and HyperColor T-Shirts] For some of you new age folk, maybe even feng shui. The truth is, we all know what balance is. What is it though that makes a wine balanced? Two things in particular are of the utmost importance: acidity and fruit. They cannot be out of sync with each other. If they are, the wine will suffer and you will notice it immediately. A wine with too much fruit can sometimes taste syrupy or have a thicker than normal viscosity. This can be due to over-extraction/manipulation of the grapes or a delayed/late harvest. Usually fruit of this nature necessitates, in the winemaker?s opinion, being complemented with a heavy dose of oak. This produces a ?fruit-bomb? that overloads your palate with vanilla, cedar & spice notes and masks all the wine?s delicate subtleties. On the other hand, a wine with too much acidity can be assimilated with the same sensation you get from eating a lemon or lime: offensively sour & mouth-puckering. However when a winemaker finds the balance between the two, a wine is neither cloying, like some girlfriends, nor tart. Ultimately, for a superior wine to age gracefully it needs the structure that a fine line of acidity gives to the ripe, ethereal, mouth filling fruit.
Another way we determine the quality of a wine is by its length. The best way to ascertain this is by asking yourself: Do I feel the wine?s flavors on all parts of my tongue? More specifically, do the flavors work together in unison? Or do you sense some sweetness on the tip of your tongue and then a little in the mid-palate? Some grapes, by nature, are hollow and lack concentration in the mid-palate or center of your tongue. All great wines, however, have amazing length. Try to envision a circus in your mouth, with the center circle being your tongue. There?s something interesting going on in every portion of the circle, sometimes so much it?s difficult to concentrate on one part. A good wine is like a good circus where everything can be tasted or watched at the same time although they are happening in different areas. With practice and focus you?ll be surprised how you can pin down different flavors on different areas of your tongue. The tongue senses four different traditional flavor profiles: Sweetness on the tip of the tongue, sourness in the middle, saltiness on the sides & bitterness on the back. Recently a fifth one has been incorporated which encompasses the other four. It is known in the east as umami, but to us westerners it?s savoriness.
A wine?s length progressively works towards its finish. This is the last chance a wine has to impress you. This is why a wine?s finish may be the single greatest determinant in quality. A novice wine drinker will almost always notice it as much as a connoisseur. Granted the connoisseur may appreciate or savor it more than the novice. Wines of good or great quality will have finishes that linger on your palate anywhere from 10 seconds to minutes. You?ll find yourself naturally salivating to taste it again and again without having to take another sip. Wines with immense finishes include: top Sauternes & TBAs, dense and opulent Cabernet/Merlot based wines, and top notch Burgundies. Simple wines have little or no finish, which is fine. That wine can still be used to cook with.