I’ve had the “this is a great wine discussion” countless times over the years with both with experienced winemakers and collectors as well as those simply enjoying the moment. The experienced oenophile usually expresses degrees of greatness in the context of other similar wines tasted at various stages of their development. The less experienced devotees usually tend toward simpler and less defined views.

For our Thanksgiving “leftover night” (Friday) celebration I opened a range of wines from young and fresh to older and more complex. The big surprises for several of our guests were a 1978 Conn Creek cabernet sauvignon Lot 2 and a 1992 Peter Michael Cuvée Indigene chardonnay.

I have fond recollections of both wines in their youth, and the grace and elegance each displayed last week after so many years in the bottle and cellar was no surprise to me. I put these wines in the category of great because they are excellent examples of what expert vineyard and winemaking hands can do with superior fruit to tantalize our senses and add to a perfect evening.

‘Greatness’ is certainly an overused term, and one of the most difficult impressions to quantitatively define whether the topic is wine, food, art, literature, sports or endless other subjects that routinely see the descriptor used in conversation and authoritative writings. But what does it really mean as it relates to a wine?

On a hot summer day, a sip of a chilled riesling may really hit the spot, and on a cool wintery night in front of a fire a bit of Port may elicit the same reaction. Although this might be an expression of a “now” moment is it a definition of greatness? I don’t think so, and maybe “terrific” would be a better adjective in this case.

Warren Winiarski, whose 1973 Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon won the famed Paris Tasting in 1976, recently said: “Great wine requires an unwavering commitment to aesthetic proportion.” I couldn’t agree more, and this commitment must start in the vineyard and progress with dedication through the winery to the bottle.

Great wines (and they do exist) are defined by most aficionados with specific criteria. Above all, for a wine to qualify as being “great” it should at the very least exhibit excellence in what it is and where it came from. Does the cabernet taste like a cabernet or just a good red wine? Do the characteristics of the vineyard and growing area (terroir) express themselves in the wine or are they masked by unnecessary intervention in the winery?

In addition to varietal character and the expressions of terroir greatness must also be accompanied by balance, structure and a seamless transition from the bouquet of the nose to flavors on the palate and evolving to a long integrated finish.

To many, ageability is an integral component of greatness and is best ensured when the criteria above are present in the wine’s youth and develop over time. A wine’s capacity to age is inextricably linked to its ability to develop additional layers of complexity and nuance with age and not just survive in the bottle.

Of course, all wines (e.g. some aromatic whites, lighter reds, etc.) are not meant to age but by satisfying the other criteria can also be placed in the “great” column. And conversely, some young wines are hard and unapproachable but have all the components (bracing tannins, concentrated fruit and balanced acidity) to assure their ability to age and develop. Here, the wines should not be written off in their youth and must be monitored over time to determine greatness.

After having this conversation and enjoying numerous great wines many times over the last 30 plus years I’ve come to understand a couple of basics:

True greatness cannot be expressed by a high price tag or a critic’s score but rather must be based on our own experience and the impression the wine exhibits in our glass. Personal taste ultimately determines our impression of whether a certain wine is “great” regardless of the opinion of others.

Questions and Comments

My Nov. 16 column — “Thanksgiving is almost here. What to serve?” — invited several responses to my suggestions and relating personal Thanksgiving experiences.

Doug — Excellent and practical suggestions for the old dilemma of what to serve with the turkey. 

I hope my thoughts helped your holiday celebration with the turkey and all the other delicacies on the table.

Marcie — I followed your suggestions regarding the hors d’oeuvres and dinner but had difficulty with the desert table given all the different flavors from pumpkin to chocolate and beyond. Any suggestions?

Multiple deserts are no easier to handle for wine pairing than the Thanksgiving dinner. I would suggest the same plan of an assortment of wines. Perhaps you could offer a mix of semi-sweet lighter white (riesling, gewürztraminer or Vouvrey) desert selections accompanied by a range of Port from ruby to tawny.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or e-mail me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.

(1) comment

John Compisi
John Compisi

Allen, Excellent column. Helpful and thought provoking. I have had a few great wines and this article will help me make that assessment going forward. cheers, John

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