Perhaps one of the least descriptive and most overused words in the English language is “great.” I just googled its meaning and noted a comment that in less than a second, “about 5.6 billion results” (yes, with a “b”). It does change from day-to-day, but is there another descriptor (other than “good” with 12 billion) that would match this?
One definition I found for “great” was, “Ability, quality or eminence considerably higher than normal.” Another was, “Very much above the ordinary quality or size.” And Merriam-Webster adds that it is commonly used as a noun, adjective and adverb. Quite a broad and subjective range that leaves little room for the objectivity needed to understand a plausible meaning.
So how does great apply to wine? Is it based on personal taste and experience? Is it based on a critic’s score? Is it reserved for the more expensive, the hard-to-find or only for those that have improved with age?
There’s no real answer. The accepted definitions are far too subjective resulting in a difficulty quantifying greatness. This is true whether related to wine, literature, art, music, food or endless additional subjects that routinely see the descriptor encountered in conversation and “authoritative” writings.
I’ve had the “This is a great wine discussion” countless times over the years 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 lesser-defined views.
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Greatness in any discipline can only be achieved if all the basic qualities are incorporated and the final product far exceeds normal expectations. A book, movie or stage play that draws you in and makes you a part of the story. The artist who combines the use of color, texture and composition to create a painting beyond what another could accomplish with the same brushes, paint and canvas. Or the chef whose mastery appears not only with the flavors of a dish but also its artistic presentation on the plate.
With wine, taste is usually the first sense that comes to mind and is the basis of the, “I like it or I don’t like it” response to that first sip. There’s nothing wrong with this simple and personal reaction as it’s hard to enjoy anything – a glass of wine or a beautifully prepared dish – that doesn’t taste good.
However, for a wine to be considered great, it must appeal to and integrate all five senses. And surprisingly, taste is typically the third, or in some cases the fourth sense, we encounter.
First, we visually appreciate a wine’s color, clarity and concentration before enriching our experience by savoring its bouquet. A clink of the glass in a celebratory toast may come next or perhaps we go directly to the sense of taste by taking a sip. Then we can appreciate in the textural mouthfeel, expression and finish.
Great wines (and they do exist) are defined by most aficionados with specific criteria in addition to their appeal to the five senses. 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 or are they masked by excessive intervention in the vineyard and winery?
While varietal character and the expression of terroir form a foundation, greatness must also be accompanied by balance (considered by many as the ultimate arbiter of quality), structure and a seamless transition from the bouquet of the nose and flavors on the palate evolving to a lingering finish.
Balance is achieved only when the key elements – acidity, tannin, alcohol and fruit – complement rather than overshadow each other creating a seamless tapestry of aromatics, flavors and texture.
Structure is a bit harder to define, so let’s simplify it by a comparison to our own anatomy. It’s basically the interaction of acidity (backbone and skeleton), tannin (supporting musculature), alcohol (underlying tissue) and fruit (flesh). Without any one of these components in the proper balance, the wine will not carry forward its intended character and often fails to add pleasure to the meal.
Greatness can also be an expression of the moment. A chilled dry Riesling on a warm summer day with stone fruit and soft cheese. A hearty Port with walnuts and Stilton in front of a winter fire. A delicate rosé to accompany a fun picnic lunch at the beach. These wines (and there are many other examples) may or may not necessarily meet the overall requirements for greatness, but the spirit and feeling they provoke will surely elevate the experience.
We must also view the greatness of any wine as seen through the eye of the beholder. The very expensive and highly rated 2015 Napa Cabernet I poured the other night (from a stellar vintage) may have held an exalted place in the mind of the critic. Yet, while pleasant, it fell far short when I could not imagine a dish that it would complement. Even an intense charred-rare steak would pale in its presence.
The far less expensive and somewhat less critically revered 2018 Russian River Zinfandel I enjoyed the next night had everything I expected and more. It was a great wine (also from an outstanding vintage) that could pair with a wide range of cuisine from grilled vegetables, fowl, and ribs to select cuts of beef and lamb. It also exhibited the balance, structure and allure you would look for in a more expensive bottle.
A truly “great” wine is a special gift. It goes far beyond an engaging taste (which is a given) and separates itself from the field by expressing a unique and an indefinable quality of “breed.” Wines of greatness exhibit enticing aromatics, layered flavors, attractive mouthfeel, pristine balance and a well-defined structure to deliver a vinous character worthy of its place at the table.
And let’s not forget that a great wine will leave a memory!
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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.