Greatness, greatest and great (all by itself) account for some of the most overused terminology in the world of wine. And for that matter, the same is true when seen as descriptors relating to many other treasured aspects of our lives including art, architecture, music, sports, literature, dining (both the restaurant and its cuisine) etc.
Several weeks ago, I was having a discussion with a group of wine enthusiasts regarding “memorable” wines we’ve enjoyed. And then came the question, “What would you consider the greatest wine in the world?” My answer was simple, “It has yet to be produced and probably never will.”
When we consider the definition of great (“an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average”) we find it has no objective measurement. So in a subjective context, how can one wine then be universally considered the “greatest” of all?
The true measure of greatness rests in the mind of the beholder. We all have our own interpretation based on personal history and experience. Some wine fans may turn to the “experts” and their critical scoring models for a bit of insight and opinion, but that doesn’t address the question: Is that wine really great, let alone the greatest?
According to New York Times Chief Wine Critic Eric Asimov in his keynote address to the recent Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and reported by Eric Stern in the April 2017 Wine Business Monthly: “Wine scores are not very useful. They unfairly deprecate the wines that score less than 90 points and don’t really help people to understand or enjoy wine more.” Asimov then expanded on his thoughts regarding wine’s emotional vs. rational response, “By permitting consumers to indulge their own enthusiasms they can eliminate the need for authorities like me.” Bravo Mr. Asimov!
Greatness in wine, as in other facets of our lives, is somewhat arbitrary, will vary by our personal experiences and change greatly over time. On a hot summer day, a chilled glass of dry riesling may be considered great as will a glass of Port in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night. This may be the personal side of greatness.
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A great wine (and many do exist both young and old) must exemplify the common qualities of a seamless expression of balance and structure from its aromatic impression on the nose to defined flavor and textural components on the palate and following through with a lingering finish that leaves you wanting another glass. Regardless of the grape variety or growing area, a great wine must exhibit a sense of breed and character (not necessarily perfection) that elicits emotion, drawing you into the glass while peaking your curiosity of what’s to come with the next sip.
Quite often in today’s expanding wine market, we encounter greatness where least expected. We need only look to the previously little known whites and reds from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, less-famous regions of France and other areas of the New and Old Worlds. Sparklers from outside of Champagne are another example as is the wave of Rosés in all shades of pink from the historic areas of Provençe, Tavel and other previously unexploited growing areas around the world.
The revelation found with these little known but “great” wines captures the imagination and leads me to search for others exhibiting the same level of surprise and admiration. Matt Kramer, Wine Spectator contributor, summed it up on his June 20 winespectator.com post that “...these very wines are actually greater than the so-called great wines, if only because they are so unexpectedly over achieving.”
When enjoying some of the world’s most heralded wines we expect greatness. But we are often disappointed if those expectations fall short; just as we are surprised at how some of the lesser known wines capture our senses and deliver a new dimension of something “great.”
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 impression of what is exhibited in our glass. Personal taste ultimately determines our impression of whether a certain wine is “great” regardless of the opinion of others.