Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tasted a great wine lately?

My recent writings on Champagne, and its positioning vis a vis great (adj., of outstanding significance or importance -- American Heritage Dictionary; unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity -- Dictionary.com) wines, set me to thinking about what exactly is a great wine.  That thinking led to a search of the literature to see how great wines have been characterized by the people who should know (or who have opinions).

Even though I had issues with some portions of her broader article, I thought that Leslie Cramer (What makes great wine, Examiner.com, 8/3/08) had the best framework within which to discuss what constitutes great wine.  According to Ms. Cramer, "great wine is the exceptional result of perfect conditions, in a perfect vineyard, handled perfectly by the grower, with perfect maturation to follow." While not granular enough, her framework provides (i) the basis for a "deep dive" in search of more approachable parameters and (ii) gives us the first hint as to the importance of vintage in determining what constitutes a great wine.  Let us examine each element of this framework, leaving the "exceptional-result" component for the last.

The first component we examine is the "perfect conditions" required for great wine.  In discussing the vineyard conditions required for production of a great wine, Vintage Direct (nick.com.au) argues for rain in the winter and a long, cool ripening period in order to ensure maximum flavor development.  Michael Dovaz (Fine Wines: The Best Vintages since 1990, Assouline, 2009) sees specific conditions in Bordeaux based on studies conducted there in the 1970s.  Dovaz asserts that a great vintage requires temperatures in excess of 86ºF in the vineyard sometime during the berry-ripening period.  He also channels the famed French oenologist Emile Peynaud who felt that (i) the quality of the harvest was mainly conditioned upon the amount of sunshine in the month of August and (ii) that the weather in the last week prior to harvest was doubly important.

Perfect weather conditions sans a perfect vineyard will not a great wine make, a postion common to the writers reviewed.  The consensus sentiment is that only great vineyards can produce great wines and these sites tend to be (i) relatively small (Vintage Direct),  (ii) readily apparent as great sites when viewed within the context of their overall viticultural neighborhoods, and (iii) known (the author).  What are the characteristics of such sites?  According to Vintage Direct:
  • Hemisphere-appropriate site aspect
  • Excellent drainage resulting from relevant soil-type and slope
  • Relatively infertile soils
  • Old vines yielding 3 tons, or less, of fruit/acre

How the perfect conditions and vineyards are handled by the human element will go a long way in determining the greatness of a particular wine.  According to Dovaz, production of a great wine requires an "intuitive skilled grower who understands what great wine is and what it should taste like" and who implements viticultural and enological practices that promote production of high-quality grapes and wine.  In terms of the vineyard, Vintage Direct identifies issues such as vine density, row orientation, pruning method, cropping levels, canopy management, soil moisture, and pest and disease control as viticultural practices that are key to realizing the full potential of the site.  Minimalist enological practices are viewed as essential to allowing the quality of the terroir to be reflected in the final product.

Great wines do not sneak up on us.  According to Dovaz, "The birth of a great wine is heralded by rumor, the rumors confirmed by its persistence, and tastings indicate wheteher or not it is well founded."  The great wine, nurtured in the manner discussed, will manifest authenticity (defined by Essie Avellan MW as sincerity, commitment, and devotion), "absolute balance" and "perfect aromatic harmony" (defined by Dovaz as strength, richess, purity, finesse, and aromatic complexity).

Nor do the great wines sneak away from us.  According to Walker, great wines are famed for their ageability.  But there is more to it than just being able to survive in the bottle.  Dovaz sees the tertiary aromas as revelatory markers for their presence.

Great wines are not normally found at your friendly neighborhood 7-11 store.  According to Lettie Teague (Is Greatness Overrated? Foodandwine.com, April 2010), great wines are produced in small quantities and command high prices.

So what are great wines?  They are limited-production wines made from vintage-driven, exceptional-quality grapes grown on estates with exceptional soils, vineyard management practices, and winemaking chops and which exhibit authenticity, perfect balance, and aromatic harmony, qualities which persist and are enhanced over the wine's drinking horizon.

Now, have you tasted a great wine lately?

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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