This is the topic Karen MacNeil tackled during a recent tasting seminar at the San Francisco Wine School. The necessary attributes for a great wine are something she’s thought about a lot during her 40+ years as a wine writer and educator. It’s just one of the many topics covered in her book, The Wine Bible, which is by far this country’s best-selling wine book.
MacNeil believes a great wine transcends variety and place, becoming unique and memorable in its own right. She highlighted nine key attributes such wines have. She teased there might be two more in the next edition of her book. And I've added a tenth of my own.
Karen MacNeil says, “We’re hard-wired to want things delivered clearly and precisely.” She used the analogy of people spending a lot of time trying to get an analog radio tuned just right, to deliver music without static or distortion. In a precise wine, "all its molecules seem to be working together to communicate one very clear message," though that may be like the single note of a church bell or a perfectly performed piano chord. There are no distracting notes, nor anything muddying the effect.
If a wine tastes just like other wine, or a broad category, it can't be considered great. Great wines are memorable. Something which is not unique can’t be memorable. But MacNeil also admits distinctiveness isn’t always immediately lovable. Like truffles or Parmesan cheese, there may be elements to the aroma or flavor which are initially off-putting. But, with repeated tasting, those foods, or wines, become compelling. This also suggests that, since people have varying tastes and tolerances, a great wine may remain unappealing to some people, whereas a less distinctive wine will neither offend nor excite.
MacNeill thinks the word “balance” is over-used with wine and often not well-defined. It is, however, essential to a great wine. She defines balance as “a harmony of opposites.” There are elements of wine, such as acidity, tannin, alcohol, and sugar which pull in different directions. In some wines, the direction and intensity with which they tug is matched by their opposites, creating excitement while also preventing any one element from being obtrusive. The same is true of opposing classes of flavors, such as savory and fruit, bright notes and softer, richer ones.
Non-Fruitedness or Beyond Fruit
“Many of the world’s great wines,” MacNeil says, “are not fruity. And many have a sense of corruption to them.” This brings us back to some of those distinctive elements that may be initially off-putting, aromas and flavors which are feral, reminiscent of decay, or have a certain pungency. Elements of these things can be compelling, as in the French concept of “jolie laide,” which means “attractively ugly.”
This non-fruitedness also contributes to complexity. “Fruitiness alone can be sophomoric,” she says. There's a myriad of non-fruity nuances which can combine to create greater interest and a unique fingerprint for a given wine..
We don’t often think about wine this way as we drink it, but great wine doesn’t provide just one, consistent set of aromas, flavors and textures. Those elements rise and fall in different parts of our mouth and at different times. The finish may come in waves over time, rather than slowly and smoothly dissipating. There may be bursts of flavor in the mid-palate or the sudden appearance of acidity. Tannins may begin softly and build in strength, or start grainy and smooth out. This choreography adds drama, a seductive rhythm, and can deliver new discoveries with each sip. Less complex drinks, like soda, milk or juice don’t do have choreography, nor do simple wines.
Great wines have long finishes, perhaps so long we tend to take another sip or bite of food before they’ve drawn to a close. But, if we’re patient, the wine will provide minutes of pleasure.
“Great wines are complex, with many layers of aroma, flavor, and texture which reveal themselves over time,” MacNeil says. So it’s not enough to have a lot going on right away. That may even be distracting. Evolution in the mouth and/or the glass makes a wine fascinating. Simple, unchanging wines are easy to know and quickly become boring.
MacNeil has observed that “when things are culturally connected to their place, it makes us happy.” A wine that transports us to a particular place, or seeming could only come from one locale, has a special charm. It tells a story or creates a mood other wines cannot. Connectedness also suggests authenticity.
Creates an Emotional Response
A great wine can surprise us, thrill us, or make us laugh. Great wine can also, through its complex array of aromas, remind of us of a place, a person, or a situation. Part of this is because aromas, unlike our other senses, are processed by the same part of our brain that’s responsible for memories, emotions, and the “fight or flight” impulse. Aromas touch the deepest part of us and can recall things from our subconscious. That’s why the aromatic profile of certain wines may remind us of Grandma’s house or a particular day at the beach and all of the memories and emotions associated with those situations.
To Karen’s list I add an attribute important to me, which I’ll call “presence.” Great wines command my attention. Something about the nose or palate is immediately compelling. My eyebrows literally raise and I sit taller in my chair. Those reactions are automatic, not something I choose to do. Like a great song, great wines make you stop whatever else you’re doing and focus.
It's hard to know whether a given wine has all of these elements without actually tasting it. Certain varieties, often called noble, lend themselves to greatness, other rarely achieve it. The varieties most often associated with great wine include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Tempranillo.
Certain regions, and particular producers within them, have established track records for producing great wines. Their names will be very familiar to you. But great wines can also emerge from less storied regions and, especially these days, from new producers.
Reviews from experienced wine evaluators can also lead you to great wines. Their reviews' text may even address some of these ten attributes directly. And, while point scores alone aren't enough to indicate whether you will like or particular wine or if it's right for that dinner party you're planning, scores of 96 and above certainly indicate the reviewer thinks the wine to be great, or nearly so.
JJ Buckley always has many wines which may be considered great. Here are links to a few that are in-stock now. If you have the opportunity to try some of them, think about the ten attributes while you do.
2014 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2015 Phillip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain
1931 Bodegas Toro Albala Don PX Convento Seleccion
2008 Casa Ferreirinha Barca-Velha, Portugal
2016 Le Tertre Roteboeuf Bordeaux Blend
2016 F.X. Pichler Riesling Smaragd Kellerberg
2013 Guigal Cote Rotie la Turque
2016 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port
2016 Bodegas Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay
2015 Torbreck Run Rig
NV Vega Sicilia 2018 Release Unico Reserva Especial
2013 Chapoutier Ermitage l'Ermite
JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.