What makes a wine good?

May 16, 2022
What makes a wine good?

“What makes a wine good?” is a question that defies a simple answer. After all, what makes a good wine to one person may be entirely different to what makes it good to another.

And what is ‘good’ anyway? Is it a question of whether you enjoy a wine, or is it a matter of assessing the quality of what is in your glass?

In terms of subjective appreciation of wine, determining what makes it good requires deliberate contemplation ‒ tasting with consideration and taking note of what you like or dislike in a wine. By contrast, a wine can exhibit indicators of quality that have little to do with personal preference, meaning a wine can be of high calibre but not to your taste.

At CellarSpace, we believe what makes wine good is a combination of both the objective and subjective: high-quality wines that also inspire enjoyment. So, here are five things we look out for when selecting our wines and why this makes them good.

Good Raw Materials

There’s a saying in the wine industry: you can make bad wine from good grapes, but you can't make good wine from bad grapes.

There are several factors and processes involved in growing great grapes, but from a consumer’s perspective there are two key areas of consideration: terroir and vintage. As a concept, terroir encompasses the combination of natural phenomena that influence grape growth, including a vineyard’s location, climate, soils and biodiversity among other things. The vintage hinges on terroir, but also involves the choices that humans make to facilitate grape growing throughout a single year, such as trellising, pruning, irrigation, soil treatments, pest management, harvest timing, etc.

So, when determining the calibre of a wine it’s important to remember that wine is ultimately an agricultural product and its quality will be reflected in the quality of the farming. Therefore, good wines are made by producers who invest time and effort in the selection and maintenance of the vineyards they work with.

Balance

A sense of balance in wine not only means a more pleasant drinking experience, it’s also a key indicator of quality. But what exactly does ‘balance’ mean? Generally speaking, balance refers to the interplay between the 5 key components that contribute to a wine’s flavour and structure: fruit concentration, dryness/sweetness, acidity, tannins (in reds) and alcohol.

In general, these elements should be well integrated into the wine’s structural and aromatic profile, harmonising seamlessly in the glass. How this harmony is achieved depends, in part, on the variety. For example, varieties like shiraz can yield naturally high alcohol levels. So, in order to achieve a balanced wine, its fruit, tannins and acidity should be similarly concentrated. However, winemaking also plays a role in keeping this balance and winemakers can influence this by emphasising or de-emphasize certain elements. Returning to our shiraz example, a long post-fermentation maceration will extract tannins to balance a higher level of alcohol. If the components register on different levels or one sticks out at the expense of others, then the wine lacks balance.

Complexity

Excellent wines are complex and multi-layered, displaying a wide array of different characters as well as textural subtlety. These intricacies often develop with time in glass, gradually unfurling and evolving as you return to the wine. Simple wines, however, are typically one-dimensional, focusing on fruit without nuance. These wines may still be good, but often the message they convey is straightforward and direct.

Complexity is certainly a sign of quality, but there is a caveat: not all styles of wine are intended to be complex. A fruit-forward, easy-drinking wine can have a clear and pure varietal expression while still showcasing excellent balance and concentration. This is often the case with fresh, aromatic wines like New Zealand sauvignon blancs, or festive fizz like Prosecco wines. They are meant for refreshing, youthful consumption. So are these still good wines ‒ absolutely!

Intensity & Persistence

As we’ve established, great wines are made with quality fruit. This means grapes from well-tended vines, that are harvested when properly ripe and possess a good level of concentration that translates to intensity and persistence on the palate.

A wine that has diluted and faint aromas or flavours that disappear quickly is hardly a superb wine. By contrast, quality wines come alive on the nose and palate, with flavours that can linger long after you’ve swallowed the wine.

Drinkability

Wine has come to represent many things. An art. A science. A collectible. But first and foremost, wine is for drinking. This is where the subjective can lend some weight to what is objectively good.

A wine’s drinkability can be characterised by the pleasure derived from drinking a wine. A simple way to assess this is to ask yourself “do I want a second glass?” True, this criterion may not solely have foundations in a wine’s objective qualities, but it is nonetheless an important indicator of whether a wine is good or not. Another factor that contributes to a wine’s drinkability is the occasion, ambiance or people it’s enjoyed with. Sometimes this matters just as much as, or more than the wine in your glass.

Ultimately, a wine can be high quality and good, and these criteria can guide you in your assessment. But, at the end of the day, enjoyment - however it manifests - is the best indicator.

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