Good wines are produced in regions from New York’s Finger Lake District to California’s Napa Valley and all points in between. Yes, believe it or not, all 50 states boast at least one winery. If that many places to visit exist, then you and I will likely run out of time and money before we run out of wines to taste. So what should we look for in a good wine? How can we choose places to visit and wines to try?
Let’s start by recognizing there is a wine for every palate, a good wine for almost everyone’s taste. However, it is also important to note that “good” is not just a matter of preference. There are objective standards for good and bad wines. We’ll get to those in a moment. That said, don’t ever allow yourself to feel awkward or permit someone to suggest you lack taste because you prefer one wine to another. Wine is about life and love, meals and family, friends and destinations. Don’t allow it to become a cause for anxiety. Life is too short and there are too many good wines left to taste.
Justin Meyer, one of America’s historic winemakers and co-founder of Silver Oak Cellars in California, offered a helpful picture of what it’s like to learn about wine. In his book titled, Plain Talk About Fine Wine, he compares learning to appreciate wine to climbing a ladder. You proceed rung by rung, step by step. It would be unpleasant, if not dangerous, to attempt to jump from the ground to the top rung of a ladder. In the same way, if you have little or no experience with wine, it will probably be unpleasant if you sip a glass of the dry red wine your friend enjoys.
OK, then, so what makes a good wine? Let’s divide this topic over two posts. In this post, we’ll talk about some general attributes that apply to all good wines. These traits should be true of your favorite wine, whether you like sweet wines or dry wines, reds or whites, or any of the dozen variations we could list. In the next post, we’ll discuss the magic of a taste test—how to systematically evaluate a wine’s quality through its aromas and flavors.
The first general attribute of any good wine is simply that it is “sound.” This word applies to wine the same way it would apply to a horse, if we were purchasing a horse. Is the animal sound? Is it healthy? Uninjured? Unflawed? Not all wine is made well and some is downright flawed. One of the examinations required to earn The Society of Wine Educator’s C.W.E. credential (Certified Wine Educator) requires the candidate to taste eight wines, seven of which are flawed. The candidate must successfully identify the unflawed control wine and then describe each of the seven different flaws found in the rest.
To distinguish that many different flaws is more than most wine enthusiasts care to know. Some are very subtle. However, three flaws worth knowing are cork taint, volatile acidity, and excess sulfur dioxide. That list sounds more complex than it is. Your nose will know:
If you smell aromas like wet cardboard or mustiness, that’s cork taint. Between 2–4% of bottles that use natural cork, some estimates are higher, exhibit cork taint. You will not find cork taint, of course, in bottles with a screw cap or plastic cork. This is why knowledgeable tasters sniff the wet end of the cork. You usually can detect cork taint without tasting the wine.
Volatile acidity is sometimes called “vinegar taint.” Volatile acidity smells like vinegar or, more often in my experience, like weak aromas of nail polish remover. This flaw occurs less frequently than cork taint.
Sulfur dioxide, or SO2, is used during winemaking to prevent spoilage. Excess SO2 smells like burnt matches and produces a prickly feeling in your nose. Like volatile acidity, this flaw occurs less often than cork taint.
The amount of SO2 (i.e., sulfites) in finished wine is miniscule, but is a subject of great concern to many wine drinkers — especially those who fear they might be allergic to sulfites. We’ll address sulfites in a later post.
The second general attribute of any good wine is what we might call “connection.” What does that mean? Matt Kramer, a wonderful wine writer, describes wine as being “a conversation with the earth.” Connection means that the vine produces fruit with aromas and flavors unique to the place the vine is planted and the layers of geologic strata through which the roots penetrate. We might say “place equals taste.” Different soil types, weather patterns, and farming practices can all affect the fruit’s aromas and flavors, and thus, the flavor of the finished wine.
The French have a special word for this attribute. They call this connection terroir. Whatever word you choose, wine’s connection to the earth and the wide variety of aromas and flavors associated with specific countries and regions constitutes a large part of what makes wine a fascinating study for those who are interested.
The third general attribute of good wine is what I’ll call “intent.” Was the wine made with the intent to provide good quality at that wine’s price? Or do you detect evidence that the wine is only a marketing person’s brainchild, with more attention paid to packaging than the product itself?
For several years leading up to 2016, the global wine industry produced a surplus of wine. Part of that surplus was sold with integrity, as sound but inexpensive wine. Some box wines fall into that category (there are good and bad box wines, but that’s a topic for another time). On the other hand, if the wine bears a gimmicky label or name, it doesn’t necessary mean the wine is subpar but the catchy packaging may be a mask for poor quality, in hopes the consumer will say “How cute!” and snatch the bottle from the shelf.
Not all wine needs to be ultra-fine and expensive. In fact, most wine needn’t be. For centuries, especially in “the old countries,” wine was simply part of the meal. Wine accompanied everyday family life, to be enjoyed with food and shared with friends. Families made wine for their own consumption. But 21st century marketers watch for popular trends and the growing interest in wine is one of those trends. To avoid the gimmicky wines try to purchase wines made by producers known for their value and integrity, or ask a knowledgeable friend.
What should we look for in a good wine? Soundness, connection, and intent or integrity, characteristics might not have immediately come to mind when thinking about how to define “good.”
In the Sojouring Somm’s next post, we’ll explore the elements you should smell and taste in a wine — through the magic of a taste test. Surprisingly, you can even learn a lot about a wine just by looking at it. We’ll also discuss those seemingly crazy wine reviews you see on retailers’ shelves, like “redolent with ripe strawberries, a touch of cola, and a lingering finish of cigar box.” Finally, we’ll get to the bottom (of the glass) by offering a system that will allow you to judge the quality of the wines you drink in a systematic way.
Until then, may the wine in your glass, and the family and friends with whom you share it, bring you great joy. Cheers!