What makes a wine great?
This question came up last Saturday night following our Celebration of Burgundy sale. I posed it to myself, but that still counts. I asked (myself) this question during the course of our auction, as I had the opportunity to taste a number of very good wines that were opened in the room during the sale. While the majority of them were most excellent, two of them truly stood out as being great. And I mean great, like unforgettably great. Like better than 99% of the wine you have tasted and will ever taste. I will get to the specific wines later, but first a few thoughts on ‘greatness’ in wine.
Wine tasting and appreciation is by its very nature subjective. Some folks like rich, New World Chardonnay above all else, and would not be able to appreciate a Grand Cru Chablis. Others can’t bear to drink a wine before its 20th birthday. These are each examples of subjective views on what makes a wine enjoyable.
But there is also an objective aspect of wine and wine appreciation. Certain producers and vineyards are inherently better than others. You don’t have to like these, you don’t have to appreciate these, but they are. For example, with all things being equal (winemaker and vintage say), 99 times out of 100 a Grand Cru Chablis is going to be better than a village level Chablis. It is going to have a more intriguing nose, it is going to have more complexity, the palate is going to add dimension and reveal new sensations as it opens and evolves. Is it objectively better due to these factors? Yes. But is it great because it’s a Grand Cru? Not necessarily.
This is where things get a bit sticky, because in my opinion a wine is not truly great without it having a very long, complex and memorable finish. The finish will serve as a vivid portrait of what the wine tasted like on your palate and also introduce new elements. Is this subjective? Probably, but it’s objective as well. Some wines do have longer, more persistent finishes than others. It’s a fact, it’s measurable. So what’s the difference between (really) good and great? The finish. The finish never lies.
The wines I tasted last Saturday night that have me writing about this are an impressive duo to be sure, and you would expect them to be great. That being said, a great producers plus a great vineyard does not always equal a great wine (although the odds do generally tip in that direction). So without further ado, the wines and a few observations about their tell-all finishes:
2011 Coche-Dury, Corton Charlemagne It was difficult to tell the difference between the palate and the finish – the intensity of the finish was so great that there was a tactile sensation of the wine still weighing on my tongue. It was like magic trick-I am still thinking about it.
2002 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée St Vivant My initial impressions were that this was a very good wine. It had lovely Vosne aromatics, a sexy impression of the vintage and the place, and all the class you could want. But I didn’t think it was truly great when I first tasted it. I knew it was great when I tasted it 25 minutes later – not from a glass, but from the lingering finish alone. A finish which reminded me exactly what the wine tasted like 25 minutes earlier.
So what does all of this add up to? Any wine can be good (or very good) if you want it to be, but it takes a finish that isn’t easily forgotten for a wine to be truly great.
In this HDH Blog series, Juicy Details, Senior Consignment Operations Associate, David Larson, delves deeper into the world of wine. Whether he’s discussing soil types of specific vineyards, laws within different appellations, or the weather of a certain region, these fascinating tidbits of knowledge help lift the veil on fine and rare wines and reveal what sets the best wines apart from the rest.