What is “Fine Wine”

Wine journalist Jamie Goode asks What is fine wine? and Who gets to decide? His answer is:

Fine wines are thought-provoking; they have something to say. They enthral; they inspire. These qualities don’t exist in the wine. They are the result of the interaction between the wine and a taster, and the qualities are a property of the taster in response to the wine.

And who gets to decide? Wine experts would seem to be the only authority. But expert opinion on wine is all over the map.Thus, Goode argue,s a subset of wine experts have the requisite qualifications

I’ve noticed that in recent years a new generation of wine people have emerged who seem to get wine – a group that encompasses winemakers, retailers, critics and agents. They have a more-or-less shared taste, in that they prefer elegance over power, dislike over-ripeness, delight in wines that express a sense of place, aren’t afraid to explore new flavours and lesser known regions, and at the same time respect the classic European fine wines.

These are the people who should get to decide what is fine and what isn’t.

Afficionados of powerful wines and ripe fruit—roughly, the Robert Parker set—might strenuously disagree. Is there a reason to consider elegance over power the mark of fine wine?

We might take a page from art history to help sort out this issue. The distinction between fine art and craft is usually drawn as follows. A piece of craftwork has a job to do, a function that the craftsperson well understands. The craftsperson thus skillfully creates a work that does its job exceedingly well, without flaws, and achieves technical excellence in how it performs. Style matters but is subordinate to function.

A work of fine art commands our attention, not because of the function it performs or because the technique was excellent, but because it is a personal expression of the artist’s viewpoint and because it stimulates the imagination and intellect. Great works of art have a sense of mystery about them; there is something to be understood that requires focused attention on the part of the viewer or listener.

Wines that exhibit power require great technique in the vineyard and in the winery ( and good luck with the weather) in order to extract maximum flavor and texture. Modern technology has made this more readily achievable. And the virtues of such wines strike you right in the palate—without ambiguity. They are well-crafted. But all that power can obliterate any sense of mystery or sense of place. And because elegance is in part a matter subtlety and nuance, elegance may be hard to detect in highly extracted wines. It is this sense of mystery, place, and the tracking of elegance that stimulates the intellect and the imagination.

So I think Goode is right that in fine wine we should prefer elegance to power. But it is important to note that power does not preclude elegance. Perhaps the mark of the finest winemakers is their ability to achieve both power and elegance.

After all, few would want to say that Beethoven, Picasso, or Pink Floyd were limp or flabby.

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