What Makes a Great Wine Great?

la tacheJamie Goode’s post What is Greatness in a Wine? is insightful because it moves greatness out of the realm of subjectivity and personal preference:

Greatness is conferred on wine by a community of judgement. When we, as the wine community, taste wines together, we recognize the great wines. It’s an aesthetic system, where we form a judgement together, by tasting together, discussing, listing, buying, consuming.

But ultimately this kind of answer is unsatisfying. When the wine community confers greatness on a wine presumably there is something about the wine that warrants such a judgment. Without an account of what that is, the judgment is threatened with arbitrariness. The job of a critic is not just to announce greatness but to explain it by giving reasons. A genuine understanding of “greatness” would include those reasons not just the fact of widespread agreement.

Such an account of course is hard to provide. As Jamie writes, “There’s no definition that we can apply to determine whether a wine is great or not.” Each great wine will be great for different reasons and general rules that mention complexity, harmony or finesse will not capture the individuality of great wines. The best we can do is use description, metaphor or some other rhetorical device to call attention to those features that seem salient yet inarticulable.

Yet, perhaps Jamie’s idea is in the right direction. A great wine is great because it appeals to a wide range of people in the wine world who agree it’s a benchmark but often for vastly different reasons. Each person’s account of why the wine is great will differ due to biological differences, differences in descriptive powers, aesthetic preferences, and the fact that we all have different tasting histories. Thus, perhaps what makes a wine great is it’s ability to generate a verdictive consensus despite those differences.

Greatness in a wine lies in a wine’s capacity to be appreciated from many different perspectives, a multi-dimensional potential that invites a common verdict despite vastly different ways of arriving at it.

Thus, it is not the fact of agreement that makes a wine great but an underlying breadth or accessibility that makes it alluring from multiple points of view.

Sadly, without some way of quantifying this “underlying breadth” or specifying its causal mechanisms that explanation is close to empty—like attributing the effectiveness of a sleeping pill to it’s dormitive power.

But it does point to the fact that this underlying breadth is not an arbitrary accident but is in some sense “in the wine” and perhaps it is something we can learn to sense if we practice looking for it.

The search for it is likely to be more interesting than picking out aroma notes.

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