In discourse about wine, we do not have a term that both denotes the highest quality level and indicates what that quality is that such wines possess. We often call wines “great”. But “great” refers to impact, not to the intrinsic qualities of the wine. Great wines are great because they are prestigious or highly successful—Screaming Eagle, Sassicaia, Chateau Margaux, Penfolds Grange, etc. They are made great by their celebrity, but the term doesn’t tell us what quality or qualities a wine itself exhibits in virtue of which it deserves greatness.
Sometimes the word “great” is just one among many generic terms we use to designate a wine that tastes really, really good. It’s just another way of saying “delicious”, extraordinary”, “gorgeous”, “superb”, etc. But these are vacuous and interchangeable—they don’t tell us the quality that makes them taste special.
It’s a peculiarity of the wine community that when designating the highest quality, we sometimes refer to a score. But that just tells us how much someone in authority liked the wine in comparison to similar wines. It doesn’t tell us why it deserves such a rating.
We do, of course, have criteria we use to judge wine quality such as complexity, intensity, balance, and focus among others. But these refer to various dimensions of quality, not an overall judgement of quality.
Most wines provide pleasure. But some wines are not just pleasurable. We don’t merely like them. They stand out from the ordinary and have a special claim on our attention. We need a way of describing the depth and meaning of that experience and the wine that makes it possible.
In the history of aesthetics “beauty” has filled this role as an indicator of overall, remarkable aesthetic quality. It is less frequently used today than in centuries past. Beauty has traditionally been associated with aesthetic pleasure and many works of modern art do not appear to aim at aesthetic pleasure. However, since aesthetic pleasure plays a central role in wine aesthetics, the travails of modern art need not deter us from using the term “beautiful” to describe wine of the highest quality.
No doubt in ordinary conversation the term “beauty” has become as generic as “delicious” or “superb” and is often too narrowly associated with feminine appearance or visual allure. Nevertheless, in serious discussions of wine quality there is some utility in resurrecting it for our purposes because I think we can learn something about wine quality by connecting it to the long history of debate about the nature of beauty.
Thus, this will be my next research project—to discover what makes a wine beautiful, elaborated in future posts.