I wrote recently that what counts as a great wine is an “evolving and unsettled matter” because the value of specific styles change over time as do the contexts in which wine is enjoyed.
But I rather like Alfonso Cevola’s approach to this question of what makes a great wine. He doesn’t try to define “great wine” but describes his experience of a wine he considers worthy. In the process he ends up providing what I think is a workable criterion for greatness. Describing a 1984 Monfortino Barolo he writes:
My first impression was of a grainy texture. The wine had sediment. The aroma was flowery, like a pink rose in my grandmother’s yard in Southern California, one of those that, when the dew is still on it and the early morning sun warms it up, makes a sweet perfume, that is moist with a little steam rolling off the petals, the smell of the sun. Dipping deeper in the glass, a La Brea field trip stench, like melted licorice that is very mellow. And finally a little touch of unsweetened chocolate, which followed with the initial taste.
Preceded by a wave of thick, viscous, animal essence. Not vermin, but a prowler, like an impala. Nothing foul or rotten. Not yet. No, there was this sensation as if the most perfect animal on the savannah had been distilled, the fast runner, the sleek-bodied predator, captured in this red wine, a Nebbiolo only 17 years old at the time.
And then the finale. The compressed forest floor, leaf after leaf, a loving poultice interspersed with the purest, minute hints of rock and mud and gravel. Not to be left at the altar, the promenade to the end of the church was a glide from 1,000 feet with the velvety chute open, landing softly on a bed of chocolate rose petals.
This great wine made him think of a specific pink rose at a particular time of day. It provoked memories of the distinctive aroma arising from the La Brea tar pits. And then it shows an “animal essence” but one elegant and sleek rather than fetid or beastly. And finally he senses something soothing, gentle, and enveloping, something to heal wounds and bring peace.
Like anything of great beauty, a great wine moves the mind and opens the heart. It’s more than a sensory experience and goes far beyond taste. It engages cognitive capacities—memory, imagination—and emotions. Alfonso is a consummate wordsmith so naturally great wines bring out his poetic side. But even if you lack his way with words, a great wine will stimulate thought and feeling.
This approach to defining greatness in a wine focuses not on what properties the wine has but on what the wine does. It’s a functional definition—a great wine moves the mind and the heart.
I think that’s the best we can do by way of a definition.