What makes a great wine?

What makes a great wine?

Someone recently asked me that question, and I puzzled over the best answer.

What constitutes "great?" Price, vineyard, country of origin, type of wine, age, taste? All of the above? Let's look at the possibilities.

Price — For some folks, greatness means the best taste for the price. I have to tell you that some very good, inexpensive wines have been put in as "ringers" in tastings of expensive wine flights and won or come in darned close.

What we have to keep in mind is that "expensive' wines — those over $50 — are priced that way for a reason. Most come from expensive plots of land and/or were more costly to produce because of higher wages, better equipment, etc.

Consistent gold medals and high scores in judgings and periodicals also can contribute to the price. Though I hate to admit it, the best vineyards from great years with very nice winemaking do come close to the "great" scale. Sadly (I know you do not want to read this), price often is an indicator of quality. There is just that "little something" in the better-made wines from well-kept vineyards that make the cut toward the top. There are lovely wines in the $15 mark, but greatness in winemaking does not live there.

Perception — I remember a wine tasting some 40 years ago where a really lovely woman kept rolling her eyes and groaning while shaking her head over the wines she was tasting.

I thought this was some kind of uncommon torture, so I asked her what the problem was. I had made my way around the terrific flights of reds and was making my way to the whites and found the wines quite wonderful.

The problem wasn't that the wines were bad, she said; in fact, it was quite the opposite. After tasting this high level of winemaking from wonderful chateaux, she understood with perfect clarity just how superb these wines were. They were, she lamented, way out of her price range, and she wished she had not "locked in" the high-end tastes on her palate. Everything else would now "just not be the same" to her in the wine world. Her "greatness" scale had elevated to a new rung.

Such an experience is not limited to the wine world, of course. Think of a new hot BMW or a 30-year-old whiskey; there's just no going back. It's a crazy experience, but it happens all the time.

Quality — Here is the good news: Middle-range winemaking is getting better and better, and the gap between very good/affordable and great/not affordable is narrowing. Winemaking and vineyard management have come light years in understanding and quality from the product of 40 years ago, and we are seeing very good values, clean and wonderful varietals, something we only dreamed of 20 years ago.

Junk vineyards have been replanted, new sites are coming on line, winemaking has become science and art, microbes are going away and the new generation of winemakers is making vast differences in overall quality.

I will say, without fear of contradiction, that the "average" bottle of wine is far superior to its counterpart 10 years ago. Because today's wine drinker is demanding nicer wines at reasonable prices (hey, money's tight), the competition has become fierce, global and quality-driven. We, the wine-drinking public, are and will continue to be the winners.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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