Download &
print (pdf)

Commentary: Defining Great Wine

I read with great interest the provocative article by Remington Norman in Issue 56, 2017, of The World of Fine Wine, titled, “What Defines Grand Vin?” More specifically, I was interested in his comments that spew venom on many Old and New World wines that aspire to be great wines.

Norman doesn’t appear to think that New World wines are deserving of the accolade “grand vin.” He points out that most vineyards contain young vines (less than 20-25 years old) and as a result produce wines “dominated by varietal character rather than any other second-order qualities including site character.” New World producers have an eagerness for professed site-specific wines “when there is little evidence of real qualitative difference.” I agree that this is true for the majority of domestic Pinot Noirs, although I have had enough examples of certain vineyards to be able to pick up site-specific qualities in the absence of senescent vines.

Norman is also under the impression that red wines are widely burdened by the “unholy trinity: overripeness, over oaking and over extraction.” He admits this “regressive religion” has infected both New and Old World wines. His subsequent comments are well founded: “Excessive ripeness delivers alcohol, extract and fruit character but at the expense of freshness, balance and texture. It also blurs site and varietal character. Wood can add welcome elements of sweetness or spiciness but needs careful attention if these are not to be overdone. Oak tannins are more durable than fruit tannins and thus affect how and how well a wine ages. Over extraction is often pursued in the wrong-headed belief that it is a substitute for natural concentration....and reinforces the idea that ‘more’ is ‘better.’ Great wines are generally understated rather than loud, restrained rather than strident.”

He goes on to say, “High alcohol, ‘gobs of fruit,’ ‘lashings of new oak,’ and massive density may lead to show success, but they make for wines that are hard to drink with pleasure - the kinds of wines that consume the consumer before the consumer has had the chance to consume them.” Norman lays blame in part on wine critics, “There remain influential commentators who still consider size as an indicator if not the prime determinant of quality.”

I too am in the camp of those who prefer Pinot Noir to be fresh, sensual and elegant rather than extracted, tannic and over oaked. That said, there are winemakers who specifically prefer the well-endowed style of Pinot Noir for a number of reasons and consider their wines successes if they match the stylistic goals they set out to achieve. Norman notes, “Although style may not be in step with classicism and grand wines....the question of the relationship between style and quality remains contentious.”

There are wines reviewed in the PinotFile that do offer dense extraction, ultra ripeness and high alcohol, and significant oak overlay. Oak should never stand out, even in a young wine. I am concerned that some of these heavily oaked wines will reach maturity with unyielding tannins. Some of these wines also reflect Norman’s quip, “These are wines from everywhere yet wines from nowhere”. I have checked, and many of these wines have received scores in the 90s in the popular trade publications indicating they are considered extraordinary or even ‘great,’ despite the fact that the wines have a lip burn at finish due to high alcohol, and/or a fruit compote character that seems out of place in Pinot Noir. Every Pinot Noir seems to get a score in the 90s these days with score inflation both a reality and a notoriety opioid for reviewers.

Norman admits that grand vin is beyond precise verbal definition, but lists a number of building blocks: (1) Balance, (2) Elegance/finesse/delicacy/subtlety/refinement, (3) Class/style/sophistication, (4) Concentration - depth of fruit not over extraction, (5) Complexity, (6) Length - length, particularly in mid palate, is a signal indicator of a great wine, (7) Persistence - desirable flavors or traits last on the finish, (8) Texture, (9) Freshness, (10) Power - a core of natural energy upon which high alcohol and over extraction have no bearing, (11) Weight - seamless integration of a wine’s elements across palate gives impression of weightlessness, (12) Understatement, and (13) Age ability - truly great wines develop nuance over time rather than just enduring.

Perhaps we shouldn’t waste time trying to conclude which wines are “great,” or which style is the most preferable, and decide which wines gives us the most pleasure. Norman is spot on correct when he states, “What is beyond argument is that grand vin is not defined by style.” Wines that may be stylistically considered unworthy of “grand vin” designation by some authoritarians may yet have features that offer joie de vivre and greatness in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, a wine can be great even if the drinker doesn’t like it.

Previous article:
Pinot Briefs

Print entire newsletter