What Makes a Great Wine? The French Weigh In

What Makes a Great Wine? The French Weigh In

I’m just back from my trip to Bandol, which was really spectacular. Many more posts to come, including my first attempts at video, but first I had to share some thoughts about French wine tasting. For the first time, I bought a ton of French wine magazines, including La Revue du Vin de France. Founded in 1927, it’s the granddaddy of all wine magazines, and includes the kind of reviews, winemaker profiles, lovely pics, and travel pieces that you would find in the Wine Spectator or Decanter, the UK’s leading wine rag. One of the unique things about the RVF though is its awesomely French grading system. First of all, it’s out of 20, instead of 100, which brings back a lot of grim memories of my year in French grad school. Second, the criteria and descriptions are so specific and Cartesian, they almost read like a parody…herewith, my very approximate translation:

11 or under: mediocre wines–Three faults make a wine mediocre: a lack of concentration, a lack of maturity, or a lack of balance.

from 11.5 to 13: correct wines–Correct wines are technically sound, without faults, and have adequate concentration and balance. They provide a minimum of pleasure upon tasting.

from 13.5 to 15: good wines–Wines that comes from a well-executed vinification, along with a good terroir, a high-quality grape variety, and usually from good vintage. They are pleasant to drink.

From 15.5 to 17: great wines–Great wines are for special occasions. Their personality comes from a great match of terroir, grape varietal, vinification technique, vintage, and winemaker.

From 17.5 to 19.5: exceptional wines–With their strong personality, exceptional wines are distinguished by their elegance, their complexity, and their strength. Only a few of these wines appear each year, and only in great vintages.

20: dream wines–Excellence itself. These are wines that one comes across but rarely. They provide an unparalleled expression of terroir. They are the ultimate benchmarks of quality for their complexity and their elegance. They are distinguished by their ability to age.

What I love about this system is its rigor and its emphasis on complexity, balance, and terroir. In my classes, a lot of times people will ask me “what makes a wine great?” It’s one of the best questions I get, and these descriptions really get at some answers. First, complexity — a great wine (or even a very good one) should be about more than one thing. If it just smells like, say, strawberries, and tastes the same, it might be a decent wine, but not much more than that. However, if it smells like strawberries, cherries, earth, and maybe a little bit like black pepper, and then tastes like all of those things, plus some licorice too…well, then, we’re getting somewhere. Then, balance. You could have a wine that tastes and smells like all those things, but if the wine is out of balance, then you won’t be able to enjoy those aromas or flavors because the acidity or the alcohol or tannins will stick out like a sore thumb. Next is terroir. Strictly speaking, terroir is the happy marriage between a climate, soil, and grape that are made from each other. It’s tough to explain what terroir tastes like, but the best word I can think of is “specificity.” So back to the strawberries–the wine won’t just taste like any old strawberries, but those really ripe strawberries you got from the green market that one time, and the cherries remind you of the sour cherry jam your friend brought you back from Michigan, and the licorice is like that crazy-intense Swedish licorice. I know that sounds a little out there, but it’s amazing to see even the most analytical, taciturn people in my classes come up with these kind of associations after a little bit of prodding. (And, OK, after a glass of wine.) The final piece of the puzzle is aging. So a wine that today tastes like strawberries ten years from now might taste like some incredible combination of leather and mushrooms and smoke and burning leaves…I know, I know, not things you usually think of in wine, or things that sounds particularly appealing, but you’ll have to trust me on this one. I rarely taste wines with a lot of age on them, although we did get to try one in Bandol. More on that in my next post.

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