Rod Byers: Yeah, but is it great wine?
My recent column about the state of Georgia wines generated a few comments ranging from the optimistically curious to the downright dubious.
That got me thinking about what makes a great wine.
For the past 30-plus years we have relied on wine critics like Robert Parker to define great wine for us. Give us the point score. We know what to do.
But do we?
Shopping at one of my favorite retailers I can buy a bottle of 2009 Pape Clement, given 100 points by Robert Parker, and pay $210. Or, I could buy a 2009 Guigal La Turque, given 100 points by Robert Parker, and pay $600. Or, I could buy a 2009 Latour, given 100 points by Robert Parker, and pay $1,500.
One-hundred Parker points seems like it ought to be enough to classify a wine as great. Are they equally great? Is one greater because it is more expensive? Or is one greater because it is less expensive? What about that 94-pointer I can get for $15.99? Is that great?
A quick answer might be, if you like it, it’s great, but that seems a bit simple.
Any search of great wine quickly turns up a list of “noble grapes” that are designated as the best of the best. The best grapes making the best wine. The original six-grape noble list includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Any list of six, or even the extended Classic 18 list doesn’t really tell the story.
Going back, deep into medieval times, and even before that to the Romans, before there was Cabernet in Bordeaux or Riesling on the Rhine, it was the regions themselves that claimed notoriety, demanding attention.
The Romans pushed the boundaries of viticulture all the way to England because it was easier to make it on site than ship it from their Mediterranean headquarters. But that never meant the wine was of equal quality.
The development of Europe’s great wine regions was centuries in the making. Throughout all the twists and turns, several factors were key. First the region needed a reputation for good wine, creating demand outside its own area. Second, and more importantly, the best wines of the region had the ability to improve with age.
In a world when wine typically turned to vinegar within its first year, wines that could age became legendary. That was how reputation and demand was built.
Rivers were key to that. Any tour of Europe’s great rivers automatically includes a tour of Europe’s most renowned wine regions. In addition to providing the means of transportation allowing their wines and reputations to spread, rivers had a dramatic effect on the local climate making the wines better than the surrounding countryside.
In northern vineyards, rivers act as heaters keeping the temperatures warmer on chilly nights, and as refrigerators in more arid, southern climates keeping temperatures cooler than they would normally be.
A SIP BACK IN TIME
The former allows grapes to ripen, the latter allows grapes to retain essential acidity.
In the eighth century, Charlemagne, while traveling on the Rhine, noticed that the snow melted first on the slope of Johannisberg and ordered vines be planted there. As recently as the 1970s, Rieslings in California were still referred to as Johannisberg Riesling.
By the end of the 15th century, light, crisp, yet sweet German wines were the most highly prized wines of Europe, yet the first reference to Riesling didn’t appear until almost the end of the 16th century.
Bordeaux has been growing vines since at least Roman times. The natural estuary provided a safe harbor making the region an important wine center, shipping millions of gallons of wine.
It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that Cabernet Sauvignon was identified as the best grape. Until then Bordeaux vineyards were filled with combinations of 20 reds and 20 whites and often mixed reds and whites in the same vat.
The best wine regions were well established long before the noble grapes so currently intertwined with the regions ever arrived. Once they did finally match the grape to the region the fireworks really began.
It’s a finicky world. Would Rioja and Tempranillo be on the elite six list if it had not been until the 1860s when the railroad arrived, helping to open the region to the rest of the world? Or perhaps it was tempered by the fact that the government banned most wines from ever being exported at all?
Once it is poured in our glass, does any of that help us know if a wine is great?
Years ago, wine educator Paul Wagner gave me a list of criteria for great wine. Independent of place or varietal, his list included concentration, balance, complexity, elegance, persistence, typicity, ageability and compatibility with food.
High on my list are balance, complexity and typicity.
Consequently, I have decided to think of great wines as classic examples from famous regions.
But perhaps I’m over thinking all this. Maybe it is that simple. It has been conclusively demonstrated that if we think a wine is great then it will be great, whether the wine is any good or not.
On second thought, maybe I’ll just take the 94-pointer.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a certified wine educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can find information about him at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.