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What Does Wine Quality Mean?

Thoughts and Musings about What Quality Is in Wine

Read Time: 3 Mins

So, what does quality in wine mean? The conventional way of talking about quality wine is using terms such as balance, intensity and complexity, but this is extremely subjective and dependent on the individual's opinion.

For example, the 2010 Graillot Syrah from Heathcote in central Victoria was rated 96, and the best of the best by James Halliday and 88 by Campbell Mattinson. I can understand both ratings; as a wine, I believe James Halliday to be correct, but as a typical example of Australian Shiraz, Campbell had it right.

The Master Rhone Valley Winemaker Alain Graillot

Tug-of-War Between Commercial Consistency & Authentic Terroir

Over the years, I have noticed that the aim of some wine manufacturers is to produce a wine that is aimed to offend the least amount of people, and this has resulted in still wines that, year in and year out, have a similarity.

Commercialisation demands that as a winery's output grows, so does its need to standardise its product and thereby appeal to a great portion of the market. A simple example of this can be seen with coffee. Major brands' product lines are a consistent blend, which guarantees a flavour and taste, whilst smaller local roasters produce products that will vary sometimes even from batch to batch.

This has resulted in the production of some wineries being driven by focus groups and consumer research, and here quality is defined by producing the least offensive wine. In this model, marketing ability is used to establish product differentiation and appeal to the retail buyer.

Greg the Wine Traveller Hard at Work...

The Paradox of Perfection. When a Flawless Wine Leaves You Wanting More

I have been lucky enough to have travelled and sampled some top wines, and it took a light bulb moment when tasting and discussing one of these wines to realise that what was wrong with the wine - was that there was nothing wrong. The colour, the flavours, the tannin, everything was perfect.

We were proudly told that every vintage was harvested and then treated to 21 months in new oak as history has shown this was the optimum ageing period; this wine was made to a formula. The wine was made using the correct clones, correctly watered vineyards, cultured yeast, etc.

This was not a cheap wine and has won many gold medals, yet it was made to formula rather than to maximise the expression of grape type and terroir.

An Aussie winemaker with a winning gold medal wine

So, what is a quality wine? Is it a wine that has been manipulated by consumer research and marketing groups and a winemaker striving for a successful and consistent wine, or is it a product that is representative of a grape type and terroir? To me, the answer is both, and it depends on your frame of reference.

How Winemaking Interventions Are Replacing Terroir with Predictability

In the new world, we have introduced the grape vines of the wines we wanted to drink. As such, these vines may not have been planted in the ideal location. As a result, the winemakers have become very good at interventions during winemaking, resulting in wines that are more indicative of winemaking than terroir.

Winemakers can drastically alter the wines if they do not have access to high-quality fruit. They can make drastic changes in the winery – Vins d'Effort. Manipulations start in the vineyard with irrigation, then move to the winery with cultivated yeasts, wood chips, grape sugar, etc.

These interventions are all efforts to improve quality that has resulted in a certain consistency from vintage to vintage and give the consumer a reasonable expectation of what they will get, but have they taken individuality out of wine?

In my opinion, this has resulted in two distinctive styles of wine:

  1. Developed in the vineyards, with minimal winemaking interventions – wines of individuality and variations that change with terroir.
  2. Developed in the winery, it is standardised and consistent in flavour.

Both of these can be high quality; they are just different.