There is a clear difference between liking a wine and knowing that a wine is exceptional. Just because we like something, does not necessarily meant that it is great. There need to be depth and complexity. With wine, each person will have their own ideas about what characteristics make a wine great. When I am drinking a wine, and I am trying to classify its quality, I think about these 6 characteristics: distinctiveness, precision, balance, complexity, length, and my own emotional response.
Distinctiveness. There are many wines now that taste very similar to one another. For a wine to stand out from the others, it needs to be unique. It is true, especially for single varietal wines, that there are going to be specific characteristics that you will find across the board, but a great wine will have not only these but other and distinctive attributes that make it unique. These critical qualities come from the wine’s connection to the land and from the soil the grapes are grown in. When you taste an exceptionally clean and elegant Riesling from the Wachu region in Austria, you realize that you won’t find anything like it from anywhere else.
Precision. If you are drinking a wine and all the flavors blend together and you can’t really pick out specific qualities like blackberry or passionfruit, then I would say that it is not a great wine. It could still be delicious, but it is not exceptional. To have flavors so intense and vibrant that you can pick them out separately is one sign of a precise and distinguished wine.
Balance can be a bit complicated. A wine is balanced when all the components meld together harmoniously. The tannins don’t overpower the fruit and the acid isn’t overwhelming. A balanced wine has a magical feel on the palate. Just because a wine is not balanced the first time you taste it, does not mean that it won’t be down the road; it may need to age. However, when you try a wine that is not balanced, you can usually tell whether it will or will not achieve balance with age.
Complexity is another key component of a truly exceptional wine. When a wine makes you want to take sip after sip, because it is indescribable and constantly evolving each time it touches your taste buds, then you know you have a complex wine. You learn something new about it after each sip and makes the experience of drinking it not only interesting but exciting as well. It is important to also realize that because a wine is full-bodied and powerful, does not mean that it is complex; some of the most complex wines that I have had were Austrian whites.
Length, or the finish as professionals and critics call it, is when a wine lingers on the palate. Some wines finish very quickly, while others can have a long-lasting impression, almost seeming as if they will never end. The lingering taste is another mark of a higher-quality wine.
When something evokes a- genuine emotional response, as, for example, when you shed a tear over a character in a movie, we tend to consider the experience memorable and a sign of great quality. The same goes for wine, in my opinion. If what I am drinking creates some kind of feeling in me, as well as appealing to my palate, then I know I am drinking something truly spectacular. These wines make us pause for a moment, they gives us the “wow” factor.
As mentioned at the beginning, I am sure you have your own personal way of assessing a wine’s quality. Everyone does. But the characteristics mentioned above are ones that producers, sommeliers and other experts seem to agree on.