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How to Discern Wine Quality

Wine producers constantly brag about the quality ratings that their wines receive from critics, because a high wine rating — implying high quality — translates into increased sales for a wine. But quality wines come in all colors, degrees of sweetness and dryness, and flavor profiles.

Just because a wine is high quality doesn’t mean that you will actually enjoy it. Personal taste is more relevant than quality in choosing a wine. A good wine is, above all, a wine that you like enough to drink — because the whole purpose of a wine is to give pleasure to those who drink it.

A wine’s quality is not absolute: how great a wine is or isn’t depends on who is doing the judging. The combined opinion of a group of trained, experienced palates (also known as wine experts) is usually considered a definitive judgment of a wine’s quality.

The standards of performance that wine experts use to judge wine quality include the following:

  • Balance: The relationship of four components — sweetness, acidity, tannin, and alcohol — to one another. A wine is balanced when nothing sticks out as you taste it, like harsh tannin or too much sweetness. Most wines are balanced to most people.

  • Length: Used to describe a wine that gives an impression of going all the way on the palate — you can taste it across the full length of your tongue — rather than stopping short halfway. Many wines today are very up front on the palate — they make a big impression as soon as you taste them — but they don’t go the distance in your mouth. They are short. Generally, high alcohol or excess tannin is to blame. Length is a sure sign of high quality.

  • Depth: This is another subjective, unmeasurable attribute of a high-quality wine. We say a wine has depth when it seems to have a dimension of verticality — that is, it does not taste flat and one-dimensional in your mouth. A “flat” wine can never be great.

  • Complexity: There’s nothing wrong with a simple, straightforward wine, especially if you enjoy it. But a wine that keeps revealing different things about itself, always showing you a new flavor or impression — a wine that has complexity — is usually considered better quality. Some experts use the term complexity specifically to indicate that a wine has a multiplicity of aromas and flavors, while others use it in a more holistic (but less precise) sense, to refer to the total impression a wine gives you.

  • Finish: The impression a wine leaves in the back of your mouth and in your throat after you have swallowed it is its finish or aftertaste. In a good wine, you can still perceive the wine’s flavors — such as fruitiness or spiciness — at that point. Some wines may finish hot, because of high alcohol, or bitter, because of tannin — both shortcomings. Or a wine may have nothing much at all to say for itself after you swallow.

  • Typicity: In order to judge whether a wine is true to its type, you have to know how that type is supposed to taste. So you have to know the textbook characteristics of wines made from the major grape varieties and wines of the world’s classic wine regions. For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape typically has an aroma and flavor of blackcurrants, and the French white wine called Pouilly-Fumé typically has a slight gunflint aroma.

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