Wine Quality: How to Judge Good or Bad Wines

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

Instead of worrying about crisp wines, earthy wines, and medium-bodied wines, wouldn’t it just be easier to walk into a wine shop and say, “Give me a very good wine for dinner tonight”? Isn’t quality the ultimate issue — or at least, quality within your price range, also known as value?

In fact, a good deal of wine marketing revolves around the notion of quality, except in the case of the least expensive wines. Wine producers constantly brag about the quality ratings that their wines receive from critics, because a high rating — implying high quality — translates into increased sales.

However, quality wines come in all colors, all degrees of sweetness and dryness, and all flavor profiles. Just because a wine is high quality doesn’t mean that you’ll actually enjoy it, any more than a three-star rating means that you’ll love a particular restaurant. Personal taste is simply more relevant than quality in choosing a wine.

Degrees of quality do exist among wines. But a wine’s quality is not absolute: How great a wine is or isn’t depends on who’s doing the judging.

The instruments that measure the quality of a wine are a human being’s nose, mouth, and brain, and because everyone is different, everyone has a different opinion on how good a wine is. The combined opinion of a group of trained, experienced tasters (also known as wine experts) is usually considered a reliable judgment of a wine’s quality.

In the following sections, we explore what makes a good wine good and what makes a poor wine inferior.

What’s a good 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. After that, how good a wine is depends on how it measures up to a set of (more or less) agreed-upon standards of performance established by experienced, trained experts. These standards involve mysterious concepts like balance, length, depth, complexity, finish, and trueness to type (typicity in Winespeak), which we explain in the following sections. None of these concepts is objectively measurable, by the way.

Taste is personal. Literally! The perception of the basic tastes on the tongue varies from one person to the next. Research has proven that some people have more taste buds than others, and are, therefore, more sensitive to characteristics such as sourness or bitterness in food and beverages. The most sensitive tasters are called, somewhat misleadingly, supertasters — not because they’re more expert, but because they perceive sensations such as bitterness more acutely. If you find diet sodas very bitter, or if you need to add a lot of sugar to your coffee to make it palatable, you might fall into this category — and you, therefore, might find many red wines unpleasant, even if other people consider them great.

Balance

The three words sweetness, acidity, and tannin represent three of the major components (parts) of wine. The fourth is alcohol. Besides being one of the reasons we often want to drink a glass of wine in the first place, alcohol is an important player in wine quality.

Balance is the relationship of these four components to one another. A wine is balanced when nothing sticks out, such as harsh tannin or too much sweetness, as you taste the wine. Most wines are balanced to most people. But if you have any pet peeves about food — if you really hate anything tart, for example, or if you never eat sweets — you might perceive some wines to be unbalanced. If you perceive them to be unbalanced, then they are unbalanced for you. (Professional tasters know their own idiosyncrasies and adjust for them when they judge wine.)

Tannin and acidity are hardening elements in a wine (they make a wine taste firmer and less giving in the mouth), while alcohol and sugar (if any) are softening elements. The balance of a wine is the interrelationship of the hard and the soft aspects of a wine — and a key indicator of quality.

Balance in action: To experience the principle of taste-balance firsthand, try this: Make a very strong cup of black tea and chill it. When you sip it, the cold tea will taste bitter, because it’s very tannic. Now add lemon juice; the tea will taste astringent (constricting the pores in your mouth), because the acid of the lemon and the tannin of the tea are accentuating each other. Now add a lot of sugar to the tea. The sweetness should counterbalance the acid-tannin impact, and the tea will taste softer and more agreeable than it did before.

Length

When we call wines long or short, we’re not referring to the size of the bottle or how quickly we empty it. Length describes 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 through your tasting of it. Many wines today are very upfront on the palate — they make a big impression as soon as you taste them, but they don’t go the distance in your mouth. In other words, they’re short. Length is increasingly used also to describe a wine with a long aftertaste. (See the section, “Finish,” just ahead.) Length in the mouth can more precisely be called palate length, to avoid confusion. Long palate length is a sure sign of high quality.

Depth

Depth 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 doesn’t taste flat and one-dimensional in your mouth. A “flat” wine can never be great.

Complexity

Nothing is 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. Generally, experts use the term complexity specifically to indicate that a wine has a multiplicity of aromas and flavors; some people use the term it in a more holistic (but less precise) sense, to refer to the total impression a wine gives you, but this use is becoming uncommon.

Finish

The impression a wine leaves in the back of your mouth and in your throat after you swallow 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. The more enduring the positive flavor perception is, the longer the finish is. 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, which tells you that it is probably not a great wine.

Typicity

In order to judge whether a wine is true to its type, you have to know how that type of wine 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 black currants, and the French white wine called Pouilly-Fumé typically has a slight gunflint aroma.)

What’s a bad wine?

Strangely enough, the right to declare a wine good because you like it doesn’t carry with it the right to call a wine bad just because you don’t. In this game, you get to make your own rules, but you don’t get to force other people to live by them.

The fact is that very few bad wines exist in the world today. And many of the wines we could call bad are actually just bad bottles of wine — unlucky bottles that were handled badly so that the good wine inside them got ruined.

Here are some characteristics that everyone agrees indicate a bad wine (or a bad bottle). We hope you never meet one.

  • Vinegar: In the natural evolution of things, wine is just a passing stage between grape juice and vinegar. Most wines today remain in the wine stage because of technology or careful winemaking. If you find a wine that has crossed the line toward vinegar, it’s bad wine.
  • Chemical or bacterial smells: The most common are acetone (nail polish thinner) and sulfur flaws (rotten eggs, burnt rubber, bad garlic). Bad wines.
  • Oxidized wine: This wine smells flat, inexpressive, or maybe cooked, and it tastes the same. It might have been a good wine once, but air — oxygen — got in somehow and killed the wine. Bad bottle.
  • Cooked aromas and taste: When a wine has been stored or shipped in heat, it can actually taste cooked or baked as a result (wine people use the term maderized for such wines). Often there’s telltale leakage from the cork, or the cork has pushed up a bit inside the bottle. Bad bottle. (Unfortunately, every other bottle of that wine that experienced the same shipping or storage will also be bad.)
  • Corky wine: The most common flaw, corkiness comes across as a smell of damp cardboard that gets worse with air, along with diminished flavor intensity. It’s caused by a defective cork, and any wine in a bottle that’s sealed with a cork is at risk for it. Bad bottle. (Fortunately, only a very small percentage of wines are corky.)

Let’s not dwell too long on what can go wrong with a wine. If you find a bad wine or a bad bottle — or even a wine that’s considered a good wine, but you don’t like it — just move on to something you like better. Drinking a so-called great wine that you don’t enjoy is as time-wasting as watching a television show that bores you. Change the channel. Explore.