Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What makes a wine "good?"

I just popped an '05 Chateau les Ormes from Bordeaux to go with my roast chicken dinner... this wine cost about thirteen bucks, and isn't even designated past the region (i.e. as "Bordeaux Superior" or "Fifth Growth," etc.,) so I wasn't expecting much. But I knew the vintage was drinking well, and decided to give it a try. And it's pretty good, how about that. People in my wine classes often ask what makes a wine "good," and I usually bust out the old stalwart, "If you like it, and you can afford it, then it's good!"

But for people who are in the process of developing their palates, I realize that a bit more depth on this issue might be helpful. I can see that a wine like the '05 Ormes might divide a class. It certainly tastes of dusty terroir, with dried cherries and noticeable tannins. Many students would prefer the "New World" jammy berry brightness often found in CA Cabernet Sauvignons. They might say they don't feel this wine is good. And per my stalwart line, if they don't like it, then to them, it's not good. For others, this wine may taste rich but not heavy, with simple yet pleasant notes. They might feel it's a very good wine for the value and make a note to look for it in their local wine shop.

One of the reasons I teach wine classes at all is to help people feel less intimidated by wine. And I usually expose them to a wide variety of wines, grape varietals and styles to do so. For every person who loves the oaky, buttery California Chardonnay, there is a person who can't stand it, and loves the zippy, tropical fruit and citrus Australian Sauvignon Blanc instead. And so on and so forth, until the room is divided into camps, and depending on where we are in the evening and if they've been spitting or not, vociferously rambunctious about their favorites.

When I point out how long and balanced the finish of the Aussie SB is, the Chard-lovers may reluctantly agree. And when I ask who notices the delicate floral notes of the Cali Chard, some of the SB side may raise a hand. But rarely do I find a novice Wino who appreciates two relatively opposite styles, and I wonder why that is.

Is it simply too early in the game of learning about wine to move past basic preference? I choose such a clear variety of wines in my intro workshops in an effort to help my students notice the differences more easily, and learn the vocabulary and describe what they like to bartenders or wine merchants. But the subtleties of wine tasting get lost in the shuffle. I guess I'm okay with that, as long as they keep open minds in the future, and keep tasting a wide range of wines.

I will answer that question now. I think what makes a good wine is this: one that stays with you. One that has a number of balanced components, and a long, even finish. One that elevates the meal it is paired with. One that subtly evolves in the glass. One you look forward to drinking. As the price point rises, so should the experience of these elements. Will the '05 Ormes carve out a place in the list of my Top Favorite Wines Ever? Maybe not. But for a Bordeaux under $15, I am enjoying it very much!