How to tell if a wine is a good wine
As the old and unattributed adage goes, life is too short to drink bad wine - but what makes a wine good or bad? What exactly is a good or quality wine? You may read 'Quality wine' or similar phrases on the label of a wine bottle but does that really mean that a wine is well-made? In this blogpost I share with you the best way to assess the quality of a wine by tasting it, what the 4 specific things that should be evident in good wine are and what good wine tastes like.
Don't the label & price give an indication of a wine's quality?
As mentioned above, you can look at a wine's label but unless you know that particular wine already or you have had a recommendation from someone you trust, a label is unlikely to tell you more than the origin of the wine, its vintage and its alcohol level and possibly the grape varieties from which the wine is produced.
The price of a wine can give you a hint of its quality level but it is by no means the best indication; an expensive wine may be poorly made if the winemaker or his/ her PR is not entirely ethical. Conversely you can find cheap wines that are well-made although you may have to make your way through a lot of wine to find the decent ones. A quality wine does not have to be very expensive but it really is worth moving away from entry-level wine as you have a much higher likelihood of finding a good quality wine above that level - only about £1.70 of a £7.50 bottle relates to the wine itself, the rest being made up of VAT, duties, packaging, transportation etc. At £15 that figure rises to about £6, so better bang for your buck.
The things to look for when assessing a wine's quality
The best way of working out the quality of a wine is to taste it and here are the 4 things that you should be looking for.
This is not a matter of how a wine tastes. Personal preference in wine is very important but it is also very subjective. To assess whether a wine is good or not requires a more objective view and there are 4 main criteria that you can look for (you may recognise a few words that pop up in Wines With Attitude's unique tasting notes).
- First and foremost, quality wine should have balance.
You may well ask what is balance in a wine? To be specific a well-balanced wine's acidity, sweetness, fruit, alcohol and tannins should all be in harmony. Each of these components should be integrated and complement other components of the wine and none of them should be too obvious.
A certain amount of acidity is good as it balances the sweetness of the grapes and gives the wine freshness; it can usually be felt on the sides of the tongue. Acidity is important in all wines but especially important in sweet or dessert wines. You need a degree of acidity to stop the wine from being sickeningly sweet; you should almost feel the mouth-watering freshness cut through the sweetness. Too much acidity though will make a wine taste austere and too little will make the wine flat, often described as 'flabby', as acidity can help to lift the fruit flavours.
Sweetness is essentially the residual sugar in a wine left after fermentation has stopped the conversion of the grape juice sugars into alcohol (though it may be added sugar in cheap plonk). As already mentioned, sweetness in any wine needs to be balanced with acidity so that the wine is not cloyingly sweet.
Fruit flavours in wine vary depending not only on the grape variety but also on when the grapes are harvested (too early and they will be green and more vegetal, late and they risk tasting more like jam than fresh fruits) and how the wine is made. Essentially though wine should have a good concentration of fruit flavours; without this concentration a wine will be rather flavourless and as my husband describes some wines 'thin'. The fruit characteristics do fade as a wine ages which is how wine experts can assess how long a wine can be kept for before it is past its best.
Tannins (in red and to some extent in rosé and orange wines) give a wine structure and help a good red wine to age and develop further. Tannins should be smooth and integrated - or with the potential to soften as the wine ages in bottle. Too few tannins and a wine can seem flat; too much tannin will "fur up" the inside of your cheeks and leave you gasping for a glass of water. Tannins can completely overpower a wine and hide the flavours so wines with high tannin need a lot of strong fruit flavours to balance the wine.
Alcohol should be sufficient to give the wine body but should not be overpowering; too much can catch the back of your throat and hide the flavours of the wine and/ or cut them short. If a 15% ABV wine is balanced you will not notice the high alcohol as the alcohol will be tempered by the sweetness and fruit. On the other hand, too little alcohol can make a wine seem somewhat lacking, hollow even. That is not to say that all low alcohol wines are hollow; in a good 5% ABV Moscato d'Asti for example, the low alcohol is balanced with fruit flavours, some sweetness and good acidity.
There are certainly a number of components that you have to consider when looking at whether a wine is balanced or not. But that's not the end of the matter. There are still 3 more characteristics to consider before you can decide if your wine is good quality.
- Secondly look for complexity of flavour. If a wine is one-dimensional in taste e.g. it just tastes of blackcurrants and nothing else, it is not likely to be of good quality. Think about the simple nature of cheaper wines. You may of course like that style of wine and there's nothing wrong with that but it is generally accepted that the more aromas that you notice - and you may need to swirl the wine around your mouth and suck in some air to appreciate the full range of flavours - the better, be they different fruit flavours, nuts, coffee, honey, straw, flowers, petrol or spices...
- Intensity divides people in the wine world. Some don't believe it is required in good wine and some link it to complexity though it is different. Complexity means a wine has a range of flavours but intensity refers to the depth of flavours and how long they last in the mouth. This doesn't mean of course that all good wines have to be huge jammy fruit bombs; there are some excellent and elegant Pinot Noirs for example which still have intense fruit and savoury flavours. Bad wines may not taste much of fruit or the fruit flavours may fade quickly which brings me to the fourth thing to consider…
- The 4th and final important feature of quality wine is known as the finish which is quite simply the length of time that the flavours of the wine remain in your mouth after swallowing. I know some people at trade fairs who count and record the seconds that a wine's finish lasts. As a general rule, the longer the finish, the better the wine. The taste of one-dimensional wines tends to fade very quickly.
What good wine tastes like
It's impossible to say what good wine tastes like since we all have our own preferred flavours but it should have balance, complexity, intensity and a long finish. Of course what is most important is whether you like a wine or not. But take the quality wine test and see if it helps you enjoy your wines more.
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