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Why is a great wine great?

Spurred on by another thread, I got to thinking about this question.

Not really looking for technical aspects like nose, tannins, structure etc, but for the feelings, emotions, or sense of joy we get when we taste something out of the ordinary.

A great wine to me is one that I will always remember having, with the friends and the food. It is one to which others are compared, and with very few exceptions, fall short. It evokes a sense of place, whether I have been there or not. While I have never been to the South of Rhône or Provence, but with a beautifully crafted CDP or a Provençal rosé in my glass, I can imagine touching the giant rocks in the vineyards or sitting on the beach in Nice.

Idyllic rants, poetry, personal exepriences, and metaphors welcome!

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  1. A great wine is great to me for a number of different reasons at different times. Sometimes it's a great wine because it stands alone and does not need any food pairing to be awesome. Sometimes it can stand up to an incredible dish and enhance the experience. It's tough for me to narrow this one down because it has so many variables for my tastes.

    1. You stated that well then, and once again. I agree. To me, a "great wine" is one where everything comes into alignment. Some of it is luck (weather at all phases), some of it is agrarian (work done in a good vineyard), some of it is science (blending, winemaking, etc. after the harvest) and then some is just flat “art.” When, where, and with whom, one drinks these wines probably plays a big role in the memories.

      In my life, I have had a couple of dozen experiences with “great wines.” A few are the ones, about which those hard-bound books are written, but some were the right wine, with the right food and with the right company, at the right time, either for me, or for the wine. Would someone else find them “great?” Maybe, but maybe not. In my experiences, the price/btl. has ranged from ~US$50 to “priceless.” To sip the last of Egon Müller’s ‘76 Auslese Gold-capsule is one of those moments. To have a glass of the ‘94 (IIRC) Lake Vineyard with Al Brounstein, IN the Lake Vineyard, is something that I would not trade for 100 cases of Opus One. To taste 30 years of Robert Mondavi’s best Cabs WITH Robert Mondavi yielded maybe three “great” wines, and all in one evening. To do a 25 wine vertical of the best of Ch. Latour - again, priceless with maybe four candidates. To sample the “ultimate expression of 300 years of one family’s winemaking endeavors” with a bottle of Bodega Torres, with tears streaming down Miguel’s cheeks, because it was first “great” wine to carry his family’s name, was over the top, and still chokes me up. To me, these were “great wines.” To be invited to “belly up to the bar,” with Joseph Phelps, after a rather mundane tasting, to sample some of his “favorite vintages” of Insignia is something that I shall always remember.

      Yes, I’ve had many fine wines and with great friends, that were the subject of other memories, but those above, plus a few others, are what I shall ALWAYS remember.

      Considering the quantity of wine that I consume, I’d still stick with my rough estimate of what is wine, what is good wine, what is fine wine, and what is “Great Wine.”

      Glad that you started this thread. It will be interesting to see where it goes.


      1. Short answer: A great wine can only be experienced when "everything" comes together . . . the wine, the food, the company with which one is sharing the experience, and that certain "je ne sais quoi" - or, for lack of a better English term, "synergy" -- that makes the whole better (and more memorable) than the sum of its parts.

        Long answer: That will have to wait until I get back from Dallas. I have to pack, as I'm leaving in the morning.

        However, in truth, there are NO great wines -- only great bottles of wine.


        1. Several things I'd suggest make a wine great:

          1) It's a superb representation of the varietal

          2) Assuming a reasonable food match, it ENHANCES the quality of the food.

          3) And last but not least, perhaps most important... it just tastes wonderful and is memorable. One of the best "measures" you can use for this is whether the wine is a "standout among standouts"...

          A good recent example for me.... I was at a BYOB dinner a couple nights ago... 5 really good wines:

          Two 1982 Bordeaux (a St. Emilion and a Pomerol)

          A 2003 Alsace Reserve Pinot Gris

          A Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from the exceptional 2005 Vintage

          A 2005 Spatlese from the Scharzhofberg vineyard (Mosel-S-R region)....

          While all these wines were quite tasty and really matched the dinner well, the 2005 Spatlese was a riveting standout, gorgeous nose, texture, lingering depth of flavor, none of that "bubbliness" that you sometimes find in lesser spats... a friend of mine commented it could have been a dessert wine and yet was only spatlese ripeness... THATS a great wine.

          1. Well this is in part a question of semantics, but only in part.

            I think that the truly great wines of the world transcend great bottles and vintages, and rather, have demonstrated their greatness time and time again. They’re the result of dozens if not hundreds of vintages produced from the same site, generations of winemakers, and a culture of winemaking that values site over style. In every case they are inextricably linked to their origin; show me a great wine, and I’ll show you a great vineyard. Truly great wines have a sense of place that reaches down into your brain stem and defines the very essence of Paulliac, Sauternes, Chambertin, or Les Clos – vinous intellectual “ahahs” They balance alcohol, acid, fruit, tannin, and sugar in a way that helps you see where others fail in this regard, and they have a persistence and depth that separates them from the host of other “great” wines

            1. Very interesting question. I can only speak from personal experience, but a great wine for me starts before I even pick up the bottle. When browsing the isles of a wine shop, a great wine will jump out to me for some reason. Whether it's something about the bottle shape, or label, I have no idea. But if I pick up that bottle and read about the contents and everything sounds good, i'll take it home (Where the real test begins). After that, like others have mentioned, everything has to align to complete it's "greatness." If the right moment with the right people arise and we open the bottle, and it performs superbly, it has secured a place of greatness for me.

              I know my explanation includes no tangible factors, but I think that's probably part of my point.

              ClassicWines Guy
              http://www.classicwines.com - Wine Reviews at Classic Wines

              1. because it knocked your socks off.

                1 Reply
                1. re: ibstatguy

                  Yes. As it is with great taco, great donut, great bbq, great cheddar, great water cooked fish slices and so much else these boards revel in. I guess this leads to---why does the op's question get asked so often when the "greatness" of any of the other foods is rarely anthing but obvious.

                2. A great wine makes your mouth sing. Sometimes you are in the mood for a jazz quintet, sometimes you want a full orchestra. There are high notes and low notes, but everything is in harmony. There is music for every occasion, and there is wine for every occasion. And for me, it is always best enjoyed with friends who appreciate it as much as you do.

                  1. A great wine is one that you love!
                    Wine is so subjective; you may like a Parker 100 wine, you may think it's vinegar.
                    Why let someone else tell you what you should enjoy?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Vinquire

                      Aside from any noticeable faults like - TCA, stinky sulfides,etc - -

                      Wine is personal and if you love the taste who cares if it has a Parker 100.

                    2. For me, the word "great" is too often bandied about deluting it. Great wine? For me, great wine goes beyond vintner, vintage, and varietel. I'm now seventy four years old, and I can honestly say that I have only experienced great wine twice in my life. There is a magic that happens that connects with the threads of your being and implants a memory that will last as long as you breath.

                      One of my great wine experiences was Chateau d'Yquem. Though the memory of the occasion, the time honored and icon of icons label, the crystal goblet, the entire experience are still with me, they dim to a shadow when the the magic of tasting that great wine takes focus in my memory. Some memories are better than trying to repeat the experience.

                      The other great wine was not an auspicious one. But for me it was proof that when everything in the sequence of wine making and wine tasting come together in a fortuitous way, magic can happen! It was a bottle of red Turkish Kavaklidere,probably an early-to-middish 50's vintage. We lived in Turkey at the time. The wine was paired with a great well aged dry cured Danish steak, after a first course. The wine had breathed about an hour or so, and the first sip of the wine came after the first taste of the steak. The magic was as explosive as it was unexpected. Again, one of those moments in life that are a joy to have tucked away in your memory to revisit on demand.

                      I've had many wines that are classified as "great." Rothschields, Perignon, great reds, wonderful whites. But in the end, it's not what the rest of the world thinks about a wine. It's all about what that particular bottle of wine in that particular moment in time does for you. I think I'm lucky to have had two such bottles in my life to date.

                      1. A wine that you love so much that you save it for special occations (even if it isn't expensive). Wine that you are excited to drink that you don't want to waste it on a night that is just normal.