If the concept of ‘quality’ in wine were rendered visually, consider it a triptych – the view on the left a vineyard, the middle scene the wine making process, and finally, the third view – the wine’s performance in your glass. The definitions of the three concepts can be incredibly broad and somewhat exhausting. To do justice to defining quality in wine, it’s tempting to contort language to simultaneously cover such vast subjects as history, terroir, geneology, culture, and philosophy . . . but I won’t!
Viticulture: the grape in the soil
There are very good reasons why the Loire Valley plants Sancerre and Vouvray; the Bordeaux region plants Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc; and the Burgundy region of France plants Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Just as you wouldn’t expect to stick a peach tree in the Canadian highlands, or an apple tree in the Arizona desert, the different varietals of grapes require different conditions, especially if you’re trying to coax out the varietal’s full and unique expressiveness.
Vinification: from grape juice to wine
To turn grapes into wine, the sugar is fermented to alcohol by the action of yeast. A simple equation, yes? An easy process? Not necessarily. Wine makers encounter a slew of decisions, many unforeseen: when to harvest, how to harvest? Is added or ambient yeast the right choice? What about ceramic, steel or wood fermentation tanks? How long to ferment? How long to barrel age, and in French or American oak barrels? What is the best way to respond to a vine blight, a last-minute deluge of rain before harvest, or a halted fermentation? This list goes on and on. Some wine makers cite quality as a product of simplicity: quality results from what is left out of the viticultural process, rather than relying on a manipluated process with multiple industrial, chemical, or mechanical interventions.
Is it all in the glass?
Hallmarks of the quality of the wine in your glass are usually described as balance, depth, length, complexity, finish, and typicity (that purity of varietal expression). If you don’t enjoy Sangiovese in general, you will probably not enjoy it even in the best of vintages, made in the best of hands, and exuding its purest most savoury-leathery-dark cherry expression in the glass. This is a matter of preference, not quality, and the two do not always go off skipping hand in hand into the sunset. Will I begin my annual Tolstoy read this evening or will I skim the more sensational parts of the current Vanity Fair? What bottle of wine will I open tonight? Well, it depends upon the company I’ll keep, the dinner prepared, and my mood when I return from work; whether I’m looking for an experience which may make a potentially lasting impression upon me, broadening my future expectations for that grape, that region, that producer, that year, or, whether I just want to pour something into my glass that demands little of me except to sip it.