Many critics and professionals claim that judging wine quality and scoring wines is mainly subjective, suggesting that they give higher scores to their favorite styles. And this may be the way a lot of wine drinkers approach such assessments. But those that rate quality based on how well it matches their stylistic preferences ultimately taste for themselves, and perhaps a niche set of friends have the same preferences. Otherwise, they simply tell followers what they like and urge them to like it.
At The Wine Independent, we do our utmost to put personal preferences aside and taste objectively, judging quality as it exists across a broad range of styles. We don’t applaud only the styles we like; we commend the best examples of many styles. Ultimately, we’re here to help our readers find the best examples of the styles they love.
You may wonder how it is possible to put our own stylistic preferences aside when judging quality. To that, we would answer, style and quality are very different things. On a basic level, style helps consumers understand how a wine tastes. Style factors include the color of the wine, whether it is a table, fortified or sparkling wine, and the level of sweetness. Wine components such as tannins, acidity, body, alcohol, notable winemaking (such as oak), and aroma/flavor compounds are also style factors. Still, they are more challenging to assess and describe accurately, requiring some technical knowledge and considerable tasting experience.
These factors in and of themselves do not define wine quality, but they can and often do define stylistic preferences. Some people, for example, don’t like high tannins and therefore tend to choose grapes with lower or softer tannins, such as a Pinot Noir, instead of Cabernet Sauvignon. Others dislike high acidity and will therefore opt for a Pinot Gris over a Riesling. Some embrace full-bodied, higher alcohol wines, and others prefer light-bodied, lower alcohol wines. The fact that there are styles of wine to suit everyone’s tastes is one of the things that makes the wine world so incredible.
Quality exists across a whole range of styles. When quality is the priority, styles will differ for every given site and every vintage. Attributes that contribute to wine quality include:
But the simplest, most crucial factor behind wine quality is the ripeness of the grapes - ripe in terms of sugar, acid, pH, aroma compounds, tannins, etc. Terroir and human intervention are all about achieving and preserving this fundamental yet incredibly elusive concept of optimal ripeness.
WHAT IS RIPENESS?
We don’t see ripeness as a single point on a graph. There is no singular, ideal moment in time when a berry is perfectly ripe, prior to which it was under-ripe, and beyond which it is over-ripe. Of course not! Anyone working in wine production knows that there can be a band of ‘right moments’ within which the berry is perfectly ripe.
The decision of when to pick it can depend on stylistic vision. Some vintages will narrow the ripeness band to sit within a particular style, creating a vintage imprint. Problems arise when grapes don’t make it into the ideal ripeness band, perhaps due to site, vintage, vine disease, and so forth.
Financial considerations dictating higher yields can also impact whether grapes achieve ripeness. Some winemakers under or over-shoot the ripeness band in pursuit of a particular style, perhaps at the expense of quality.
As oenologists know, the accumulation of aroma compounds, for example, rises and falls across a bell curve. Grapes that are under or over-ripe therefore miss or lose complexity. But this is not to say that elegant, refreshing styles AND big, rich, bold styles cannot both fall within that ideal ripeness band in a vintage, depending mainly on the site and the varieties planted there.
Stylistic diversity and terroir signatures are the lifeblood of great wines. To deliver a pure, authentic sense of place, time, and person in a glass of wine—regardless of the style—is a transmigration of culture into a glass. Great wine should be more than just a delicious alcoholic beverage; it should be an experience.