Defin­ing Great­ness

GREAT WINES, WHETHER RED OR WHITE, SHARE A NUM­BER OF COMMON CHAR­AC­TER­IS­TICS, WRITES James Suck­ling

Hong Kong Tatler - - Opinion -

What’s the def­i­ni­tion of a great wine? Sim­ply put, you’ll know it when you taste it. This may seem ob­vi­ous to many and ab­stract to oth­ers, but I find most peo­ple who love wine un­der­stand a great wine the mo­ment they stick their nose in the glass.

I re­cently had din­ner with a wine mer­chant friend from San Francisco. At the end of a long evening with many ex­cel­lent wines, when per­haps our palates were less fresh than they might have been, I poured a 2007 Château d’yquem, the leg­endary sweet wine of Bordeaux. The Sauternes had such pres­ence and clar­ity in the glass. The per­fumes of dried mango, pa­paya, cream and min­er­als seemed laser-guided as they touched all our senses. We could ac­tu­ally taste the wine be­fore it touched our lips. “This is re­ally a great wine,” my friend said. “I haven’t tasted Yquem for a long time, but it re­ally does have such great character—and it tastes great, too.”

In­deed, the 2007 Yquem, which is by no means one of the great vin­tages, showed ex­cel­lent depth of flavour, with dried man­goes, le­mon zest, min­er­als and cream, and a beau­ti­ful bal­ance of sweet and bright acid­ity. Ev­ery­thing was in the right place and in pro­por­tion. Granted, it was no 2001, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010 or even 2011, which are all great years. But it was a beau­ti­ful sweet wine.

Great wines, re­gard­less of whether they are red or white, share a num­ber of common char­ac­ter­is­tics. One is that they come from a unique place that of­fers unique style and character. Th­ese lo­ca­tions are not that easy to find when you con­sider the mil­lions of hectares of vine­yards around the world. France has the largest num­ber of great vine­yards, fol­lowed by Italy, and then Spain or Ger­many. But the num­ber of great vine­yards that make great wine is still very limited.

This in­evitably leads to another common fea­ture of great wines—they’re usu­ally great no mat­ter the vin­tage. They’re of con­sis­tently out­stand­ing qual­ity even in the most chal­leng­ing or dif­fi­cult vin­tages, due to their usu­ally pris­tine soils and ex­po­sure to the sun. The fact that the great names of Bordeaux (such as La­tour, Mar­gaux and Mou­ton Roth­schild) make ex­cel­lent wines year in and year out un­der­lines this sort of great­ness.

Great wines have great wine­mak­ers or own­ers, who have an unabridged ded­i­ca­tion to mak­ing the best wines pos­si­ble. They un­der­stand that own­ing one of the world’s great vine­yards is a sa­cred re­spon­si­bil­ity. I re­mem­ber years ago lis­ten­ing to Christian Moueix speak about his fam­ily’s own­er­ship of the renowned Château Pétrus—and how they were only “care keep­ers” of a great ter­roir with a long his­tory that would con­tinue into eter­nity. He felt he was not the owner but the cus­to­dian of past (and fu­ture) great­ness.

Most im­por­tantly, great wines are great to drink. They of­fer in­cred­i­ble drink­a­bil­ity to all of us, giv­ing the ul­ti­mate in plea­sure. Great wines are great from the bar­rel, great when first in the bot­tle and great years later. The idea that a wine is dif­fi­cult to taste when young, yet will turn into a great wine with age, is a fal­lacy.

I’m sure many peo­ple who at­tended the Great Wines of the World event un­der­stood this no­tion, that great drink­a­bil­ity is the path to a great wine. At the end of the day, it’s what the en­joy­ment of wine is all about.

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