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