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What Makes a Wine Great? It’s Not Just Old and Complex.

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What makes a wine great? It’s a question that has intrigued anybody who has ever enjoyed a glass and paused to think about why that might be so.

Greatness has classically been associated with wines that showed complexity and nuance, that were able to age and evolve over many years, that touched the emotions, inspired contemplation and provoked discussion.

Great wines are thought to express a sense of place. That is, their distinctive characters are formed by the soil and its microbial life, climate, elevation and angle of inclination to the sun, as well as the culture that produced it.

At the least, all great wines ought to be balanced and harmonious, and they need to be refreshing.

That’s just for a start. Wine lovers can go on ad nauseam discussing the subject, debating what constitutes balance and harmony. They can quickly move to ideas like objectivity and subjectivity, that is, whether the quality of a wine exists independently of one’s perception of it.

It can quickly become philosophical, touching on questions that transcend wine, like “What is art?” and “What is beauty?”

I’m not a philosopher, nor do I claim to know the answers to these questions — though I certainly have opinions. But I have been thinking about what makes a wine great, on my own and in discussions held over the last few years by Areni, a kind of wine think tank that engages in conversations with people from all walks of the wine world.

Areni’s focus has been on how to define “fine wine,” which is perhaps a more nebulous phrase. I prefer “great wine” as I think the phrase connotes something extraordinary more clearly. “Fine wine” is more of an industry term often used by marketers to mean an expensive wine.

While I don’t dispute the components of the classic definition of a great wine, I have come to think that its use is limited. Great wines ought to have a sense of place, and they ought to refresh. But the sorts of wines that are age-worthy and develop complexity tend to be rare and increasingly expensive, and few people have access to them.

These sorts of bottles represent a tiny fraction of what’s produced and consumed. At the same time, many people experience greatness in wines that don’t necessarily fall under the classic definition. I know I do.

What I’ve come to believe is that greatness is not limited to only these transcendent, classically great bottles. Rather, greatness in a wine is defined by its ability to meet the needs of a particular occasion.

We select wines for many different circumstances. The needs of the moment dictate the sorts of wines we choose, and how those wines meet and contribute to the moment is a measure of greatness.

A bottle for celebrating a birth or a promotion, for example, will generally be a different type of wine than a bottle chosen to go with a pizza on a Tuesday evening with your spouse. The wines might be diametrically opposed, a profound, celebratory Champagne and an excellent but modest, dry Lambrusco. But under those circumstances the Lambrusco might be the far better choice for the pizza than the Champagne.

By most objective standards, wine authorities would rate the Champagne a better wine with far greater potential than the Lambrusco. If it’s a particular sort of bottle, it will age over decades, evolve and ascend to that pedestal on which we have placed such complex, sublime wines.

While Champagne can go very well with pizza, I believe for a quiet evening at home, perhaps in front of the television, the Lambrusco may better fit the occasion. It will most likely be delicious and refreshing, and it comes with a quiet humility that I would value far more in that situation than the sort of profundity that requires attention and concentration.

In other words, with wine, context is everything.

Can a wine be considered great if a producer pays no mind to social justice and environmental responsibility? Not to me. A producer who exploits workers, who abuses the environment or adds irresponsibly to the carbon footprint cannot make great wine.

If great wine expresses the culture and people who produced it, this must be the case. We are way past the time when all that mattered was what was in the glass.

On certain occasions, context is theoretical.

“Sometimes a great Beaujolais is a better choice than La Tâche,” a friend once said to me years ago, referring to the grand cru Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the rarest, most expensive and highly prized wines in the world.

Few people would argue that any Beaujolais has the potential to be more profound than La Tâche. Most would leap at any opportunity to merely taste La Tâche because of its scarcity and its cost — a bottle of the 2017, if you can find one, might sell for around $5,000. I know I would.

But a wine like La Tâche, particularly for one who does not have a ready supply, demands a certain amount of ceremony and freedom from distraction to do it justice. I’d ideally want to share it with people I love. I could drink Beaujolais with anybody, and we’d be friends in 20 minutes. That’s beauty in its own right.

I’d think of it like a Michelin three-star restaurant, the sort of place I’d want to go only rarely but at such a time when it would have my full attention, unlike the neighborhood bistro where I would happily dine every other week, reveling in the clarity of exquisite ingredients, simply prepared.

I don’t say this out of jadedness. A meal at the sort of restaurants that end up on Top 50 lists can be sublime. But it must be with the right people and on the right occasion, otherwise they are time-consuming, overly complicated and fatiguing, paradoxically great yet nightmarish.

The truth is, the otherworldly transcendence of a top-flight restaurant cannot be appreciated without the earthbound elementalism of simple ingredients like bread and cheese, just as Beaujolais creates the context for grand cru Burgundy and vice versa.

Unlike a painting or sculpture, wine and food are transitory. They exist as potential until they are consumed, after which they live on in memory. In a sense, the greatest wines may be those that are most memorable.

For me, the most memorable constitute a motley collection. In the classical hierarchy, many of them fall into the modest category: a Barbera d’Alba, a Mosel kabinett riesling, a red Burgundy from the Hautes-Côte de Nuits.

Why have I retained these memories? Because each of these bottles represented a crucial turning point for me in my personal journey with wine, opening doors that I had not known existed.

I’ve had memorable moments with bottles that would be considered grand — a 30-year-old 1955 La Mission Haut-Brion, my first encounter with a wine that had aged into a beautiful state over decades; an imperial of 1986 Lafite-Rothschild that answered the question of when the right time is to open a bottle; a 1959 Inglenook cabernet sauvignon, which demonstrated an alternative to the path that Napa Valley then seemed to be on; a 1988 Gentaz-Dervieux Côte-Rôtie, a wine born in rustic circumstances that nonetheless was hauntingly beautiful.

Yet simpler wines continue to resonate with me because they have so much to teach. Wines like a retsina from Greece, consumed in a casual restaurant in San Francisco; a silvaner from Alsace I had at a lunch in New York; a manzanilla at an outdoor seafood restaurant in San Lúcar de Barrameda, Spain — each of these bottles was perfect in the moment and everlasting in memory.

Most recently, in September my wife and I traveled to Brussels to visit our son Peter. He’s been in Europe for seven years and we hadn’t seen him for almost two because of the pandemic. We celebrated our reunion at Le Pigeon Noir in the Uccle neighborhood, an uncomplicated bistro that makes exquisite renditions of familiar French and Belgian dishes.

We drank a village Burgundy, a 2017 Marsannay from Domaine Trapet, a modest wine that was perfect for this meal — delicious enough to briefly note its qualities before moving on to other subjects.

Might we all have appreciated a spectacular classic? Of course, if I could have afforded one. But it might have been the center of attention robbing the evening of its purpose, which was to focus on one another and to catch up. On this occasion, the Marsannay was a great wine, offering moments of grace without requiring the spotlight. It was the best wine for the occasion.

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