Wine Words: Quality

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Quality is a term used regularly by wine professionals when reviewing, judging and/or tasting wine. However, opinions differ greatly as to whether it is possible to universally and tightly define wine quality. Is wine quality an absolute term? Or is it a relative and somewhat subjective one?

Some believe it is possible to technically measure a wine’s quality based on extract and other technical parameters, while others counter that pronouncements on wine quality cannot be precise and wholly objective because they are open to subjective opinion as well as personal preferences. In my opinion wine quality pronouncements will always be a bit of both.

Old World Quality Systems
To start with, most ‘old world’ wine regions have a ‘quality’ pecking order or classification system that theoretically predicates wine quality. These various systems include the 1855 “Classed Growth” classification system in Bordeaux, the grand and premier cru vineyard plot mappings of Burgundy, the ”échelle des cru” village ranking in Champagne, the time spent aging in wood for Spain, the sugar ripeness levels at harvest in Germany and so forth – all of which can be read on a wine label, and while confusing are ultimately helpful to the consumer trying to navigate the world of wine. There is no such system in the new world, and hence no systemized ‘promise’ of quality on the label other then the reputation of the producer.

The Many Facets of Wine Quality
However, understanding and defining wine quality goes way beyond these or any other quality systems. For most wine drinkers, a wine quality assessment is going to be largely based on how well they enjoyed the wine – the pleasure factor. For most wine professionals it is a combination of many factors.

Firstly, factors intrinsic to the wine such as flavor concentration and intensity, balance of structural components (acidity, alcohol, tannin, sweetness), length and persistence of finish as well as texture, dimension and overall multidimensionality or complexity.

Secondly, a quality assessment might include extrinsic factors such as how the wine was made and matured, the quality of the particular vintage, and perhaps the ambition level of the wine and/or winemaker.

Finally, personal preferences can play a role. If you don’t like a particular style of wine, it is all too easy to pronounce a harsh quality assessment. This of course is perfectly fine for any wine consumer when tasting for his/her own pleasure, but when tasting professionally, it is critical to park any such preferences or prejudices at the door before tasting.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

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