What Makes a Great Wine Great?

by Dwight Furrow

Greatest winesWine and science writer Jamie Goode's post What is Greatness in a Wine? is insightful because it moves greatness out of the realm of subjectivity and personal preference:

"Greatness is conferred on wine by a community of judgement. When we, as the wine community, taste wines together, we recognize the great wines. It's an aesthetic system, where we form a judgement together, by tasting together, discussing, listing, buying, consuming."

This is indeed how a consensus forms about which wines are great. But ultimately this kind of answer is unsatisfying. When the wine community confers greatness on a wine presumably there is something about the wine that warrants such a judgment. Without an account of what that is, the judgment is threatened with arbitrariness. The job of a critic is not merely to announce greatness but to explain it by giving reasons. A genuine understanding of "greatness" would include those reasons not just the fact of widespread agreement.

Such an account, of course, is hard to provide. As Jamie writes, "There's no definition that we can apply to determine whether a wine is great or not." Each great wine will be great for different reasons and general rules that mention complexity, harmony or finesse will not capture the individuality of great wines. The best we can do is use metaphor or some other rhetorical device to call attention to those features that seem salient but are difficult to articulate.

Yet, perhaps Jamie's idea is in the right direction. A great wine is great because it appeals to a wide range of people in the wine world who agree it's a benchmark but often for vastly different reasons. Each person's account of why the wine is great will differ due to biological differences, differences in descriptive powers, aesthetic preferences, and the fact that we all have different tasting histories. Thus, perhaps what makes a wine great is its ability to generate a verdictive consensus despite those differences. Greatness in a wine lies in a wine's capacity to be appreciated from many different perspectives, a multi-dimensional potential that invites a common verdict despite vastly different ways of arriving at it.

Thus, it is not merely the fact of agreement that makes a wine great but an underlying depth and breadth that makes it alluring from multiple points of view. One might even claim such wines have a sense of mystery about them, and some wine writers use descriptors like "profound" to point to this dimension. Sadly, without some way of specifying this depth or coming to an understanding of the causal mechanisms at work, pointing to an underlying depth or breadth is an empty explanation—like attributing the effectiveness of a sleeping pill to its dormitive power. But it does point to the fact that this underlying breadth is not an arbitrary accident but is in some sense "in the wine" and perhaps it is something we can learn to sense if we practice looking for it. The search for it is likely to be more interesting than picking out aroma notes.

We can gain some insight into this phenomenon of depth by looking at art. In the appreciation of works of art we are often confronted with an appearance or play of appearances that cannot be clearly identified. Inchoate, half formed shapes, marks that create vague sometimes spectral presences, often generate energy and intensity in a work. In fact, abstract art gets much of its emotional intensity from these non-objects, as for example in Helen Frankenthaler's Scarlatti 1987 displayed here. Frankenthaler

Similarly, in music, sounds that are not quite melodies or harmonies, and that disrupt predictable patterns and complicate formal structure, provide interest and complexity. The use of tonal effects operating in the background of contemporary rock music provides a sense of movement independently of the melody or rhythm. In both painting and music, a sense of movement or depth that cannot be precisely picked out and given conceptual specification provides experiences that are crucial to intuitively grasping the richness of works of art. The German philosopher Martin Seel calls these "resonances" and they exist outside the art world as well. The shimmering of light and water on the surface of the sea, the rustling of leaves, or the hum of a city are non-art examples of resonance. What triggers these resonances is precisely what cannot be perceptually discerned except in a very general way—they are not perceptually traceable back to an individual sequence of events. Artistic resonance is a play of forms in the process of transition, agitated movement that disrupts clearly articulable form, form which shines and then vanishes only to reappear again. It is while focusing on resonances that we experience that tendency to feel as if the self is merging with the object, an experience that Nietzsche called "Dionysian" because the experience lacks the sharply differentiated features of everyday perception.

Like great works of art, great wines too have resonances as they evolve on the palate. Some pulsate with nervous energy darting about the palate in micro bursts of kinetic flavor before settling into a rhythm of discernible phases. Others build momentum in undulating waves exhibiting an explosive quality at midpalate before ushering in a gently fading finish. Some seem on the verge of falling apart before finding their center; others embody paradoxes with features that seem incompatible but somehow manage to achieve unity. Great wines present themselves as something in process, embodying a kind of instability that is ultimately resolved but experienced in its transitions. Resonances need not be kinetic or powerful. Like the shimmering of light on water, they can appear as a gossamer-like delicacy even in wines of great power and intensity.

Via resonance, wine acquires a processual aspect intensifying the sensation of form because the play of appearance and disappearance makes the form more salient. It's in the nature of resonance that it is impossible to follow, unequivocally, the transformations taking place, with the flavors and textures in agitated motion.

There are as many resonances as there are great wines. But the primary type of resonance in wine has to do with flavors and aromas that give only hints and nuance as the flavors and textures insinuate and lapse remaining just below the threshold of full discernment. Excellent wines often have a clarity and focus to them; by contrast, great wines show clarity and then disrupt it but shadowing the discernible, blurring what had seemed clear before lucidity finally returns. Such wines have mystery, ambiguity, and depth because they indicate something more to be discovered about them.

These resonances are not reducible to an analysis of components. Competent, analytic tasters can pick out aroma notes and comment on the perceived weight of the wine, the texture of the tannins, the length of the finish, levels of acidity and alcohol, etc. But these descriptions provided by analytical tasting fail to capture the individuality or beauty of a great wine. Even notions such as balance or finesse that refer to relational properties fail to capture greatness. Resonance is not independent of these features but neither is it reducible to them.

Recently on this blog I gave an account of beauty that made use of this idea of depth and I think that analysis applies to wine. In aesthetic experience generally, but more particularly, in aesthetic wine tasting, we take an active interest not merely in what is immediately apparent but in allusion, intimation and connotation. The 19th Century novelist Stendhal, wrote that beauty is "nothing other than the promise of happiness" suggesting that beauty invokes something not immediately present, not quite actual but promised. In the experience of beauty, it is not a stable, delineated object that attracts but something not yet fully present, a shifting play of presence and absence that points to something just beyond our ability to track it, a swelling and contracting tide of meaning where foreground and background continually shift, and the feeling of something just beyond the horizon is palpable. This is why beautiful objects do not simply capture our attention but sustain it—they seduce, coerce, provoke, arouse, and even intimidate but always from a time beyond the present.

This is, in part, what Immanuel Kant was after in describing aesthetic experience in terms of the faculties of imagination and understanding at play, with the mind imaginatively relating various aspects of the object, pushing, probing and penetrating the boundaries of the intelligible against the resistance of our settled concepts.

The upshot of this is that analytic wine tasting, the method of tasting taught by certification organizations and employed by most wine critics, is of limited utility when the aim is to identify greatness. The skills required to identify the origin of wine in a blind tasting are necessary but not sufficient in gaining the ability to reflect on the whole taste experience and recognize resonance. And the language we have for describing these experiences is also limited, as it is in describing all art and music.

All of this speaks to the phenomenology of wine tasting. Is it possible to say more about the properties of the wine itself and what gives rise to resonant experiences? I'm not sure the science of wine has given us a definitive answer to this question. However with regard to the inchoate aromas and flavors that give a sense of depth to wine, one plausible answer is provided by Clark Smith in his book Postmodern Winemaking. This is not the place for a deep dive into the controversies of winemaking theory but the basic idea is that the careful introduction of oxygen at the right time in the winemaking process yields colloids that more readily bond with aroma and flavor molecules producing wines with great complexity, since the substance is more reactive, but yielding a sense of harmony and unity because the chemical bonds are more complete. The result is flavor molecules that are less distinctively perceived since they are more tightly bound to the colloidal structure. Yet they produce a sense of depth because they are on the boundaries of our perceptual thresholds—we sense them only indistinctly.

To put this in the language of dispositions, great wines possess an abundance of dispositional properties that are made manifest in different ways by a variety of different palates. Yet that depth, that richness of dispositional properties, is something we can sense as partial manifestations even though we often can't put our finger on exactly what we are tasting and smelling. In great wines it's not the individual aroma and flavor notes that impress but the sense that the wine is in process, shapeshifting, with more to give, more to be revealed.

Like Whitman's self, great wines say "I am large; I contain multitudes".

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution