Top 4 signs of a great wine: how to tell cheap plonk from a classy drop
Imagine a friend has brought a nice bottle of wine round that they say is a good one, you taste it and they ask you what you think of it. How do you judge?
Or you may be in a wine shop standing at a tasting table and the wine merchant has offered you a sample of a wine you are thinking of buying. Should you buy it?
Or you may be playing at blind tasting and have been given a glass of wine to try and asked to guess what it is, where it came from and how much it cost. This could be very tricky.
You may be sitting in a bar sipping a glass of wine you’ve just paid £10 for. If you like it, you should be happy, but £10, really?
You may even have just opened the mixed case of wine that’s just been delivered to you by a new-found supplier and you are trying the first bottle. Should you buy from them again?
Whatever the situation, we can’t help but make judgements about unfamiliar wines. And our main thought tends to be, is it good value for money?
The label may look expensive but don’t judge a book by its cover, or a wine by its label. The oldest wine regions often have misleading labels. Even the least expensive Bordeaux wines, for example, have classy looking labels, flowery text and a picture of a chateau which may or may not be famous, making them appear more expensive or better than they are.
And the labels of New World wines can be even worse. Unless you are familiar with the producer how do you tell the difference between a £6 bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon or one from the oldest and best wine estate in New Zealand?
One thing is for sure, if you have paid what you consider to be a lot for a wine, your expectations are going to be much higher than normal. You are going to be ultra-critical as you will be expecting the world from this special bottle.
Conversely, if someone hands you a wine they tell you is expensive you’re more likely to like it (especially if you haven’t paid for it).
If you’ve bought a bottle for everyday drinking you’ll be happy if its washes down your spag bol in a pleasant manner.
There are four things to consider when deciding if your wine is good value.
Unfortunately, you can’ t really judge how good value a wine is unless you know the price. The main reason a wine may be more expensive has to do with the producer and the provenance of the wine. It’s rarely to do with a wine merchant charging high prices to make a profit. Believe me their margins are incredibly low.
Wines tend to cost more when their wine producer is very famous or sought after by those in the know, but a producer tends to be famous is because they produce very good wines. The reason they produce very good wines is because they lavish them with much care and attention, and use excellent quality, rare grapes, which are handpicked, or take a long time to ripen and then they age the wine for a long time before bottling, all of which pushes up production costs. In some cases, the winemaker is extremely lucky and happens to own three rows of vines in a sought-after part of Burgundy and they make bad wine but it’s so high in demand they can still charge a fortune for it.
- Intensity and length of flavour
These are some of the signs of a good wine, but they must go hand in hand with the other factors below, namely complexity and balance. Imagine sipping neat blackcurrant cordial. It may have a very intense flavour that lasts a long time in your mouth, but it doesn’t make it good or something you want to carry on drinking. An inexpensive Australian Durif wine has a lot of fruit flavour, pretty good length, but it lacks the complexity and balance you would find in a really great wine. It’s just too obvious.
This is what all keen wine adventurers want to discover in their glass. It’s hard to put your finger on it at first. But when you do taste a complex wine, it captivates you and transports you into the depths of the wine’s flavour. It takes a minute or two to realise you’ve just tried a really good, complex wine. You know it’s complex when you struggle to describe all the flavours and layers within the wine. In fact, you can’t describe them, and that’s what makes the wine so good. It keeps you guessing so it engages the mind as well as the palate, and intrigues you, like a good book or a fascinating person. In a simple wine, you may be able to taste one or two main flavours, it may be just the flavour of ‘wine’ or you may be able to taste blackcurrants or plums. In a more complex wine there could be any number of flavours to pick out, and ideally, some that you can’t, and these flavours arrive on your palate at different points in time while you drink the wine. They unfold chronologically making the wine all the more interesting and enjoyable. Wines that are a blend of more than one grape are often more complex than single varietals (made from just one grape variety).
Wines are made of various flavour components, namely, alcohol, acidity, tannin, sweetness and fruit. When all of these are in harmony we would say a wine is balanced. It means there is no one overriding element when you taste the wine, they all just balance nicely. This makes the wine pleasant to drink and gives a sense of satisfaction.
Bad wines can have too much acidity, but when a wine has the highest possible amount of acidity but still remains pleasant to drink, this makes it a great wine to drink with food. Wines that are too low in acidity are described as ‘flabby’.
The sweetness in a good sweet wine needs to be balanced by a decent amount of acidity. Too much alcohol is also unpleasant and takes away from the flavour of the wine. Balance in wines makes them great value for money.
When you drink a truly balanced wine that has great complexity and intensity, the alcohol is the last thing you are after, it is the sense of harmony of flavours in the wine it makes you feel that all is right with the world. Those are the best types of wine, so don’t give up trying to find them.
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