My friend Keith Grainger is a founding member of the The Association of Wine Educators as well as being a highly respected wine educator and author, whose book ‘Wine Quality: Tasting and Selection’ has won the Gourmand Award for the Best Wine Education Book in the World, so I was delighted to be able to attend his recent seminar on ‘Quality in Wine’.
Keith was on fine form and gave an excellent presentation that was delightfully low-tech and far more interactive than I had expected. I greatly enjoyed the seminar and loved the way Keith kept questioning things – this resulted in stimulating conversations that he had to keep closing down or we would all still be there.
What is quality?
The theme was pretty straightforward and was summed up by Keith’s opening remark.
‘We can all define wine,’ he said, ‘but what about quality?’
Now, I always assume that I know what I mean by quality, but my mind refused to generate a simple answer to this question. He did receive several though, chief amongst them was ‘complexity’ and ‘elegance’.
Quality or consistency?
Keith then asked us that if we have quality, can we have consistency too? Big brands will tell us that you can and talk up the quality of their product when its key feature is really consistency.
We discussed this for a while before Keith pulled the strands together, summing up that in all probability consistency comes at a cost to quality. To aim for consistency, as many producers do means that winemaker is not quite aiming for the best that can be achieved.
There are, of course financial restraints on almost any product. Very few things outside the military sphere, super-cars and Hollywood are made with no regard to cost, so sometimes the reality of the balance sheet is a limiting factor. This is true for producing wine as well as selling it. In the UK in particular the supermarkets have a stranglehold on the wines that most people drink and they guard their margins carefully – a winemaker cannot lavish love and care on a wine that no one will get a chance to buy or that makes him a loss.
Can we be objective?
So far so good, but of course quality has to be assessed in order to be seen to exist and so the question of objectivity was discussed. Is it possible for us to be not only objective, but consistently unbiased in how we see things?
Keith made many interesting points about this to demonstrate that being objective and unbiased is ‘framework dependent’. This is what he meant:
In the past the ‘chicken shit’ character in Burgundian Pinot Noir, brettanomyces or brett, was considered a good thing and part of the terroir – now it is thought of as a fault by most people.
Similarly the petrol-like character of Rieslings is not widely approved of anymore, so sometimes the parameters change and a formerly sought after attribute becomes to be seen as a fault.
Both of the examples above are easy to understand, as modern wines are expected to be more fruit-forward and brighter than those in the past.
So, the age of a wine matters too, some tasters just appreciate older wine more than others – to some people quality is easier to appreciate in a younger, fruitier wines, whereas others want to taste the wine several years down the track.
Another framework is typicity, Keith rightly said that a wine does not need to be typical to be of good quality, but we all know many French people who would question that view and will at least in part judge the quality of a wine by how typical it is. This, of course ties in with the fact that AOC laws, and similar, are not guarantees of quality – despite legally defining levels of ‘quality wine’.
Keith also made the point that a great deal of emphasis is nowadays given to technical analysis in a laboratory, in order to get technically correct wine. That really has nothing to do with quality as we traditionally understand it – a wine can be technically correct in every way, but still be dull, whereas a wine can have questionable attributes, but still have those flashes of brilliance that make it stand out – a Beaucastel or a Musar spring to mind.
So, how do we conceive of quality, how do we find it and how do we define it was really the matter in hand. Writing this I have a terrible feeling that I do not know any of the answers, but ‘hope to know it when I see it.’
Wine assessors should be consistent, I try very hard to be consistent in my tasting, but am aware of some occasions when I have fallen short. Keith made the point that a wine critic should be assessing the absolute quality of a wine or vintage and should therefore not reevaluate quality on each tasting of the same wine – if he did it right in the first place, the maturity changes, not the quality. Kevin Powell asked the amusing, but relevant, question – of all Robert Parker’s 100 point wines, which is was the best?
Keith asked some very interesting and far reaching questions – many of which I had never considered before:
Can we see quality?
Even cheap modern wines look bright, which might imply high quality to consumers.
We do seem to associate bright wines with quality, but does that mean that a wine that isn’t bright is not of good quality? Surely not, too many great Burgundy wines of the past would have fallen by the wayside if that was true?
Intensity of colour is something that many modern consumers associate with quality as well, in Virginia recently a wine maker told me of his Nebbiolo that, ‘customers used to Cabs and Merlots tell us these wines aren’t dark enough to be any good.’ However we all know that lightly coloured wines from a wide array of grapes can be of excellent quality. As Keith also pointed out, it is something of a concern that producers occasionally resort to tricks such as using Constellation’s mega-purple or some juice from teinturier grapes to darken colour of a wine so that it more accurately meets a consumers inaccurate expectations – so further strengthening the myth that dark wines are good wines.
Can we smell quality?
Is quality obvious on the nose of a wine? Sadly it seems that there is too much going on for this to be a definite yes, although there can, of course be hints towards finding out. It would make sense to me that a wine with complex aromas is more likely to be of high quality, but that it isn’t a given by any means.
It would also seem to depend on that old framework thing again. In my youth tasters were looking for different things from today. People want brighter, fresher wines with more emphasis on fruit and vivid characters than in times past. I always find it interesting when judging abroad as the different nationalities and types seem to be wanting very different things in their wines; I generally look for elegance and balance, European tasters seek typicity whereas winemakers and technicians hunt for faults.
Can we detect quality on the palate?
Again many modern consumers confuse concentration for quality – and more than a few winemakers too. Of course a dilute wine is, almost by definition, not good quality, but the reverse cannot be true.
Also tasting conditions can be a problem, as can sheer tasting skill and consistency too, it is very easy to be inconsistent when tasting and it is also very easy for your palate to get tired and not want to play anymore after 20-30 wines.
Of course the length or finish of the wine has always been regarded as the final arbiter of quality with Keith reckoning that any finish over 30 seconds is great.
Can the winemaker create quality?
Soils it seems give differences rather than quality, which makes sense, although Keith did say that well drained soil was inherently better than not.
The age of the vines failed to impress him as well, it seems that the balance of the vine is much more important. This goes for vineyard practices too, a green harvest is all very well, he said, but if the plant was in balance then it wouldn’t be needed.
Generally Keith is of the opinion – and I readily agree – that it is the care taken in the vineyard and winery rather than the methods used, which led us into a discussion about biodynamics.
Can the winemaker undermine quality?
Keith was certainly of the opinion that faults and flaws are a major problem and informed us that TCA – 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole – only appeared after World War Two as a consequence of using cheap insecticides, what a great idea that was!
We have to assume, therefore, that the concept of a corked wine in the distant past was different and referred more to a failed cork that had allowed the wine to oxidise.
Keith was particularly critical of the presence of brettanomyces in wines, regarding it as a flaw. I agree with him, at the very best wines that clearly display this seem very antiquated, like the wines we read about in nineteenth century books.
A more modern flaw that received the full brunt of the Grainger fire was reduction. Again I agree with him, I don’t like it at all on red wines, but there seems to be an increasing trend to excessive, almost burnt reduction characters that refuse to dissipate. Keith rightly thinks this is taking over from cork taint as the number one wine fault – although sadly many consumers do not seem to consider it a problem. Perhaps they even think they like it?
I would personally add bottle variation to this list when it comes about because of the corks. Not cork taint, just using corks that are not good enough and that just stop the wine being as bright as it ought.
Skills and diligence
So, perhaps this is the crux of the matter – all those buzz words, concentration, canopy-management etc. are just so much garnish. Perhaps true quality stems simply from good-old fashioned attention to detail, skill and diligence in the vineyards and winery?
However it is no use achieving ‘quality’ if no one knows and only tasting a wine and summing up the impression it leaves the taster can in the end identify quality. A great taster can identify subtle differences between wines, supply a context and put them into words as well.
In talking about ‘quality’ Keith was meaning good quality, or even great quality. However, he kept referring to another quality – how enjoyable a wine is. He was refreshingly forthright that not enough mention is made of how enjoyable and drinkable a wine should be and I for one intend to follow his lead.
I now feel much better informed and equipped to draw my own conclusions as to what constitutes quality and how to measure it. I certainly got plenty of food for thought and my contemplation of the themes we covered is ongoing and many of them will be revisited in pithier form over the coming months.
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