What is Quality – Thoughts and Musings….

What is Quality – Thoughts and Musings….

So what does quality in wine mean.  The conventional way of talking about quality wine is using terms such as balance, intensity and complexity but this is extremely subjective and dependant on the individual’s opinion- eg the 2010 Graillot Syrah from Heathcote in central Victoria was rated 96 and the best of the best by James Halliday and 88 by Campbell Mattinson. I can personally can understand both ratings, as a wine I believe James Halliday to be correct, but as a typical example of Australian Shiraz Campbell had it right.

Over the years I have noticed that it appears that the aim of some wine manufacturers is to produce a wine that is aimed to offend the least amount of people and this has resulted in still wines that year in year out have a similarity.  Commercialisation demands that as a wineries  output grows so does its need to standardise its product and thereby appeal to a great portion of the market.   A simple example of this can be seen with coffee,  major brands product lines are a consistent blend, this guarantees a flavour and taste whilst smaller local roasters, produce product that will vary sometimes even from batch to batch.    This has resulted in the production of some wineries being driven by focus groups and consumer research, here  quality is defined by producing the least offensive wine.  In this model it is then marketing ability that is used to establish product differentiation and appeal to the retail buyer.

I have been lucky enough to have travelled and sampled some top wines and it took a light bulb moment when tasting and discussing one of these wines to realise that what was wrong with the wine was that there was nothing wrong.  The colour, the flavours, the tannin, everything was perfect.  We were proudly told that every vintage was harvested then treated to 21 months in new oak as history has showed this was the optimum ageing period,  this wine was made to a formula.  The wine had by made by using the correct clones, correctly watered vineyards, cultured yeast etc. This was not a cheap wine and has won many gold medals yet it was made to formula rather than to maximise the expression of grape type and terroir.

So what is a quality wine ?  Is it a wine that has been manipulated by consumer research and marketing groups and a wine maker striving for a successful and consistent wine or is it product that is representative of grape type and terroir ?   To me the answer is both, it depends on your frame of reference.

In the new world, we have introduced the grape vines of the wines we wanted to drink and as such these vines may not have been planted in the most ideal location and as a result the winemakers have become very good at interventions during winemaking and this has resulted in wines that are more indicative of wine making than terroir.   Wine makers can drastically alter the wines if they do not have access to high quality fruit they can make drastic changes in the winery – Vins d’Effort.   Manipulations start in the vineyard with irrigation then move to the winery with cultivated yeasts, wood chips, grape sugar etc.  These interventions are all efforts to improve quality, that have resulted in a certain consistency from vintage to vintage and given the consumer a reasonable expectation of what they are going to get, but have they taken individuality out of wine?

In my opinion this has resulted in two distinctive styles of wine,

  1. Developed in the vineyards, with minimal winemaking interventions – wines of individuality and variations and that change with terroir.
  2. Developed in the winery, standardised and consistency in flavour.

Both of these can be high quality they are just different.