Musings on Wine

Wine Quality & The Olympics

Having recently watched the ice dance finals at the Olympics, it's got me thinking about wine quality and how it is measured. I think a little of the controversy that typically surrounds the judging of the ice dance competition.
As I'm no figure skater, nor much of a dancer, I'm hardly an authority on Olympics ice dance. This year it appears the best team won the gold. As much as I was cheering for our great Canadian duo of Virtue and Moir, who performed beautifully, the American team of Davis and White were pretty much flawless with all their spectacular lifts, spins and exchanges beautifully executed in perfect synchronicity. I guess the judges got it right this year. But then I heard a famous radio broadcaster rant about the injustice of it all and I started to wonder again if I, or anyone other than the judges really had a clue?
When one of us laymen thinks about ice dancing and how to score a performance, it's pretty much beyond our comprehension. How much do we grade for a perfect lift? How many points do side by side spins garner? What about the artistry, energy and flow? Is there a time limit? Clearly if one or both of the dancers end up on their backsides, even the least experienced viewer can figure out this won't help the point total much but the nitty gritty measurements are beyond our comprehension. New world records were set in both the short and long programs at this years Olympics. That means, theoretically, that they were the best short and long programs in Olympic history. Wow, that's quite an accomplishment. I guess it's kind of like when a wine gets 100 points and is considered a perfect wine. Not sure about you, but I'm just a little uncomfortable with anything being called perfect.
Without a doubt, there are two statements that can be made right of the top with respect to measuring wine quality. Firstly, just because a wine is more expensive does not necessarily mean you will prefer it. Just because a pair of shoes that cost $350 are made with the highest quality leather, are triple stitched and have excellent arch support does not mean you have to like them. You may actually prefer the $30 pair of suede loafers, even though they may split and fall off your feet mid-season. You would assume that a tasting of a $10 wine beside a $100 wine would be an unfair fight, but in many classroom experiments I've served the two side by side, both blind, to see what the overall preference would be. Somewhat surprisingly, the inexpensive wine always gets it's fair share of votes. Winemakers are artists, but they are also smart business people. They know what their consumer wants and they are more than happy to provide it. Sugar, fruit, low acid, low tannin, oak saturated wines are as appealing as ketchup.  The problem with the $10 wine is it often tastes good for a few hours at best and then starts to deteriorate immediately after. Besides, these wines have little to no depth, no complexity and very rarely promise for a better wine in the future. The $100 wine may seem a bit hard, closed and shy in it's youth but it is jam-packed with extract and will often turn into a stunning wine full of appealing, exotic, often jaw-dropping tertiary notes if given adequate time in a good cellar.
The second absolute for quality is wine cleanliness. If a wine is faulted, or even flawed, it can not be considered a quality wine. When assessing wine quality in professional judging environments, all bottles that have overt faults such as cork taint, excessive oxidation or sulphur contamination are re-tasted in the hopes that a second or third bottle of the same wine might demonstrate its true potential.  There are several compounds in wines that, when present in small amounts, can be appealing to many. Aromas such as leather, barnyard, mushroom and even butter can be deemed faults when in excess and yet add interesting complexity when present in tiny amounts. The fact is, in this age of ultra-hygenic winemaking, too many wines are simply too squeaky clean and lack the depth and complexity that allows them to age and develop new, amazing tertiary aromas (bouquet) over time. In other words, a little funk is actually a nice thing.
The balance of the wine quality equation comes down to quantitative assessment and qualitative assessment. Quantitative includes things like acidity, sweetness, bitterness, astringency, complexity and length. These things can be measured fairly exactly and one can make direct comparisons to a known standard. If we were considering the quality of a top Niagara Cabernet Merlot blend, it should be balanced, have complexity, length and in some cases, the structure to last by way of tannin and acidity. If, on the other hand we were considering a Niagara Gamay, we would still want balance and some degree of complexity but when compared to a known standard (say top Cru Beaujolais), we don't expect it to age a long time and ideally want it to have lots of forward fruit character, succulent acidity and relatively seamless tannins. Wines with lots of extract, are well balanced or promise to become so after time, are considered high quality wines. 
Qualitative measurements is where it gets really sticky. These include things like regional typicity and varietal character. This is much more difficult to gauge but it is very important and is often what sets one great wine apart from the next. What does the perfect Niagara Chardonnay actually taste like? If a wine smells and tastes like the variety it's been made from, that's a good starting point, however discerning exactly what qualities it should have based on where it was grown is a much more difficult thing to measure and yet it accounts for a great deal of the hype around certain, special wines like Grand Cru Burgundy or Cult Napa Cabernet.
So, in the end, the measurement of quality is hardly an exact science. Just as we consult a diamond expert to ascertain the quality of an engagement ring, we may also trust some of the wine experts out there to guide us with our wine buying decisions. Don't believe everything you read, find a critic that you trust and respect, buy what you like, be patient with wines and most importantly, always remember it took years for the vines to mature, months of back-breaking work in the vineyard and years of winemaking expertise and patience to put that wine in the bottle in front of you, regardless of what you ultimately think of it.

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