I hate the Beatles. I’ll let this contrarian statement sink in for a moment before I explain what it has to do with wine.
No doubt, they’re one of the most influential bands – if not the most influential – inspiring the work of so many other artists and creating legions of superfans. But I am not one of them, and for a long time, I struggled to explain why.
Maybe something bad happened while I was listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever” during childhood. Maybe I’ve let the infighting among John, Paul, Ringo and George dissuade me. Maybe I lost interest trying to decipher those pseudo-inspirational lyrics over the sounds of a sitar.
Until now, I’ve shared this opinion with friends only when pressed. And when I do, even my friends react as though I’m an idiot. But I counter their disgust with one response: “They’re just not for me."
That’s right: I can appreciate that their music introduced so many different, innovative styles without having to love or even like the band. (And let me be clear: I do want to destroy the stereo anytime one of their songs comes on.)
But appreciating style is not the same as embracing quality. And with music as well as wine, I go for quality over style.
I can recognize quality – especially when I taste it. In my 44 years of being alive, I’ve tasted enough wine to distinguish among the identifiable characteristics that define quality in wine.
There are plenty of descriptors out there, such as velvety, floral or dense – you get the picture. But descriptors don’t necessarily define the quality of wine. I’ve talked to plenty of people in the industry about quality: winemakers, sommeliers, wine geeks, you name it.
In our discussions, there are particular concepts that always come up. At the risk of oversimplification, I reduced them down to three: balance, complexity and finish.
Wine balance is easy to explain because it’s exactly what you think it is. When you have too much of one thing and not enough of something else to counter it, it’s not balanced. If a chardonnay tastes like an overripe pineapple, and there is no acidity to counteract the lushness of the fruit, it feels too concentrated. But if the right amount of acidity shows up just in time to curb the fruit, you’ve got the basis of a balanced wine.
Complexity is really what makes wine interesting and is often described as the layers of a wine. The more aromas, flavors and mouth-feel, the greater the complexity. It’s a wine’s way of offering clues to where it was grown, when the grapes were harvested and how it was made. Complex wines feel like you’re experiencing them in 3D. On the other hand, when a wine isn’t complex, it’s said to be linear, one dimensional or straightforward. These aren’t flattering descriptors. So if you use them in front of the winemaker, don’t expect a friend request.
After deciphering a wine’s complexity, the finish is the last thing you will experience that determines quality. It’s important. The finish of a wine is the fading vibrato of a vocalist at the end of a song. If it’s a great song, you want to hold on to it. And a good quality wine will allow that. In contrast, if you’re enjoying a wine that has no length, the flavors are gone almost immediately after the wine has left your palate. It might make you feel somewhat disappointed, or even ripped off. Sure you can have another sip, but the finish will always be the same.
The good news is there are a lot of great wines out there, just waiting to be experienced. Because wine tasting is so much fun, it’s pretty easy to find someone to practice with you. The more you become familiar with quality characteristics, the better you will be able to appreciate a good quality wine – even if you don’t particularly like the style of it. This really comes in handy if you want to pick out a bottle for someone that has very different tastes than your own.