What is “Good” Wine?

bottles of wine on a shelf
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

The term good, in reference to wine, has been molded and shaped for centuries. Long ago, a good wine may have simply been an unspoiled wine, a wine able to make the voyage from Bordeaux to Paris without arriving as vinegar. Then a good wine may have evolved into something with more than this single criteria, something that blends into the culture of a place, reflecting both its terroir and what flavor profiles happen to be à la mode.

To this point, good draws its meaning from wine critics who have influenced the winemaking scene. Take Robert Parker, the prominent American lawyer-turned-wine critic, whose 100 point system and preference for big, bold oaky red wines has led to the “Parkerization” of wines. Some argue that this has homogenized wine styles around the world, with the focus being placed on scoring those profit-driving Parker Points.

Then there’s Alice Feiring, the face of natural wine, whose book entitled “The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World From Parkerization” is a tale of her crusade to stop the trend of making wines just to please Robert Parker. She believes that good wine is authentic wine, reflecting its terroir with nothing but the grapes from which it was born.

“The more I thought about it, the dogma of authentic wines would include healthy farming practices, hand picking, no extended cold maceration, no added yeasts or bacteria, no added enzymes, no flavors from oak or toast, no additives that shape flavor or texture, no processes that use machines to alter alcohol level, flavor, or texture or that promote premature aging. Was that too much to ask?”

– Alice Feiring, “The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World From Parkerization”

These critics know what they like (and what they don’t), giving us their own version of 100 point, authentic, or otherwise good wine. But is there an end-all-be-all scientific definition of good?

Some scientists have tried to answer this question. Take French scientist André Vedel, whose 1972 “Triangle de Vedel” breaks down a balanced wine into components of astringency, acidity, and sweetness/softness. Vedel suggests that the words one would use to illustrate a balanced wine are “well-structured”, “round”, “mellow”, and “harmonious.” But his hierarchy of terms is imperfect, a reflection of his own values and culture. It leaves one unsure exactly whether a “quaffable” wine or even a “feminine” wine could be considered balanced, if not good.

André Vedel's 1972 "Triangle de Vedel", which shows the vocabulary used to describe wine on axes of astringency, acidity, and sweetness/softness
Photo: Vedel, 1972 (as republished in “Le Gout du Vin”, Emile Peynaud, 1980)

However, if we grant Vedel that a good wine is a balanced wine, then by his definition, it would be at the junction of astringency, acidity, and sweetness/softness. A good red wine would have enough acidity to make it lively without causing the astringency from the tannins to seem harsh. It might have high alcohol and residual sugar, but these are met with a backbone of acidity to keep the wine from feeling flat. Sugar, or an impression of softness, balances the heat of the alcohol and the bitterness of the tannins.

But is this wine being drunk on its own, or with food? This question is imperative in the quest to define good. Is a wine stand-alone good, or is it good by serving its role as a supporting actor in the play? If I am eating steak, a good wine would have considerably more tannins. If I am eating seafood, good might be a wine marked by its acidity and its saltiness.

This is why generations of critics have sought to define good by another set of rules, such as Alice Feiring’s rules of austerity (no enzymes, no oak, no yeast!). Wine cannot be defined simply as good. It must be defined as good for this occasion, or good because it is made with no additives, or good for quenching thirst in the summer heat.

It is my science-forward left brain that recognizes that good, when defined in wine terms like tannin, acid, and sugar, has measurable parameters, but my creative, right brain reminds me that there is a certain intangible, immeasurable side of wine that makes it good.

We can only use science to try to understand, objectively, the criteria of good that we have subjectively named.

We can try to understand how various components of wine might interact to reach a certain taste or a feeling of astringency. Or we can seek to understand why color fades over time, or how tannins soften. We may even seek to understand how music or lighting influences one’s perception of good.

two glasses of red wine on a dinner table next to the bottle
Photo by Jeff Siepman on Unsplash

But we must understand that good is not just in the objective findings; it is also in the context. Good is in the mood. Good is the way the wine compliments the conversation, or the music, or the food. Good is the South African Pinotage when catching up with an old Pinotage-loving friend. Good, for my right brain, is knowing that the wine in my glass is unique, one of a kind, because it is living, evolving, breathing, not just some mass-produced fermented grape juice that tastes the same when the bottle is opened as it does after a night out on the dinner table.

So while science can seek to understand how value is assigned to a wine, it cannot determine, unequivocally, what that value is. It misses the bigger picture, the fuller story.

No, science cannot answer the question, “What is good wine?”

Only you can do that, equipped with knowledge revealed by science and the context in which the question is asked.