What Really Makes Wines Great?

By / Magazine / July 15th, 2011 / 2

We know it when we see it. That quality that makes people deeply and irresistibly cool/sophisticated/beddable. It’s in the way they walk, talk, cross and uncross their legs. Audrey Hepburn had it, and Paris Hilton does not. Don Draper has it. Don Cherry does not.

And so it is with wine. Don’t let the experts tell you “it’s what’s inside that counts.” That’s only part of the story. Great wines have just as much to do with labels, money, and cachet as the liquid itself.

Does price have any bearing on how good a wine tastes? The stern and scientific types at the Stanford School of Business and the Californian Institute of Technology put the question to the test. Using brain scans, they found people do prefer wines they think are more expensive. The study showed that, if a person is blind tasting identical wines but is told one costs $5 and the other $45, then the latter triggers more physiological pleasure.

“Price is not just about inferences of quality, but it can actually affect real quality,” said Baba Shiv, the Stanford marketing professor who led the study. In other words, a higher price does indeed make a wine taste better, because we actually get a bigger pleasure dose if we think it’s more expensive.

Another study by the American Association of Wine Economists (yes, there is such an organization) shows that cheap wine might actually taste better most of the time when drinkers don’t know the price nor see the label. In a study involving more than 6,000 blind tastings of wines that ranged from a few bucks to $150 per bottle, people with no wine expertise preferred wines that cost less than $15, and even drinkers with wine knowledge only preferred the expensive stuff some of the time.

This is really not that surprising. What critics like doesn’t always appeal to the masses. Serve a $100-a-pop, manure-nuanced Chambertin blind to a party of Malbec-loving wine newbies, and I’m not convinced everyone would be happy. The same would hold true if restrained, petrol-scented Riesling was served to people who love fat, buttery Chardonnay. But what the study showed was that even experts preferred the cheap stuff much of the time when tasting blind. The study cited an $11 bottle of sparkling wine from Washington, Domaine Ste Michelle that was twice as popular as Dom Pérignon, which costs around $150 per bottle. It has to be said, Dom is an incredibly austere tipple.

And Oxford University backs up the theory that there’s more to fine wine than taste and smell. Researchers there showed people preferred the scent labelled “cheddar cheese” to that labelled “body odour” despite the two aromas being the same. The same placebo effect applies to wine labels.

And in case you need more evidence that cachet has something to do with how delicious a wine tastes, just watch the movie Bottleshock. This ridiculously mediocre film recreates the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting when British wine merchant Steven Spurrier poured celebrated, top-tier French Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines alongside those from California. Many critics preferred the Californian wines to the top French ones, stunning the wine world and putting California on the fine wine map. This party game is now trotted out by overzealous producers all over the world who feel their wines are unloved.

At the end of the day, blind tastings of New World lookalikes pitted against Old World classics that cost 10 times the price mean very little. People buy wine for more than just the flavour. They buy it for how it makes them feel.

Moreover, the underpinnings of these tastings are inane — built on the flawed logic that just because one wine tastes better than another one day, it is intrinsically superior. Bullocks. Wine is a living thing that evolves and changes. Consistent excellence is the hallmark of great wines vintage in, vintage out for decades — not just during a sip’n’spit blip in time by a few select tongues.

Which brings me to the question I was pondering the other day: What really makes great wine great — as in one that fetches hundreds at auction? Sure, it’s got to be technically correct: well balanced, cleanly fruited, and appropriately structured. But it should also have finesse, complexity, and the ability to improve with time to have a shot at becoming iconic. Sophia Loren and Louis Roederer Cristal have it. Lindsay Lohan and Yellowtail do not.

Frankly, I’m not convinced it’s just about PR, Parker points, and price. Performance matters too. Great wines have solid track records confirmed by people who taste wine for a living — critics with good palates. And of course, a great wine is one that you like, assuming you’re not purchasing solely for investment purposes. Not everyone is into aged vintage Champagne. But I certainly am. And a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal 1996 would be worth every penny of its $300 price tag to those who can appreciate it.

Louis Roederer Cristal, the wine revered by connoisseurs for centuries, is a classic example of a great wine. It was first created in 1876 for the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II, who ordered it to be made in a clear bottle instead of the typical dark green one, with a flat bottom to ensure a bomb couldn’t be hidden inside. The Tsar feared assassination, which later became his fate.

Cristal was not commercially available until 1945, and since then it has been the darling of connoisseurs. Having tasted verticals of Cristal, I can also attest to the fact each vintage is stellar but slightly different — reflecting the variations in weather each year. And, in truth, one of the best wines I ever tasted was 1970 Cristal. In London. In 2003. Sublime.

Would it have been as delicious had I not known what it was? Who knows. And to a certain extent, who cares.

Like Marlon Brando.

Best Recent Vintages of Louis Roederer Cristal

Brilliant yellow colour displaying light amber nuances, combined with an ultra-fine, persistent, soft effervescence. There’s an intense, highly expressive bouquet on the first nose. The aromatic elegance and precision of Chardonnay is apparent: white fruit, sweet pollen, fine citrus fruit and very pure minerality. After a few minutes, the aromas move on to more confit, lightly grilled hints. The bouquet is rich and sweet, almost generous, remaining precise and impeccably refined. The bite in the mouth is full and creamy, revealing an incredible concentration of juicy fruits: yellow peach, apricot, mango and others. This silky, meaty concentration, which is both dense and soft — and typical of great Pinot Noir — is immediately combined with a sophisticated touch of acidity, bringing the wine alive with minerality. The over-riding impression is one of a true harmony of flavours, senses and silky textures. Absolute sensuality.

Brilliant yellow with light amber highlights. A beautiful mousse with fine cordons of persistent and regular bubbles. The nose is intense and delicate, revealing a clean and well-blended mixture of honey, cocoa, lightly toasted hazelnut, and candied citrus fruit aromas — without exuberance, but with luxurious simplicity. Then, on the palate, a savoury explosion of ripe fruit on the attack, revealing red fruit, white chocolate, caramel and Danish pastry, typical of Cristal. Silky, concentrated texture, leaning on intense, powerful and vinous structure, but maintaining refinement. The palate builds up to attain a delicious sensation of a well-blended harmony of flavours. A fresh finish with a hint of bitterness, making it almost crunchy.

Sustained golden yellow tones shimmering with luminous green highlights and ultra-fine, energetic bubbles. Intense, precise, but exquisitely subtle nose, opening with dominant aromas of fresh almonds and sweet-smelling flowers, then revealing riper nuances of lush vine peaches, white chocolate, caramel and a sprinkling of lightly toasted hazelnuts. The attack on the palate is sensual and fleshy with an almost caressing mouthfeel. More mineral notes come through on the mid-palate — testament to this Champagne’s deliberately low dosage — supported by a refreshing crispness that carries an impression of delicacy rather than strength. The overall effect is one of precise elegance, a wine perfectly poised between the structure of the Pinot Noir and the finesse of the Chardonnay, marrying roundness and vinosity with a sense of freshness and verve. The finish is long and deliciously refreshing, underscored by harmonious, lightly caramelized notes of the year’s great wines aged in wood.

Yellow with burnished gold reflections. Particularly fine and consistent mousse. Opens with the youthful intensity of white flowers, citrus, red berries, toast, chocolate, wood, vine peaches and red berries, followed by warmer whiffs of toast, chocolate and wood. Then, the palate shows a mixture of ripe lush fruits (vine peaches) and toasty aromas plus dense, fleshy structure. Silky, massive texture on the mid-palate culminates in a glorious finish. A smashing, powerful Cristal, with all the splendid maturity of the 1999 vintage.

Yellow-green with fleeting glints of gold. On the nose, rich and intensely fruity, with a masterful balance of freshness and maturity. Notes of citrus on a background of red berries, followed a few moments later by a subtle toastiness — plus warmer notes of baking (tarte tatin) and wood (almonds) thanks to fermentation in French oak barrels. On the palate, a rounded, vinous attack, but with all the delicacy and freshness that comes from a bouquet perfectly poised between youthfulness and maturity. An endless stream of fine, deliciously creamy bubbles fills the mouth with softness, the perfect overture to a finish of exquisite length and crispness. This is an elegant, stylish wine with a crisp delicacy, but ready to drink now.

Mature yellow with green-orangey shades. Complete and mature with aromas of juicy fruits (white and yellow peaches, apricots) and a certain “sugariness” which reveals a powerful wine. A slight hint of brioche is beginning to appear, but it is the ripe fruit that really dominates the bouquet. Then, a complete and full-bodied attack in the mouth with a powerful and weighty finish. The fine and rich bubbles bear testimony to a powerful wine. The whole concentration of the 1996 vintage emerges, with a weighty result that is nevertheless full of finesse and freshness. Its aftertaste is impressive.


Wine book author and critic Carolyn Evans Hammond first fell in love with wine during her first trip to France many moons ago when she picnicked in the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone. Now she makes wine accessible with her witty and light approach to the topic. Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines: A No-Nonsense Guide to Popular Wine, is the first book to rank the best-selling wines in North America by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at Amazon.ca and the #2 one at Amazon.com and remains a bestseller to this day. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at www.goodbetterbestwines.com Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, is a compilation of trade secrets designed to illuminate the topic and help wine drinkers make more satisfying wine choices. It too is a bestseller, earning critical acclaim and international distribution (October, 2006, $12.95, Sourcebooks, Inc). As well as an author, Carolyn’s reviews and critical articles appear regularly in Taste and Tidings magazine, she has talked about wine on radio and TV throughout North America, and has contributed material in such eminent publications as Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, as well as Maclean’s in Canada. She issues a weekly newsletter, publishes a blog, runs a Facebook wine club, twitters, and conducts seminars and private consultations. Constantly learning, Carolyn spends much of her time tasting wine and meeting with winemakers and industry professionals. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK and the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada; she holds a Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK; and she earned a BA from York University where she studied English and Philosophy. She has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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