The First Element of Greatness: Distinctiveness


I’ve always found it remarkable that few wine books address the issue of what makes great wine great. That’s probably the biggest wine question of all time…yet, startlingly, almost no one talks about it.

Fifteen years ago, I started thinking a lot about this idea. I now think there are nine characteristics that all great wines share. In subsequent blogs, I’ll share some thoughts on all nine ideas. The first Element of Greatness is: Distinctiveness.

In the simplest sense, consider: if you buy a Granny Smith apple, you want it to taste like one. In fact, the more Granny Smith-ish the Granny Smith apple is, the more it can be appreciated for what it is and savored for what it is. Great wines are great because they are distinctive; not because they exhibit sameness.

This is true first, for wines based on single grape varieties. Each variety of grape presents itself in an individual way. Great wines that fully and precisely express the distinctiveness of their variety.

I should add here that distinctiveness does not mean mass appeal. Some wine drinkers, for example, think the edgy, “wild girl,” tangy green herb character of some sauvignon blancs is hard to love. But should sauvignon blanc become less distinctive? That would be like remaking all cheese to taste like Kraft American singles… A bad idea.

Even great blends are distinctive. Tasting a great Chateauneuf- du-Pape should tell you above all that THIS is a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and cannot be anything else.

Finally, great wines are not only distinctive in their aromas and flavors; they are also distinctive in their textures. Great wine does not lie amorphously on the palate. It has a feel that is exciting and individual. That feel can be as soft as cashmere, as minerally as mountain water, as brisk and crisp as fresh lime juice, or as downy as falling snow (which is the texture of many great Champagnes). The nature of the texture doesn’t matter. What’s important with great wine is that it have a discernible and distinctive texture.

In the end, distinctiveness is perhaps the “highest” attribute of great wine. It’s the sense that this wine could not be just ANYTHING; it is SOMETHING.

 

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