The Second Element of Greatness: Precision


To me, all great wines have flavors—whatever those flavors are—that are well-defined, and expressive. I call that “precision in wine.

Imagine an old style radio where you can dial in the frequency. If you don’t dial in perfectly, you can still hear the music, but the sounds integrity is lost in static. However, when you get the frequency just right, the music takes on a special beauty because it is precise.

Wine works the same way. I can’t tell you the number of wines that miss the mark on greatness—not because they had raspberry flavors when there should have been cherry or something as silly as that—but because the wine in question was muddled, dulled and diffused.

Interestingly, sensory scientists themselves often analogize flavor to sound. Is flavor X a whisper or a shout? they will ask in an experiment. Using sound as a metaphor, I would offer that a great wine has a flavor that is the precision equivalent of a church bell in the mountains. In fact, I once shared my theory with Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy, France. He smiled. “A church bell in the mountains, but only in the morning,” he advised.

What can cause a wine to lack precision? Too much alcohol and too much oak are leading culprits. But given two well-made wines from two above-average vineyards in the same good year, it is not clear why one wine might be more precise in flavor than the other. There is only the final experiential evidence that one wine indeed is more precise than the other, and that such precision demarcates a great vineyard site.

I’m sure the monks of Burgundy would have thought so.

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