|If you’re reading this article, the chances are you’re pretty interested in wine. You’ve probably tasted a wide range of styles and are fairly sure you can spot a decent bottle from a mile off. Without wanting to undermine your confidence, I’d like to ask you a question. Are you sure that you can differentiate between inherent quality and your own individual preferences? Is there even any such thing as inherent quality in the first place?
In order to work out how to assess quality, we need to go back to first principles. Anyone who’s ever undergone any formal wine education is probably familiar with the acronym, BLIC. For those who don’t do acronyms, BLIC stands for Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity. These four words are at the heart of any evaluation I ever make about a wine’s quality, regardless of how familiar I am with it. It’s a handy rule of thumb, but the closer you peer at the fine detail, the more apparent its weaknesses become.
Length is easy – we can all agree that the duration of a wine’s finish, whether you measure it by caudalies (yes, science has determined a way of quantifying wine length – one caudalie is equal to one second) or dead reckoning. Length and intensity on the palate are closely related to each other; it’s clear that without sufficient fruit on the mid-palate, a wine will lack a decent finish. But – and this is a big but – intensity is not necessarily directly correlated with quality. A well-made wine from low-yielding vineyards will have more depth of fruit than a simple entry-level wine – but we’ve all tasted big, brash fruit bombs that have more immediate impact than a subtle Chablis, no matter how good the latter might be. This is where your experience as a taster comes into play, allowing you to recalibrate fruit intensity against typicity.
By the time you get round to evaluating complexity, though, you’re stepping into murkier waters. Ask most wine lovers about complexity in any particular wine and they’ll usually provide you with an extensive list of primary aromas. Although it’s fine to take note of these, true complexity lies beyond a fruit salad of descriptors. Personally, I always start off by looking for winemaking characters, which can add textural interest (just think of the creamy richness batonnage can add to a white wine, for instance) as well as aromas or flavours. The list of possible winemaking-derived notes is long and varied, and ranges from the spicy characters associated with the use of whole bunches in Pinot Noir or Syrah to the struck match reduction typical of reductive lees contact in Chardonnay. And then there’s always oak – French oak and American (or possibly even Slavonian), old oak versus new... You get my drift – there’s a lot to consider.
Ageing a wine adds complexity, too. You might find flavours associated with specific grapes (such as the kerosene notes of mature Riesling or the truffled aromas typical of Nebbiolo), as well as those linked to specific ageing techniques (think of the leathery character of traditional Gran Reserva Rioja or the nutty oxidation of an Oloroso).
Then there’s minerality. Although widely believed to add to complexity, it’s often difficult to get two tasters to agree on exactly what kind of mineral character a given wine displays (my stoniness may well be your steeliness). And that’s assuming that your two tasters agree that minerality actually exists, and isn’t just an artefact derived from high levels of acidity and the overactive imagination of the very worst kind of wine geek.
But if you thought this was all getting too complicated, wait until you try and wrap your mind round the issue of balance. It appears that our perception of balance is influenced by our genetic sensitivity to things like the bitterness of tannins or the levels of acidity in wines, so balance – to some extent – is always going to have an element of subjectivity.
The closer you examine the detail, the more you realise that trying to pinpoint quality in absolute terms may well be a fool’s errand. While broad consensus on quality levels among experienced tasters is achievable – just about – we all have our own individual responses to wines, conditioned in part by our genetic makeup and in part by our cultural background and the way we’ve learned to appreciate wine. I’ll cut to the chase here. If you don’t have to score wines for a living, you could do far worse than rely on the ultimate in personal rating systems – the enjoyment you derive from the wine you happen to have in your glass.