I am sure some of my peers out there will cringe at the title of this article, however, although they may not have said it in the same manner, I'm sure some have though it. Too much of the internet puts too much emphasis on who rates what wine and how. While some ratings do, in fact promote wine and give credit where credit is due, there are often times a touch of personal taste, or dare I say "politics," are involved.
However, when used as a tool, ratings can actually come in handy, for professionals and consumers alike. Sometimes, they introduce you to a wine or perhaps even a region you have never heard of or tried before. When utilized in an organized manner, they make for a good guide. But it's important to stress that just because a wine is highly rated, it doesn't mean it the "best" of wines. In fact, when doing my own research, yes, I often drink for a living, I will try similar styles of wines outside of the general genre of a certain rated wine and even find something better. Some may say that this is personal taste as well, and I cannot completely say that it is not, however, I am a professional taster - a sommelier.
You may never be interested in becoming a sommelier, but that doesn't mean you can learn to educate your palate. If you’ve read one of my other articles, "What Balance Means in Wine," and you’ve tried some wine with some careful consideration regarding the information in this article, then your palate is much more educated and particular than perhaps it was a month ago. That's the art of wine tasting.
Taste and Rate Wines Yourself
When I taste or try a wine, there are a few factors I like to evaluate:
Rate the Wine's Appearance
Sometimes, by looking at a wine and observing its color will tell you if you’ve got a wine worthy of further observation. This include's the wine's legs, which are the thin channels of wine that flow across the glass as you swirl or agitate it. Different wines have different leg profiles, and these should reflect what wines are known for. A wine with a heavy mouthfeel or a chewy wine will have thicker legs, and the wine will flow at a slower rate, as the viscosity of the wine reflects it's character.
The same applies to a wine's color, which is usually separated into two parts - whether the wine is the correct shade of red or white and how translucent or opaque it is. For example, a red wine that appear's brownish may be oxidized, with the exception of some wines which are meant to have this hue, like Shiraz.
So, if the wine's color, translucence and legs are on par, it is an indication that this wine is visually sound and can move on to the next phase of rating.
How is the Wine's Aroma?
When you’ve got a trained nose, one can notice if there are any off notes or even "artificial" additions to the wine. The aroma of a wine is expressed almost immediately after the bottle is opened, at it can tell you a lot about the wine. In some cases, the aromas may be off-putting, and this may just be because the wine needs to breathe and mingle with oxygen in a decanter to blossom. Being stuck in a bottle for some time can create stuffy odors.
If after you've let a funny-smelling wine breathe, it still has a weird smell, this may be a sign that the wine is tainted or spoiled, has a fault or has picked up bacteria or scents from the production line. Things to look out for in off-putting wines are scents of vinegar, scents of cork, musty odors, smells of rubber and harsh aromas of strong wines. This can be indicators of vinegar taint, a corked wine, a faulty wine, a wine with exposure to a subpar artificial cork or an overly alcoholic wine for its style, respectively. A bad smell may also just mean the wine is oxidized.
The Initial Sip
How is the initial sip and mouthfeel of the wine. Is it off-putting, repulsive or confusing? While the first two are signs that this wine needs to be tossed, the last can actually mean the wine boasts complexity, which is a good thing. An initial sip of a complex wine can confuse the palate, as it releases different flavors and aromas in stages, the initial output can be different from the wine's finish.
The Wine's Finish
When the wine's finish comes to an end, if you are left with nasty flavors, combative flavors or weak flavors, the wine is not in good shape. Nasty flavors may mean the wine is faulty or past its prime. Combative flavors means the wine is unbalanced, it does not have harmony, thus the flavors compete with each other in a negative way. This means it could have too much of everything - alcohol, acidity, sugar, fruit flavor..., and they all overpower each other. A weak finish means the wine is either too light or may have been exposed to oxygen for too long and lost its powerful scents and flavors.
If the finish of a wine is balanced, harmonious and all the factors compliment each other, this wine is a good wine. Coupled with good color, aroma and initial sip, you can rate this wine yourself and find that it is a good wine that may not appear on anyone's rating list. So, always be your own judge for wine; you may find that artisan wines and small estate wines can compete with the most distinguished of wine houses.
How to Rate the Wine You Drink
I like to evaluate my own findings based on what is listed and labeled on the bottle's label from the grape variety to the region and vintage year; basically, if the winemaker did justice to the fruit Mother Nature gave them. Not every year's harvest is the same, and certain weather conditions, among other factors, can influence a wine and how it’s perceived in a vintage. In my opinion, this is not considered sufficiently enough.
The Truth About Popular Wines
You might go with rated wines as a safe bet or even a safe buy, however, there are many thousands of wines out there deserving your attention. Get out of your comfort zone and just try something different. Here is why.
- Most rated wines are more well-recognized labels or ones that are easily accessible to the mass wine market.
- They are often large producers.
So how do you find something similar, but maybe different? Research your rated wines, check the region or even subregion and the grape variety used to make it. From there, you can look inside the same region, or even outside of it, for an alternative wine. If you choose a wine pool outside of the control wine, choose one made with grapes grown in a similar climate. You might be pleasantly surprised. While this may also be of personal taste, it is nice to support and try wines of more artisan, smaller or boutique producers. In an emerging world and market of supporting smaller producers, in the world of wine, this is needed now more than ever.
Alternatives to Top Rated Wines
Other than oftentimes promoting larger or well-known producers, rated wines also promote more specific varietals which appeal to the masses. We’re all familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel (red) of California, Riesling of Germany, Sangiovese of Italy or Super Tuscans, Pinot Noir of Burgundy, etc. I could go on. However, there are many other varietals that thrive in these regions and make for very good wine. Look for these.
- Muller-Thurgau of Germany
- Instead of Chardonnay, try a Viognier of the Rhone region in France or from California or a Pedro Ximenez wine of Spain.
- Love Cabernet Sauvignon? Try a California Merlot or Central Valley Syrah. Really, it can be just as big and bold from the warm regions. Rhone is producing some amazing big, bold reds as well. Often, a small-hometown wine-specialized shop will promote these up-and-coming projects. Ask your wine merchant.
- While there are specific regions of Europe in which only certain grapes are permitted for Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status, often, less-traditional grapes, of new wineries or those wanting to experiment, are lost. Try table wines of these big regions. They often go overlooked and are even under appreciated. However, sometimes these will be easier on your wallet.
These are really only a handful of suggestions. I think you get the idea though. Try as much as you can. If you’ve found something new and off-the-radar, do share and spread the word. I want to try it! And I’m sure many others would be interested as well.