What is a fine wine? It's a harder question to answer than you might think. We put this difficult question to a handful of wine lovers and wine trade experts – and the conclusion might not be quite what you expected
What is a fine wine?
Ringo Starr said: “Drumming is my middle name.” He lied. It isn’t. He doesn’t have one. And as most of you probably know, he was actually born Richard Starkey. Names can be confusing. Take our name FINE+RARE for example, the latter half is easy to understand; scarcity can be measured and compared. As a company, it’s what we are known for: being able to source that wine that nobody else can find you. But while we beat the drum for fine wine, defining the "fine" part of our name is far more challenging. In fact, when we put the question “what is a fine wine?” to an expert studying for the Master of Wine qualification, she answered: “That’s an MW essay question right there.”
In truth, the wine world is littered with poorly defined and potentially confusing terms like terroir and natural, but the commonly used expression fine wine is rarely questioned. How would you define it? As a thoroughly modern wine merchant we decided to start our research along a modern tack: Wikipedia. The online information behemoth instantly redirects you to a section on collecting wine and defines fine wines as those typically retailing in excess of £20-£30. So let’s start with collectability and then price.
Collectability and cellaring fine wine
For us, a fine wine is sought-after – something that is worth collecting and valuable. This can be tied to rarity – take Le Pin as a classic example – but, more often than not, it comes down to a wine’s ability to age. Although this may exclude certain styles from the category – great swathes of Viognier, crisp whites and rosé – the majority of fine wines develop and improve with careful cellaring. When wine becomes collectable, it becomes more sought-after, increasing demand and reducing availability, which in a self-perpetuating fashion, makes it "finer" and raises the price.
The role price plays in fine wine
We picked the brains of wine trade experts and our customers and it was unanimous that price is a defining factor in how fine a wine is considered to be. But the value at which a wine stops being "normal" and magically becomes "fine" varies massively and seems to be heavily dependent on experience and disposable income. The definition appears to be very personal.
A matter of taste
We all have vastly different sensitivities (because of the number of taste buds we each have), experiences and aspirations, hence why our tastes are so personal. One person’s fine wine could be another’s idea of hell. That’s why the Wine & Spirit Education Trust developed the systematic approach to tasting, to allow people to assess wines objectively. Fine wine could potentially be defined as whether it achieves an Outstanding Quality Level using this tasting method or not. However, there are still problems there. Because a systematic approach to tasting doesn’t take into account the context, price and age of the wine – these are only discussed within the "conclusion" of the assessment, and it still uses some deeply subjective terms like balance, complexity and structure. Maybe to assess just how fine a wine really is, we need a few more opinions?
Both Masters of Wine that we spoke to were of the opinion that to achieve fine wine status, agreement by a collective of independent influencers was required, i.e. enough experts need to rate it as such. Critics' scores massively bolster the reputation of wines and add credibility and confirmation of personal opinions. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be wine writers. Take Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine for example, in which to achieve an "Exceptional" standard, a wine must have recorded at least 10 vintages and exhibit a strong track record in the secondary market, i.e. the demand of connoisseurs and collectors at auction actually defines how fine a wine is perceived to be. So in some ways wine might be compared to art. If you display something in an art gallery, does that make it art? If enough people call it a fine wine, does that make it fine? But aren’t we forgetting the art of winemaking?
Provenance and pedigree
It goes without saying that to be considered a fine wine it should be made with quality as the primary goal. While we’re loath to use words like "handcrafted" for fear of opening the debate on machine harvesting, measures that limit the quantity produced generally direct wine in a finer direction. Prestigious appellations, exceptional vineyard sites and historical standing are also frequently cited as proof of a wine being fine. But there is more to it than just this, sometimes a wine comes straight out of left field and rewrites the rule book, e.g. Screaming Eagle, Pingus, Penfolds or the Tuscan twosome of Sassicaia and Tignanello. Incredible winemakers and ground-breaking innovation can also push a wine into the fine wine category.
Our definition of fine wine
In summary, what makes a wine fine is a combination of all of the above. But wine is deeply personal and different people have different values – that’s what makes the subject so much fun. But interestingly, after interviewing many wine professionals, one of the most inspiring definitions actually came from a someone outside of the wine trade, who said that to her fine wine is: “Something worthy of me investing myself into it, be it sourcing, decanting, storing, ageing or planning on when to open it.”
For us, a fine wine is in the glass of the beholder; they are the wines that you want to add to your collection. That’s why, as a company, we focus on sourcing the wines that you want with complete impartiality – because wine is personal and although we are happy to act as an expert guide, you are the one to decide what makes it a "fine wine".
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