What makes a Fine Wine fine?

Published on May 31, 2023

We see the term fine wine used all the time in restaurant wine lists, in pubs and wine bar windows, in wine shops and supermarkets, in newspapers, magazines – everywhere. But what actually is fine wine? How is it different to regular wine? What should a fine wine taste like? Great questions! I tried to find some answers.

If you look in a dictionary, fine implies quality of the highest order, but there again how do we define quality. Quality is defined as a degree of excellence. Fine also includes the descriptors polished, elegant and refined.
For further help, I went to where everyone goes these days to get an answer to a difficult question, ChatGPT. Here is the answer it returned:

“A fine wine typically refers to a high-quality wine that has been carefully produced from superior grapes and exhibits exceptional characteristics. It is often associated with wines that are produced in renowned wine regions and have undergone meticulous winemaking processes.”

An OK answer but a little bland.

Maybe real wine industry experts would have a better answer? I looked to the Institute of Masters of Wine, who really are the gurus of the wine industry. They use the following criteria to decide if a wine is of a high quality:

    • Balance – A wine should be equal or greater than the sum of its parts. No component should dominate – it shouldn’t be too acidic, tannic, fruity, alcoholic.
    • Concentration – Aromas are strong. Flavours are intense.
    • Complexity – Wide array of different flavours and nuances. Multi-dimensional and multi-layered.
    • Length – Sensations are intense on the finish and persist on the palate
    • Typicity – The wine is the quintessential example of its type. Its aromas and characteristics perfectly embody the wine’s style or place of origin

Few would argue with this list of quality criteria but it doesn’t tell us if a wine is fine or not.

A more objective approach is to look at wine critic ratings. Jancis Robinson has a 20 point scale to rate wines tasted. Robert Parker from The Wine Advocate, uses a 100 point scale. Another critic, Clive Coates uses categories such as ‘Very good’, ‘Fine’, ‘Very Fine’ and ‘Grand Vin’. But is a 16/20 rated wine on the Jancis Robinson scale considered fine. As far as I can see, no wine critic defines the line over which wines are considered to be fine.

How about using price? Certainly, in general, there will be series of jumps in quality as you move through the gears from £5 to £100 a bottle. If you look at the chart below showing the buying habits of US wine customers. You will see that only 13% of US retail wine buyers spent more than $20 on a bottle in 2022 and only 6% spent more the $30. So we could take the view that all wines over $30 could be considered fine wine. But we know there will be exceptions to this since everyone has heard about the trophy-winning £5 Spanish red beating wines 10 times the price in taste tests. So the price of a bottle is a factor in the fine wine debate but not the whole story.

And so finally I went to ARENI Global, a think tank dedicated to the future of fine wine. Apparently they have been working on a definition of fine wine since 2017!  Here is their latest working definition:

“A fine wine is complex, balanced, with a potential to age, though drinkable at every stage of its development. It has the capacity to provoke emotions and wonder in the one drinking it, while reflecting the expression of truth intended by its maker. It is widely recognised, while being environmentally, socially and financially sustainable.”

This certainly looks like a definition put together by a committee but I think it is my favourite – it starts to involve the emotions that we sometimes get when we pour a glass and realise we have opened a great bottle.

So it would seem that whether a wine is considered to be a fine wine or not is all a matter of opinion. Maybe if you think a wine is fine, then for you, it is a fine wine!


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