I get this question all the time from people. Sometimes because they are intimidated by wine and want to gain confidence; sometimes because they are curious about different kinds of wines; and sometimes because they truly don’t know.
Regardless of the reason behind the question, though, the answers I give them are often quite different than what they expected! I say “answers” because there is more than one way to look at the definition of a good wine!
At the most basic level, the issue should be whether there is anything actually wrong with the wine. By that, I mean is it corked, in which case air has gotten into the bottle and caused the wine to oxidize and go “off”. If that is the case, you can often smell tea or burnt leaves, and taste little fruit flavours, or even vinegar. In the worst cases, this is easy to spot. But, unfortunately, it also happens – a lot – with wines by the glass in restaurants, as bottles have simply had the cork stuck back in them from the night before. I don’t know how many times I send back glasses and ask for a new bottle to be opened!
Another definition of a “good wine’ that I like to use is whether it tastes like the grape varietal – or varietals – that it is made from. This one is much trickier, and takes a lot more experience with wine.
Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Typically, the flavours are black currants, supported by wood (usually oak and cedar). But here the style of the wine also comes into play. If it is Bordeaux style, for example, you will get less fruit and more wood. California and Australia, however, is usually the reverse. It’s not a right or wrong thing, just a question of style.
What I don’t consider “good’, however, is a Cabernet Sauvignon that doesn’t have any of these flavours. No fruit at all, for example, or flavours of strange herbs or spices. Not necessarily “off”, but not recognizable as a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Another answer to “what is a good wine” is the most controversial, because it relates to value. A relative term for sure, but value and “good” do have a relationship. For example, if I taste a wine I like and find out it is reasonably priced – for me, that means in the $20 range – that will influence whether I think it is good or not. Frankly, the cheaper it is, the better I may think it is, and vice versa. In fact, the more expensive it is, the more the chance I may dismiss it because of the lack of value.
The same thing even applies for wines out of my cellar, where I expect to pay more. A ten year old Chateauneuf du Pape that has aged beautifully, for example, is “good” if I paid $40 – $50 when I bought it. But if I taste one that was more expensive – but not any better – then I won’t think it is as good.
Last, and certainly not least, is that a good wine is a wine you think is good! Sounds simplistic, but it is a riff on something that a wine educator once told me – the best wine is the wine you like the best. In fact, you can throw out all of the above and just use this answer. Find a wine you like, and stick with it!