The World of Fine Wine
What is fine wine? How high do you set the bar?
It is a pretty fundamental question for the conductors of a magazine that defines itself with the term.
James Busby, the founder of the Australian wine industry, came across ‘fine wine’ on his tour of France, where he was collecting vines, in 1831. ‘Fine… by which term the French characterize, generally, those wines which are drunk pure and in wine-glasses, in contradistinction to those which are drunk in tumblers mixed with water at their ordinary meals.’
That was the starting point – when wine was, at least in countries that produced it, one of life’s bare necessities. Any wine good enough to drink neat was considered fine and was served in thin glasses to heighten the sense of something special. Exactly what depended on where you were and, of course, whom you knew.
Fine was a strong word, a salesman’s word, for a bar set pretty low. The dictionary has definitions to justify it. ‘The opposite of coarse’ is one; ‘free from dross’ is another; ‘of superior quality’ begs the question, ‘Superior to what?’ And is simple superiority the point, or do we mean a category of wine with certain characteristics that interest us? Fine also means ‘delicate, thin or slender’. ‘Keen-edged and penetrating’ too, like a fine blade or a fine point. Fino, the Sherry, comes into this class: it is not necessarily better than, say, a fine Oloroso or Palo Cortado. But finer, yes: more delicate, fresher, more precisely aimed, more brilliant on the palate. Finesse is a word describing the same sort of qualities – nuances in the scale of elegance. Margaux or Musigny, not Priorat or Barossa. This is not judgment but description.
Are fine wines comparable to the fine arts, ‘the arts concerned with beauty, or that appeal to taste’: painting, sculpture and architecture? Yes, they appeal to taste, literally and metaphorically. To say they are concerned with beauty raises the bar a bit higher. But if beauty is truth, wine provides plenty of evidence. Case not in the least dismissed.
Fine as in ‘fine writing’, or rather purple patch? I hope not. I can think of wines – too many wines, more and more wines – of florid and specious appeal, thick with extract, heady with alcohol, roasted, chocolaty and chewy, superconcentrated, opulent and bombastic as this sentence.
You can fix a price point, something 99, the way they do with premium, superpremium, super-duper-premium, off the chart and all the other levels known to marketing man. Everything fashionable would then be fine, and all the bargains of the world relegated. Commerce is tough enough, though, without adding insult to injury. Price alone is not enough.
Does the ability to age and improve give us a benchmark? It is certainly a measure of quality in wines that possess it at all. And do many drink-me-quick wines (apart from Fino Sherry and one or two others) deserve to be called fine? While it is not enough in itself, longevity is certainly an indicator. And who would deny that the greatest wines live longest?
These are all considerations in the conductors’ minds. But somewhere a line has to be drawn. So let me propose one. A fine wine, for the purposes of this magazine, is a wine worth talking about. Maybe for its aroma or flavour, its evocation of people, a place and a time. Maybe for the intellectual challenge, when the more sensual rewards are still to show. Or maybe for a quality that offers a glimpse of perfection – transitory, transcendental, unique. You, the reader, are the judge of whether the conversation is worthwhile.
This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous. It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Andrew Jefford, and the said Mr Johnson.
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