Describing any wine as “good” really only denotes that it is enjoyed by whoever is drinking it. I cannot emphasize enough that wine should not be evaluated on anything but “enjoyment”. In other words, if you like it, it is good.

But as a beverage that has been consumed for as long as 8000 years, a great deal of time and attention have been directed toward quantifying, qualifying, and contemplating what characteristics contribute to a “good red wine”.

So at the risk of contradicting myself, with the disclaimer that my opinion is based on my unique set of experiences, I will scratch the surface on what characteristics are generally accepted to earn the designator, “good red wine”.

First, the grape varietal is an important factor. There are about 50 varietals of red wine that you are likely to encounter. When we further refine to what you might find in your local store, the list goes down considerably. That said, Italy alone produces over 400 varieties of grapes used in making wine, a good portion red. So if you are traveling there, the chances are quite favorable that you will taste a local wine made from an unfamiliar grape that you like, hence, “a good red wine”. So consider the varietal issue “fluid”

There are good wines to be enjoyed in all the varieties of wine grapes you will find. The most familiar are:

Bordeaux Red Blend
Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Nero d’Avola
Petite Sirah
Pinot Noir
Rhone Red Blend

Another slippery factor is the occasion during which you intend to drink the wine. Will it be in a cocktail setting with friends; or with dinner between two of you; or during the dessert course of a large meal; or alone watching a movie; or with a group watching a game; or evaluating comparable wines in a tasting? In each of these settings, the characteristics that you might find preferable will differ.

So what actually makes a good red wine?! Amongst professionals, the characteristics that describe a good red wine follow this basic series of observations:

Color: Does the color align with the generally accepted characteristics one would expect from the grape varietal or type of wine? For example, one might expect a Zinfandel or Syrah to be opaque. The colors could range from a dark reddish to almost black with blue hues. If one encountered a pink translucent syrah, it would be a mark against it and the expectation for flavor would be suspect. On the other hand, if those inky characteristics were witnessed in a Pinot Noir, this would also be anomalous and mark against the wine. Pinot is expected to be translucent, gem-like exhibiting ruby or garnet hues.

Smell: Again, the first gate to cross is whether the smell is typical in character to the varietal. This requires familiarity with a wide range of wines; what is typical in Pinot Noir, for example, is VERY broad. It is dependent upon region of origin, clonal selection of the vines, and a host of other factors. But evaluating a wine against its peers to determine if it is “good wine” requires a basis of comparison. But remember, this is not so if you are just opening a bottle to see if you enjoy it.

After determining that the smell aligns with expectations, the depth and complexity is important. Metaphor is best used in describing smells; so discerning the individual components that are evoked is an exercise that takes moments to minutes in absorbing. After all, 99% of what we taste is informed by what we smell. So that first whiff is a strong indicator to what you will ultimately experience as flavor. Does the wine promise fruit, earth, spice, floral, sweet, excitement, or dullness based on what your nose tells you?

Taste: Again, does the wine taste like others of its category? After that, the flavors are divided between the front, mid-palate, back and finish. Keep in mind your tongue only tastes five things: Sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami (savory), so that initial smell was important in fleshing out the flavors you will experience. Secondarily, those aromas pass through your mouth, beyond your hard upper-palate, up into your nasopharynx to your olfactory receptors to further inform the flavor. So making sure you are breathing, even slurping air through the wine will serve in fully tasting.

The initial entry of a wine into the mouth is called the front. One must focus carefully to pick up what you taste when that wine first hits your tongue. Then follow the wine down the into the mid-palate. In a “good red wine” one is hoping for a seamless transition, devoid of rough spots or even holes where there is no taste. That is not to say that a rough, gravelly flavor is not coveted. But it depends on varietal. One might expect a rough mid-palate experience with a Zinfandel, but not with a Merlot.

The back-palate is your flavor experience in the back of your mouth, while the finish is after the wine is swallowed. A long finish with the flavor lingering for as long as minutes, if the flavor is good, is often the mark of a “good red wine”.

Mouth feel: A certain red wine might be described as “light-bodied” – referring to the viscosity, mouth-feel and tannin structure. A light-bodied wine will display fewer tannins and feel lighter on the palate. These wines tend to be overpowered by flavor-filled foods. A light-bodied red wine derived from the Gamay grape varietal, is France’s famed young red wine: Beaujolais Nouveau.

medium-bodied red wine will display more tannins, but will not have the pronounced structure of a high-powered California Cabernet Sauvignon or an Italian Super Tuscan. Medium-bodied red wines include: MerlotShiraz, Pinot Noir, Burgundy and Chianti.

Full-bodied red wines boast the highest tannin levels.  Full-bodied reds include France’s respected Bordeaux wines, California’s top Cabernet Sauvignons and Italy’s dazzling Super Tuscans.

For clarity, light-bodied wines tend to “feel” lighter or more like water in the mouth. In contrast, “full-bodied” wines feel heavier, more like milk. This effect is due in large part to the higher tannin levels.

There are “good red wines” in all categories mouth feel.

So, finally, a red wine is determined good if it has desirable characteristics in all of these areas: Color, Smell, Taste, and Mouthfeel.

Yet I cannot emphasize enough that you are the determinant in these. While it is fun to compare with friends, sommeliers and journalists to determine differences and similarities in preferences, it is hard to enjoy a 100 point wine if you don’t prefer it. The true fun in discovery is finding out what you most enjoy at any given moment. That is also true of life.


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