Our philosophy of wine reviewing is premised upon the principle of laudatory criticism: if we like a wine, we write about it; if we do not like a wine, we do not waste our time or our readers’ by chastising it in print. As noted below, the wines we enjoy are rated at least 80 points. Accordingly, although we provide categories for wines rated below 80 points, they will almost never be written about in these pages.
A varietal is a specific variety of grape, such as Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. The doctrine of varietal correctness holds that a Syrah should taste like a Syrah, and not a Cabernet Sauvignon.
A wine’s depth is a measure of its concentration of fruit. A great wine should not taste watery or diluted, but should be packed with ripe fruit flavors. A wine with admirable depth possesses a richness that goes beyond the initial palate sensation, and is thus said to be a “multi-layered” wine.
Admittedly, character is a highly-subjective descriptor. What we mean by character is that the wine should tell an interesting, engaging, and perhaps unique story through its color, smell, and taste. For some people, a wine’s character is derived from its ability to clearly communicate the attributes of the geographic site (such as soil type, climate, and altitude) where the grapes were grown that went into the wine. The combination of such geographic factors is referred to as “terroir.” People who celebrate terroir generally believe that the greatest measure of a wine is its ability to clearly express the vineyard from which it came. For others, a wine’s character is based on its intrinsic aromatic and flavor profile, and its ability to provide drinking pleasure, regardless of site expression. Whether a wine tells a story of terroir, or offers a hedonistic punch of juicy fruit flavors, so long as the wine offers an interesting and pleasurable drinking experience, it can be said to have a praiseworthy character.
This is the most important criterion for any wine. A wine is balanced where the alcohol, fruitiness, tannins, acidity, and oak (if used in the winemaking process) co-exist in harmony.
In winespeak, this means the state of being full-bodied, large-framed, and broad on the palate. Many great wines, but not all of them, have this extra degree of size without seeming heavy or overbearing in the mouth, and this contrast sets them apart from other wines. Amplitude is generally a positive descriptor, especially when a wine is full-bodied without being heavy.
It is easy, however, when tasting wines in a “blind” setting (when you do not know the identity of the producer), to be attracted to a wine that by virtue of its sheer size and extraction stands out amongst its peers. This is one of the greatest dangers in wine criticism. Simply put, a bigger wine is not necessarily a better wine. Amplitude can be a function of over-extraction, high alcohol, or overripeness in the grapes that made the wine. In such cases, the enormity of the wine may overwhelm the tastebuds, and mask certain deficiencies. Thus, while amplitude is generally a positive trait, a wine that is all size and without nuance can never be considered a truly great wine.