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What is a fine wine?

Angela Mount

Fine wine is a term frequently used by wine experts and wine consumers alike, but what does it actually mean, and which wines does it apply to?

Bordeaux wine cork

The term ‘fine wine’ has no exact, or defined meaning, and can be viewed as subjective. Does it mean ‘fine’, as in ‘good and worth drinking’, as opposed to a poor wine, or does it mean a wine which occupies a far more elevated status and is revered and prized. Is it defined by its price, by where it’s made, from which grapes it’s made, or for how long it will age?

My personal view is that the term ‘fine wine’ scares many wine drinkers off – it sounds too pompous, it sounds as though they should know about wine before they dare to venture into this territory – and those who do, but don’t necessarily understand wine, tend to treat their special purchases, like pieces of Ming porcelain. At the other end of the scale, anything defined as ‘fine wine’ will attract moneyed wine drinkers , who may not understand the first thing about wine, are not remotely interested in the subject, but are purely focussed on making an impression with their peers/friends/business associates – almost the equivalent of buying exclusive, top designer brands. I’ve been to too many wine tastings, where wealthy, generally young-ish city traders, ask which is the best known and most expensive claret in the room, and buy on that basis. Of course this is a generalisation, and there are similarly many such wine collectors, who do know their stuff!

The dictionary defines the word ‘fine’ as ‘high quality’, beautiful and very good. Yet this, in itself is subjective. Is it fine wine because it is made in a certain way, or because someone drinking it, or the producer, thinks it is very good?

So let’s try to define ‘fine wine’ – one way of looking at the term, is that it describes very high quality, normally more expensive wines, from some of the best vineyards in the world, and are handcrafted with care. They are normally wines which are aged with love and attention over a period of time, and are produced from grapes picked by hand, from the very best vineyards on an estate, with the optimum soil types, location, outlook and microclimates. The majority of these wines traditionally come from classic wine regions, but with an increasing range of New World ‘fine wines’.

If a wine list is described as a ‘fine wine list’, it will have a long list of wines, including vintage champagnes, and a broad range of top Bordeaux, Burgundy, and premium Australian wines from different vintages and sub-appellations. A ‘fine wine specialist’ will offer wines at the upper echelons, across a broad range of regions, but with the main focus on the 2 main French premium areas.

The most classic fine wine regions are those of Bordeaux and Burgundy, where there are tightly controlled appellation rules, and an established, hierarchical classification; this is most apparent in Bordeaux, where the 1855 classification analysed the merits of each individual chateau and determined whether it was a first growth, such as Chateau Mouton Rothschild, or a more humble, but often, very good value Cru Bourgeois. In Burgundy and Champagne, as well as individual estates, the classifications of Premier Cru and Grand Cru apply, relating to the exact location of the vineyards – with Grand Cru occupying the very best territory in terms of soil, outlook, and terroir, and normally restricted to small areas of the very best quality potential. The same applies to Chianti and Chianti Classico. Increasingly this applies to the very best of the New World, with the ultimate example of this being the iconic Penfolds Grange Hermitage, produced from very limited parcels of the very best wines from Penfolds most premium vineyards.

Pricing is of course a factor in the definition of ‘fine wine’, as the most premium sites command very high land prices, yields by hectare are low, everything about the wine is handcrafted,and nurtured – the majority of the most premium wines, red and white, are barrel fermented or barrel- aged. Barrels are expensive, which add to the cost. Add in to this the ageing time for a wine, which is effectively tying valuable stock up, and it’s easy to see why a fresh, young wine, which is produced and sold within a year, is a far less costly option that a wine that is going to be aged for anything up to 5 years, without being able to be realised into capital.

By the very nature of the way they are produced, ‘fine wines’ will tend to be wines with ageing potential, wines that release their magic little by little and evolve over the years. Vintages are crucially important, for top level wines, especially in the more volatile weather regions of Europe, where annual differences in weather patterns can impact dramatically on the style, quality, and ultimately price of a wine. True Bordeaux and Burgundy lovers will have learnt and memorised the great and not so great vintages from these areas. Many wine lovers will buy wines young, and lay them down for several years, whilst they mature. This is where the concept of ‘wine investment’ has developed. Buying a wine young as an investment, letting it develop and selling at a profit, especially wines of limited quantity, or superlative and rarer old vintages, has made a pretty profit for many wine traders and private customers, although the recent recession has had a considerable impact on opportunities here. As the wine matures, and as the internationally renowned critics continue to review and score for quality, so it becomes more valuable, especially in the greatest vintages, which are truly prized bottles. The opportunity to drink a rare wine from a top vintage is a valuable and expensive delight, and prices will soar, if the wine has been bought as an investment.

This is the playground of wine auctions, where bottles and cases of older, rare wine are sold to collectors, top restaurants and other investors. ‘En Primeur’ is the other way to buy top end wines, but in this case, it refers to purchasing wine, before it has even finished maturing and been released, with pricing and positioning based on the potential that is tasted by experts in the spring following the vintage. The wines are given a ‘scale rating’ depending on how the expert tasters view the potential of the wine for when it has been bottled, released and had time to mature. The wine is bought up to 18 months before it is released, when it will be cheaper at the time when it is bottled and released, and demand is higher. However some wines never live up to early expectation, and can lose value. It is therefore recommended that it is wines that are very limited in quality, have a top reputation, and are likely to be sold out before they are released, are the ones to invest in. The main areas for ‘en primeur’ purchases are Bordeaux, Burgundy and Port.

Fine wine is a term, which will always be subjective and also subject to numerous discussions. What is certain is that any wine defined as ‘fine’, will have elegance, balance, structure, complexity, and typicity, whatever its style.

Angela Mount

Angela Mount

Angela Mount is a wine expert, writer, judge and presenter, and is also responsible for producing numerous industry articles. She famously had her taste buds insured for £10 million by her former employers Somerfield. Find out more about her here.

Read more articles by: Angela Mount

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