I've tasted a lot of great wines over the years but I'm not sure I've ever tasted a perfect one. Perfection, as I see it, is a tricky business. It's like fog: You know it's there, but just try catching it.
Call me a hard-ass. You wouldn't be the first. Even the winemakers I'm friendly with call me a tough reviewer, although I don't see myself that way. It's true that I rarely rate a wine as "classic," or 95 and above on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, and I'm OK with that. It's not like I review grand cru Burgundy, even though I do rate some incredible wines on my beat: California Zinfandel, Merlot, rosé and sparkling wine.
None of our reviewers are pushovers. Wines with ratings of 97, 98 or 99 aren't unusual—nearly 100 earned those scores in the past year—but 100-point wines are rare. Only three have earned it in the past three years, and two of those were noted classics tasted non-blind in retrospective tastings.
Perfection should be rare. It has to be. How many perfect days have you experienced? A handful?
What attributes would a perfect wine have? Complexity and character, a sense of place, balance and focus, varietal typicity, elegance or power or both, the promise of improvement over time. What have I missed?
Perfection is also subjective. It's an ideal that we hold in our own minds, formed by our perspective and experiences. If you cut your wine-tasting teeth on Zinfandel, let's use as an example, your first taste of classic Barolo in its youth might cross your eyes. (Yes, but the learning experience is so worth it.)
Here's another question. Is a perfect wine always perfect? Will the Château Haut-Brion 2005, which we first rated 100 points in 2008, always be perfect? Or is it a moving target, depending on the bottle or how the wine ages through time?
The way I see it, perfection is a combination of a great wine and a moment in time. That bottle of Haut-Brion 2005 was going on all thrusters when we reviewed it blind. Château Margaux 1961 never scored 100 points from Wine Spectator, but the night I tasted it at the château, it approached perfection.
Maybe perfection is like that old quote from Oscar Levant: "Happiness isn't something you experience; it's something you remember."
So what do you think? What makes a perfect wine? And have you ever tasted one? Share your stories.