Log In / Join Now

What Makes or Breaks a Great Wine

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 9, 2008 6:39pm ET

I woke up this morning to an empty, sediment-stained bottle of 1957 La Tâche on the kitchen table, bottle number 00010 of 18,848 bottles. That means it came from the first case of that fabled wine, of which some 1,570 12-packs were produced.

I purposefully left the bottle out as a reminder—not of how wonderful this wine was last night but of a few observations about what constitutes a great wine from last night’s dinner and round-table discussion of old wines at Ad Hoc in Yountville.

But first, the ’57 La Tâche: It offered a fantastic aroma of floral lavender scents, and earthy, savory dried raspberry, fresh herb, tar and tealike notes. On the palate it was smooth and polished, eventually revealing a sun-dried tomato quality. By the end of the evening, as it expired, it showed a caramelized mocha-chocolate cake aroma.

It outshowed a bottle of Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vieilles Vignes 1993, which started out tight, compact and intense, with flinty mineral and dried berry flavors. But even after an hour, it failed to unfold like the other wines, and on my scorecard it didn’t live up to the wine it can be. My last sip had a sweaty edge.

Next came a 1999 Marcassin Sonoma Coast Pinot, the youngster of the evening, and it too showed sweet ripe cherry and berry fruit and a trace of VA that gave the wine a lifted, racy edge. It’s something you expect in a wine with age and, when in proportion, adds a measure of complexity.

With each of these wines we noted the important elements that can make or break a great wine. You need to start off with the right grape in the right soil and climate in the right year with ideal growing conditions. You also need the right winemaker—who makes sure nothing goes wrong with the wine—a perfect cork, and ideal storage conditions, where the wine is left in a cool, dark cellar. As it was, removing the cork took about 15 minutes of patient surgery, with our waiter employing first a corkscrews then an ah-so and finally to a knife to ease the crumbling split-in-half cork out.

Mess with any of these elements and your odds of encountering a great bottle of wine diminish significantly.

Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  April 9, 2008 7:11pm ET
After tasting the 57 DRC (and I am sure you have many great vintage wines that have heldup) do you still prefer your wines youthful or can I get you to realize that great wines with proper care and everything being the way it should be will outshine their young counterparts all the time and everytime??
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 9, 2008 7:37pm ET
Bernard, yes I do, and I encourage anyone to seek out and experience the sometimes marvelous journeys great wines go through. But as a rule I don't recommend aging most wines because so few develop and end up like this one (though clearly there are many exceptions and wines such as DRC's La Tache are worthy cellar trophies). Most modern wines are tuned for earlier drinking and don't benefit from aging.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  April 9, 2008 8:58pm ET
1981 Pine Ridge Rutherford was toast last month...salad dressing.

I don't recommend keeping anything more than 10 years except port and sauternes. I can't afford Burgundy, so I can't recommend buying those.

I have had many great French bordeaux...1990 Haut Brion, 1988 Lynch Bages, 1989 Haut Brion, 1990-1994 Mouton, 1982 Mouton, etc...I think all were better in their first 15 years than the ones that were aged past 15 years...

Just my opinion though...
Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  April 10, 2008 8:38am ET
James, I've started to come around to yuor way of thinking regarding aging. With the exceptions of a few classic 1990 Bordeauxs, we've pretty much drank everything pre 2001 in our cellar.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  April 10, 2008 10:28am ET
Brian, you're mostly right. However, my 90's Brunellos are still going strong especially the 97's, same for the Barolo's. Most of my 97 Cali cabs are still drinking youthfully. I had a 94 Heitz Martha's Vineyard last week, that was wonderful. But 1999 seems to be the turning point (JL's "modern wines'). I have 99's and 01 Cali cabs going quick. My Oregon pinots are aging much better than Cali cabs. I no longer buy Cali cabs for aging, therefore I now buy about 75% less Cali cabs.
Richard Horvath
April 10, 2008 12:56pm ET
Sandy, I'm in agreement with you on the Cali cabs -- which seems like such a waste, given the price for many of the "top" Cali cabs. Sigh. At least I can get a lot of older treasures at auction, at much lower cost than the newbies!
Holger Berndt
SF —  April 10, 2008 6:02pm ET
I've also been disappointed by some 97 Cali cabs recently. I thought they had better aging potential, but some of them are already past their prime. The 99's, however, are drinking wonderfully (with the exception of Cinq Cepages--a perfect example of a wine that deteriorates quickly with age) and I'm starting to think that I like that vintage better than the overhyped 97's.
Corbin Butler
April 10, 2008 11:48pm ET
Im so tired of reading about Bordeaux and Brunello on this website. What about all the California wines that you guys dont write about? I dont care about 2007 Bordeax that is 2+ years away or Brunello grapes or what happens overseas. Where are the reviews for 2004 Ampersand, 2003 Asterisk, Levy McClellan 2004 & 2005, 2005 Merus, 2005 Scarecrow... Rate more CA wines not overpriced French or Italian wines that are bloated in price from the declining dollar.
Don Noone
April 11, 2008 11:11am ET
Corbin-I like California wines as much as the next guy but in terms of value California is falling and Europe is rising, despite the dollar. The best wines from CA are hideously expensive these days. 2005 Red Burgundy (Red Burgundy!) is a much better value these days than CA PN. Same with cabs, I can buy a 2003 Grand Puy Lacoste for $60 but current release Duckhorn Napa Cab will run me $95 if they deign to sell it to me. All over Europe - Spain, italy, France - wine quality is getting better and prices remain reasonable broadly speaking (of course with the exception of the top tier of "collectibles"). The only way i have found to get a modicum of value for the best CA wines lately is to join their wine clubs and score a few discounts (and hope that shipping doesn't kill you), but you have to commit to buying thousands of $ of their wine. I do my damnedest to buy the best wine at the best value I can, and I've found myself buying very little CA wine, not because I don't want to, but because the value just ain't there anymore.
Corbin Butler
April 11, 2008 12:55pm ET
Don - The value is all relative to whom is the buyer. Supply and Demand is perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and the backbone of the economy. Everyone is experiencing inflation in everything from wine to gasoline, etc... I expect that and I try to find the best value in my wine also! But my complaints are the content of Wine Spectator all I have seen on this website and in the magazines are wines from overseas coupled with the reviews. Think about it, if I use the american peso (which is at an all time low to foreign currencies) to buy foreign wine dont you think it will go farther in the US?
Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  April 11, 2008 1:49pm ET
For my Big California Cabs, I like 5-10 years. Although, I have many bottles of Heitz Martha's Vineyard from '74 to '97 that I enjoy older than Ten years. Its difficult to make a hard rule about age though. I also think it is important to realize what kind of fruit you prefer, fresh or dried. My wife thinks some old wines taste like old rotten fruit. She prefers fresh, vibrant fruit. Les Paul for example is 93 years old and still playing nightly music. I guess some age better than others.Cheers,Mark
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  April 11, 2008 1:53pm ET
I love threads like this because it points out the obvious - but taken for granted - variables that can ultimately affect how a wine tastes when opened . . . It is crazy how many things need to go 'right' in order to have a 'great' bottle of wine, and when it does, you know it!

On the topic of young vs old - had a 93 Spottswood Cab this week that was absolutely beautiful - very little signs of aging. Also had a 97 Sarangito for Italy that easily has another 20 years of life in it . .

But also had some youger wines that were simply stunning right now - an 04 Outpost Grenache and an 04 Hobbs Stagecoach Cab - and will also age nicely.

Take care and thanks again as usual for the topic!
Don Noone
April 13, 2008 4:01pm ET
Corbin-Yes one would think that the US peso would make domestic wine much more competitive, and it is for basic wine, but for fine wine, I don't see that being the case. And yes, the Wine Spectator is probably partly guilty for creating outsized demand for cultish wines, which is why there are crazy prices for many wines. And I am all for the continued growth of the domestic wine industry - I want us to compete with the best. It's just that I can drink more good wine these days for my dollars by looking to foreign producers. Cheers
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  April 14, 2008 8:08pm ET
I had a second chance at a 1996 BV Tapestry recently. (I drank my only bottle years ago.) This 12 year old wine was exactly as I remembered it. It both drank great young and aged well. While no 57 La Tache, that's a well made wine.
Gloria Schaefer
Glen Ellen, CA —  April 18, 2008 2:06pm ET
I just discovered this blog. I enjoy reading everyone's thoughts. I myself like wines that can be enjoyed young and can be layed down as well. I typically buy a case and taste it over time.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.