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Have You Ever Tasted a Perfect Wine?

Many wines are outstanding, but a truly 100-point wine is rare
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 13, 2013 10:40am ET

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.

Richard Lee
Napa —  November 13, 2013 1:44pm ET
Hi Tim!.......I sometimes feel poorly for the "critics" of WS. I think that you can't see the many rainbows and beautiful sunny days because you are caught up in the fog. You guys seem to have become a product of your environment....tasting bagged wines in a dark room, hastily writing notes w/overly enhanced descriptors, trying to meet a deadline w/a preset number of wines to be reviewed.

I feel empathy that you have had only a handful of "Perfect" days. You are taking life far too seriously or you are not taking the time to slow down and enjoy where you live (see the Philippines), your family and friends and your personal success.

It is sad that you haven't experienced any "Perfect" wines. The 100 point scale is around only because of magazines. Having hosted hundreds of dinners over the years I have never had anyone drink a wine and shout out "This is a 87 point wine"! Wines are always described as Outstanding,Decent,Horrible, Delicious, Incredible, etc., and .....Yes! PERFECT!

Wines are always enhanced by place, time, personal success, friends, parties, love and circumstances. I guarantee the wine you gave 90 points to 2pm at your office tastes totally different at 8pm at a dinner party at your house.

Slow down, enjoy life, relax and you will find that you have had more perfect days than you believe and far more perfect wines than you have let on.

Ted Hudgins
Naples, FL —  November 13, 2013 2:41pm ET
Tim, I think you're right when you suggest that perfect wines may be situational. I recall several bottles that I thought of as being about as good as wine gets. A 47 C.B in my house one night was sublime, then there was the 01 Coche Dury Corton Charlemagne at Daniel with a lobster appetizer; a 61 Mouton that literally filled the air with its perfume and an 03 Pegau Cuvee da Capo that had strength, finesse and otherworldly concentration. Would they be 100 pointers in everybody's book? Maybe, maybe not but right then in those moments they seemed perfect.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  November 13, 2013 2:58pm ET
Thanks for the reminder Richard. We all need that from time to time. If anything, most of my friends and colleagues will tell you that I take few things seriously.

I do taste far more wines in the real world, non-blind with friends and family than I do blind for the Spectator.

As I said, I am a demanding reviewer at work and in real life. Maybe it was all those years of Catholic school. :)

In the end, I believe - as I wrote - "Perfection is a combination of a great wine and a moment in time."

Cheers and thanks for joining the conversation.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 13, 2013 3:05pm ET
Certainly is a lot of truth in what Richard just posted. Especially the comment regarding place, time & circumstance when drinking a wine. Tim, if for whatever reason, you are having a bad day, do you think that might influence your scores? I have said many times "this is the best wine I have ever had" However, I never try to give it a score. I only know that at that particular time it was a great wine.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  November 13, 2013 5:52pm ET

I wish I had an easy answer to that. All I can say is that I try not to let my mood influence my reviews. Thanks for the comment.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  November 13, 2013 7:12pm ET
Wines that (at the time) seemed perfect?

Hugel 1994 Gentil. - "Wow! Wine can actually taste good."
Vieux Telegraphe 1998 Chateauneuf du Pape. - "Oh, this is the Southern Rhone."
BV 1968 Cab Sav 'George Latour.' - "This is what aged wine can be."
St. Innocent 2010 Pinot Noir 'Temperance Hill.' - "Oregon is America's most amazing terroir.'

I could go on, but you get the idea.
Thanks Tim, for making us think about these things.
Michael De Polo
West Bloomfield, Mi —  November 13, 2013 8:12pm ET
Though we all use them to greater or lesser degree, the scoring system is so entirely subjective once you get into the difference between, say, a 90-point and a 91-point or a 99-point and a 100-point wine. Perfection is, as many here have said--and as Tim set out in his piece--a combination of certain objective characteristics ("[c]omplexity and character, a sense of place, balance and focus, varietal typicity, elegance or power or both, the promise of improvement over time") and "the moment."

Once a reviewer (or fine wine drinker) determines a wine to be worthy of something north of 95 points (or, for the rest of us, an exclamation of "one of the best wines I've ever tasted"), who's to say that there is anything objective left? Perhaps, then, after that, it's all "the moment."

I'm sure we've all had wines that reviewers have studiously determined to be classics that were, while certainly objectively wonderful, not all that special, and others that reviewers studiously determined to be much better than most, that we found, based upon the "moment," utterly perfect. Of this latter type, two wines leap immediately to mind.

The first was a wine I ordered at a Jacksonville restaurant in 2006 or 2007, when I was away alone on business. It was a 2004 Siduri Pinot Noir Van der Kamp Vineyard (91 WS) that I had with a most impeccably prepared duck breast. One bite of the duck followed by a sip of the wine, and I was transported to that rare place we rarely go, where the food and the wine didn't just match, but seemingly made for each other. Would another wine have done the same? Perhaps. But the point is that this wine was, on that night and with that food, perfect.

The second was a 2003 Herman Story Syrah Santa Barbara County Larner Vineyard (not reviewed by WS, but 90 WA) that I had after a Thanksgiving dinner after most of the guests were gone. I was admittedly already feeling no pain when I stumbled across an R.E.M concert on television. I ran the sound loudly through the stereo, sat back on the couch, grabbed the bottle, and was, again, transported, savoring every sip. Again, perhaps another wine would have done as well, but I've had many a bottle (and many rated much higher than 90 points) while listening to music, and yet it was this bottle on that night I remember as being so stunning, so perfect.

I believe it's just the nature of the beast; it's why we invest so much time, thought, and--let's face it--money into this ever-changing and enlightening adventure we engage in. Wine is, perhaps like no other thing we taste, capable of so much more than mere flavor. At times, it's capable of perfection.

Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 14, 2013 12:12am ET
"One more comment Tim. I am an "ole timer" & one wine that I will not forget was the 1976 Jordan Cab. It was fantastic. I can't find a wine spectator rating, but I think James describe it as a Pinot in disguise as a Cab. Great description.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  November 14, 2013 3:57pm ET

Yes to all that you said about the defining features of a "perfect" wine. To that list I would like to add one further necessary element; the wine must surprise the taster! Every truly unsurpassable wine I have ever tasted shocked or surprised me somehow, presenting something, be it intensity, complexity, length of finish or simply a deep mystery that exceeded all of my expectations.

I offer a personal "perfect", the 1989 Domaine de Marcoux Vielles Vignes Chateaunuef du Pape. It was brought from my cellar and opened with friends in a top Seattle restaurant a decade after the wine's release (circa 2000). Could a wine really have this much power and complexity?!! The wine kept opening, evolving and revealing new flavors and aromas until the last drop was gone. Everyone who tasted it, headwaiter and chef included, just flipped. Honestly, this wine created an excitement in the room that was palpable. We all knew we were tasting wine at its very best.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Daniel Sherer
Windsor, CA, USA —  November 14, 2013 6:16pm ET
Tim…I have been in the wine industry for over 30 years. Lots of back roads, front roads, famous winemakers, “infamous” winery owners, Masters of Wine, First Growth directors, Grand Cru Vineyards, high altitudes along with high attitudes, weekend warriors and all the rest of the wine drinking population, who like me, seek and search for a wine to remember. That’s the fun of wine. It can be a cold night in the back yard or a dinner in the vineyards. I found the perfect wine once. It was “spiritual” I talk about still today. I don’t have any bottles left and if I came across one, I believe I would pass. I want to remember it as being perfect.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  November 14, 2013 9:41pm ET
Nice effort, Tim. This really does become a philosophical question as one must first decide if perfection is even possible. I have to agree, especially as one matures (the person not the wine), life, and in turn, wine, becomes less about striving for perfection and more about appreciating reality.

But if one were to try to pin-point a "perfect" wine, I would think it would have to be COMPLETE. It would combine power and density, yet would also show subtlety, even softness. Chateau Lafite 2000 or Krug '88 stand out for me.

But wines change depending on when we drink them, who we drink them with. So, with some of my friends, we find the "perfect" wine tends to be the one we are drinking at that moment!

Raymond J Segat
White Rock, BC, Canada —  November 14, 2013 11:03pm ET
I've had many excellent wines, rated as such or not. The best wine or most memorable wine I've had was a 90 point WS rated wine, the 2002 Masseto. Perfect or not still the best wine experience I've had, which makes it damn near perfect to me.
Leonard & Terry Korn
Palm Springs, Ca —  November 15, 2013 3:00pm ET
A few years ago our poorly paid teacher son gave us a 1970 Taylor-Fladgate Port for Christmas. We know it cost him we'll north of $100 so it was a very great gift. We bought some fine blue cheese, smoke house almonds, dark chocolate, dried fruit and invited him over. Sharing that absolutely incredible bottle of wine with him was a perfect moment in our wine drinking experience. And it was a perfect wine. Layers and layers of incredible flavors. We've had many wonderful wines in our lives but this will always be remembered as our most perfect wine and perfect experience.
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  November 19, 2013 12:36pm ET
Don't you just love a classroom professor who can't allow themselves to grade a student's test 100 points?
It would be the same as saying the student has perfect knowledge, they argue. Sort of like not awarding a Super Bowl trophy because someone might say that was not a perfect team. How sad.
A bottle of wine is nothing more or less than a snapshot in time. Sometimes what's in the bottle is as good as it gets. Yep, perfect. There, I've said it.
Tough grader or not, wine reviewers should have enough confidence in their skills to say today, this bottle has all I can ask for. It deserves 100 points. Move on.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  November 19, 2013 3:59pm ET
1977 Fonseca
1989 & 1990 Haut Brion
Gregory Kendall
Laurel, MD, US —  November 24, 2013 8:46am ET
To date these are several wines that I thought were about as close to perfection as one can get.

'77 Fonseca Port
'88 Krug Brut Blanc de Blanc Champagne Clos Du Mesnil
'02 Sloan Red
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  November 26, 2013 8:54pm ET
The wines that consistently come closest to perfection are Schrader's Cabs. My highest scoring wine (out of about 2000 I've tasted in 14 years) is the 1994 Taylor-Fladgate Port. 97 pts. So you're not the only hard-ass around here Tim!

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