Special Report

11 Ways to Tell If a Wine Is Actually Really Good

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6. Does it smell good?

Sometimes a wine that doesn’t smell bad, for any reason, just doesn’t smell like much of anything at all. Wine-tasters would say that the nose is “closed in.” Most sound wines, though, have a pleasant aroma or nose. This is often just the smell of the principal grape variety used, especially in young wines. (The aroma of sauvignon blanc, for instance, is typically reminiscent of grapefruit and/or peaches; sangiovese, the main grape of Chianti, smells like violets.) Oak aging can add more complexity to the aroma, and as the wine ages and various compounds in the wine develop, fade, or knit together, it develops what is called a “bouquet.” This is when wine really starts to smell like wine and not just fermented grape juice — and also where all those sometimes silly-sounding wine-tasting analogies come in, in which bouquet is said to suggest mushrooms, shoe leather, cigar box, chocolate, etc.

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7. How’s the mouthfeel?

As the term itself suggests, mouthfeel is about the way the wine feels in your mouth. It’s about the texture of the wine. Is it light or heavy on the palate? Does it have a pleasing roundness or body — primarily the result of a compound called glycerol? Is it rough or smooth, puckery or bland or something in between? Does the flavor of the wine stay in the mouth for half a minute or more — the quality of having a long or persistent finish (good wines rarely have short ones).

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8. How does it taste?

Speaking of flavor, how does it taste? No wine-tasting terms are required here. Picking apart the elements of wine flavor can be fun, but it isn’t necessary, any more than trying to divine the recipe when you taste a sauce you like is. The most useful descriptor here is just something like “Delicious!”

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9. Is it well balanced?

For experienced wine lovers, this is an extremely important criterion: Are all the elements of a wine — acidity, tannins, glycerol (see above), alcohol, fruit, oak flavor, etc. — in harmony with one another, or does one or more stand out? Too much tannin, for instance, gives your mouth a cottony feel (that’s tannin when you bite into an unripe persimmon); too much alcohol feels “hot” and sharp. As in so many things, equilibrium is key, and even novices will probably like a well-balanced wine better than one that’s out of whack, even if they can’t articulate exactly why.

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10. How much does it cost?

This is a very important factor that is not always cited by wine experts in assessing a wine’s quality. It’s important to remember that really expensive wines — that $3,700 bottle of Screaming Eagle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or $4,800 bottle of Domaine de la Romani-Conti Montrachet — good though they are, command those prices not for quality alone but for their rarity and the bragging rights that come along with being able to afford them. It’s also important to remember that while a $50 wine might be better than a $10 one, it isn’t necessarily five times better. If prestigious labels aren’t important, it’s perfectly possible to find very nice wines for $10 to $15, and really good ones for $15 to $25. There’s nothing wrong with spending more than that if the budget permits, but spending a lot of money on a bottle that turns out to be merely okay takes a lot out of the enjoyment of the wine.

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