Special Report

13 Ways to Tell If a Wine Is Actually Really Good

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6. Does it smell bad?

Cork taint and oxidation are only two elements of a wine’s aroma. One fault that can show up in what wine-tasters call the “nose” is the rotten-egg or skunky smell of sulfur compounds, either added to the wine to stabilize it or occurring naturally during fermentation. The good news is that the aroma usually dissipates 15 or 20 minutes after the bottle is opened.

Then there’s volatile acidity, a vinegary acetic acid aroma that is sometimes unintentional but sometimes introduced by the winemaker as a way of adding complexity. If indeed it is intentional, and it bothers you, the only solution is to simply avoid the wine.

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7. 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, is said to smell 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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8. How’s the mouthfeel?

Mouthfeel is about, well, the way the wine feels in your mouth. It’s a matter of the wine’s texture. Is it light or heavy on your tongue? Does it have a pleasing roundness of body — primarily the result of a compound called glycerol? Is it rough or smooth, puckery or bland, or something in between? Does it have the desirable quality known as a long finish — meaning that its flavor stays on the palate for 30 seconds or more?

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9. How does it taste?

Speaking of flavor, how does it taste? None of those fancy wine-tasting terms or analogies to various fruits, vegetables, and what-not, are required here. Identifying and attempting to describe the various elements of a wine’s flavor can be fun, but it isn’t necessary — any more than you need to guess the recipe of a dish you like. The most useful descriptor here is just something like “Delicious!”

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10. Is it well balanced?

This is arguably the most important consideration of all: Are the elements that go into the character of a wine — for instance, acidity, tannins, glycerol (see above), alcohol, fruit, oak flavor, etc. — in harmony with one another? Or does one stand out? Too much tannin, for instance, gives your mouth a cottony feel (like 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.