As a wine critic and judge, I am often asked what makes a great wine great.
First of all, the mere fact that someone enjoys a particular wine does not make it great. It means - and only means - that they like that particular wine. Let me explain with an analogy.
Money aside, one may appreciate the simple pleasure of a VW bus, but it is difficult to argue that a Bentley is not a superior vehicle. The same can be applied to a bottle of wine. Hordes of wine lovers flock to the accessibility of Charles Shaw, but given the opportunity, they would jump at the chance to test drive a Chateau Margaux.
For vinophiles interested in the more intellectual side of wine and the inevitable accompanying oenology studies, learning to taste for integration, expressiveness, complexity and connectedness are the keys to revealing upper crust wines. I look for these components when analyzing each wine I review.
Integration is the way all the moving parts of a glass of wine leave an impression both in the nose and on the palate. When all the structural parts of the wine - acidity, alcohol, sweetness and tannins - seamlessly intermingle with each other as well as with the aromas and flavors of the wine, it is well integrated. Though an overtly oaky wine may be stylistically pleasing to some, it is simply not a marking of great wine unless it has the other components in balance with it.
Expressiveness is defined as a wine that is varietally correct - that it shows the best characteristics of whatever grape it is made from. Cabernet sauvignon grown in the wrong climate will give off just about as much pleasure as biting into a raw green pepper instead of showing voluptuous dark fruits and tobacco notes with the accompanying bold tannins we expect. San Diego’s own Fallbrook Winery just released its new estate wine, 33 Degrees North Syrah, which is one of the most expressive wines I have tasted this year.
Complex wines exhibit a wide variety of flavors and aromas from fruit, non-fruit and sometimes earth and oak. While fruit and oak may be concepts that are familiar, earth aromas can include minerality, forest floor or dust while non-fruit categories include petrol, spiciness and floral notes. The most complex wines exhibit seemingly countless and concentrated aromas within each category it shows. And, they change in the glass as the wine is exposed to oxygen and heat.
Connectedness, perhaps the most fascinating aspect when blind tasting, refers to the fact that all great wines exhibit characteristics of the region and vineyard from which its grapes were grown. Trained wine professionals can analyze a few ounces of an unidentified wine and often come up not only with the varietal, but also the year and location from where the grapes were grown. It is often said that wine is made in the vineyard, and this is especially true of the finest wines. Great wines can only be made from grapes that are grown in a vineyard with ethereal characteristics.
The nifty thing about wine is that by shopping around for productions which earned high marks in competitions, many can be found that taste like a Bentley while leaving plenty of change in your pockets for gas - even at today’s prices.
The California State Fair has been recognizing the best wines California has to offer for more than 150 years. To view or download a list of this year’s award winners, visit
Mark Stuart is a Certified Wine Professional, educator, judge and columnist. Please send your story ideas or feedback to