Home / Blog /

Articles of Interest

What Makes a Wine Great?

You take a sip. Your first impression is one of slight sourness, followed by vaguely sweet fruity flavors and a mild alcohol burn as the wine washes down. Is it supposed to taste like that? It’s not horrible, but not really something you’d buy for yourself. You sip politely, thinking maybe you’ll get used to the taste, but by the end of the bottle you’ve decided: you’re definitely not a wine drinker.

Sound familiar?

Everyone’s introduction to the world of wine is different. Just like any other agricultural product, there’s an enormous range in taste and quality sold under the label ‘wine’. If your first exposure happens to be to highly commercialized industrial wine, it’s no surprise that you’d ask yourself what all the fuss is about.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people tell me they don’t like wine or that all wine tastes the same to them only to see their eyes widen in pleasure and surprise when they taste a couple of bottles of good stuff side by side and find that they can, in fact, taste the difference and that they do, in fact, like some wines better than others.

Thing is, it really helps to have someone there; to pick the bottles, to offer pointers about what to look for, to help explain why this wine is better, point out specifically why that wine is worse.

So in the spirit of improving enjoyment of wine the world around, this article is dedicated to sharing information that’ll help you taste and evaluate wine for yourself, on its own merits rather than reputation or price, and to draw more pleasure and appreciation from a world that you may not have known existed.

First, what do we mean by ‘great’?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and from one completely valid perspective, a ‘great’ wine is any wine you really enjoy drinking. If you’ve found a bottle you love, one that really suits your palate, in one sense it really doesn’t matter what other people think about it. 

But if you’re one who likes to explore, as you sample a wider range of different wines you’ll start to notice that not all of them hit quite the same way. There are certain characteristics (or a lack of them) that make some wines really stand out in your memory, and completely change what you thought wine could be.

Now, taste and enjoyment are inherently subjective experiences, so it’s hard to say that one bottle is ‘objectively’ better than another. But there are different degrees of quality that can be pointed to, and for these types of things the consensus of wine drinking experts (known as alcoholics - er, sommeliers and oenophiles) is usually a pretty reliable guide.

Under that definition, ‘great’ means wines that offer the reasonably developed palate the potential for an incredible tasting experience across the board.

The Elements of Great Wine

The things that make a wine good or ‘great’ can generally be broken down into four components: balance, structure, aroma complexity, and finish. 

It’s possible to break these ideas down further and really dig into the details, but at a high level, these four elements capture the essence of what makes for a great wine.


Sweetness, acidity, alcohol, and tannins are the four ‘structural’ components of wine, and these serve to “set the stage” for the beautiful symphonies of flavor and aroma. In a great wine, no single component sticks out above the rest. Instead, all these elements work together in harmony to present a single, unified experience. (As tannins are near imperceptible in most white wines, the balance is generated among the first three.)

If all you notice from your sip is mouth-puckering acidity or harsh tannins that distract from the wine’s flavor and aroma, it’s a good indication that the wine isn’t all that well-balanced.

This is one of the reasons why it’s important to drink wine at the right temperature - between 60-70˚F for reds, (just below room temperature) and 50-55 ˚F for dry whites (just above fridge temperature), as the different components of wine don’t all respond the same way to changes in temperature. (Note: sweet wines - those with high levels of sugar - should be consumed at much colder temperatures such as 35-45 ˚F.)

Cold increases the perceived astringency of tannins while muting the impact of the aromas. Warmth, on the other hand, vaporizes ethanol more readily, causing the taste and smell of alcohol to dominate more than it should. At the right temperature, these elements all converge into a unified whole.


Somewhat related to balance, structure refer to an elemesnt of dimensionality in the wine, of body and textural richness. Great wine has something to offer across the length of the palate, both high notes and low notes that almost give the wine a defined shape in your mouth.

‘More’ doesn’t always mean ‘better,’ and there are some truly sublime wines that have very soft, subtle, and nuanced structure—but it’s there. Wines that taste ‘flat’, on the other hand, are sort of boring and insipid, with no sense of shape or movement. They just sort of sit there in one place on your tongue.

Aroma Complexity

Complexity by itself is not always a virtue, and there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with a good, simple wine. But all things held equal, greater complexity offers a wider range of nuance and expression for a richer overall experience. Really great and complex wines continue to surprise, sip after sip, revealing all sorts of different notes and nuances from appetizer to dessert.

Again, balance and harmony are important here. All the complexity in the world won’t help if the flavors clash. The aromas must play nice together, and if the woodiness of the oak is too dominant in your red or the intense tropical fruit of your white overpowers the more subtle mineral and buttery notes, the sense of complexity is lost.

Along with balance, complexity is one of the hardest things to achieve in a wine. There are so many different variables at play that it’s easy for something to get lost in translation. Grape variety, vintage conditions, the timing of the harvest, vinification methods, and the age of the wine will all play a role in the ultimate aroma, and striking the right note in terms of both balance and complexity is generally the sign of a truly great wine.

Click here to read our article on the flavors and aromas of wine.


Finish is the echo of the wine, the impression that lingers in your mouth after you’ve swallowed your sip, and refers as much to the aftertaste as it does to the mouthfeel. 

From a pleasant impression of spice, floral notes, and dried fruit to the lingering dryness of supple tannins, the pleasant tingle of alcohol, or the minor salivation of a nice crisp acidity, the finish of a wine is the cherry on top that closes out the tasting experience.

Finish can be short, medium, or long, and these refer to the length of time it remains on the palate. In general, a longer finish translates to a better wine—not because a short finish is particularly bad, but because it allows the positive impression to persist for a longer time.

A note on style

It’s important to take into account the winemaker’s intention when evaluating what you’re drinking, and while most wines aim for the above four descriptors, they don’t necessarily apply to all of them.

Dessert wines, for instance, are a style of wine that’s intended to be sweet. With this in mind, it’s expected that sweetness will be a rather prominent element. Within that frame though, a great dessert wine should still be balanced. It’s just that rather than generating a sort of neutral tension, the remaining elements are oriented around supporting that particular flavor profile without getting in the way.

Similarly, if a wine is meant to be aged, then the tannins and acidity will not be balanced when you drink it young, as these need time to mature and soften. It doesn’t mean that the wine is bad, only that it’s being drunk before it’s ready. 

Many of these are things you pick up with time and experience. Though it’s not always obvious, it never hurts to open up a dialogue with whoever’s selling you the wine. They should be able to give you a good sense of the intention behind the wine, helping you get the most enjoyment out of your bottle.


Balance, structure, aroma complexity, and finish—the four elements of a great wine. With this information in hand, we hope you feel a bit more confident assessing a wine on its own merits for yourself, without feeling limited to often misleading indicators like label or price point.

At the end of the day, the best and most enjoyable way of familiarizing yourself with what makes a wine is simple: to sample a lot, and to pay close attention to what you’re tasting. Knowledge will speed that process along, but there’s simply no substitute for experience.

So go out there and get tasting!

  BurgDirect is a monthly newsletter of Burgundy wines curated by our founder, Jeff Rubin. Sign-up is free, takes just a few minutes, and keeps you up to date on exclusive bundles from our partner domaines in France. Orders ship straight to your doorstep and include all taxes, customs and fees. If you’re interested in signing up to our newsletter, click on one of the buttons below or send us an email at info@burgdirect.com