Fine wine is no longer the preserve of the elite.
Making good wine is a skill. Fine wine is an art," claimed the late, great Californian vintner, Robert Mondavi. But what exactly separates fine wine from simply good wine is open to much debate.
Fine wines are notoriously difficult to define given the subjective nature of their judgment. However, they tend to be viewed as luxury wines that sit at the highest end of the market in terms of quality, price and desirability.
This was a major topic discussed at by the international experts gathered at the Fine Wine 2010 conference held in Spain earlier this year. It was here that market research group Wine Intelligence presented the results of a study that quizzed wine drinkers across the world about the attributes they considered fine wine should possess.
Heading the list was heritage, then a wine's provenance, followed by it being hand-crafted and its critical acclaim.
Many of Europe's estates and chateaux have heritage in spades with centuries of history to support them and are situated in regions with longstanding reputations for quality wine production. The perceived importance of these attributes has been something of stumbling block for new wine producing countries like ours.
However, the survey also found that two-thirds of those questioned agreed that good quality wines come from anywhere nowadays. France, followed by Italy, may still be the key countries consumers look to when buying luxury wines, but it emerged that the Brits at least considered New Zealand's wines good enough to see us ranked fourth as a place they consider when sourcing their top drops.
New World wine producers have been particularly proactive in working to fast-track their wines to super premium status, largely through seeking the stamp approval from key critics. One method has been proving that their wines are fit to be considered up there with the best through presenting them in blind tastings alongside European benchmarks.
It's an approach that's been embraced by Hawkes Bay's Gimblett Gravels growers, who've done this in key wine markets across the world, and just last month were bold enough to present their wines in one of the world's main fine wine capitals, Bordeaux, where they say they were well received.
Fine wine is becoming more egalitarian, and that extends to who is drinking it as well. While it still accounts for a tiny percentage of the total wine market - an average of 3 per cent in the countries covered by the study, and 1 per cent of New Zealand grocery (Nielsen) classified by price - according to Wine Intelligence's Lulie Halstead, it's no longer the preserve of the elite.
"Many purchasers are everyday wine consumers who once a year, or from time-to-time buy a higher [priced] wine for a special occasion," she observes.
"If we're to use the term it would be on a bottle to bottle basis with little or no regard to price," says Andrew Parkinson, fine wine consultant at Negociants New Zealand.
"This week alone I've sampled a $20 Waipara riesling, a $40 dry oloroso sherry and a $190 Bordeaux that all fit comfortably in the fine wine bracket."
Though Parkinson regards the fine wine category in New Zealand as starting at around $40, I'd agree that its what's in the bottle and not the price tag that's important when judging whether a wine is fine. For me, a great wine has a balance between all its components and a complexity in its character that leaves it lingering on both the mind and palate long after it is swallowed.
It should also carry the signature of the place in which it was grown. This may be more difficult to apply in areas just starting to explore their regional styles, but if something like a Hawkes Bay syrah tastes more like it was made in the Barossa Valley, it may be good, but it's more akin to a rip off-Rolex than the art of a great master.
Mudbrick Vineyard Velvet Waiheke Island 2008 $105
This opulent red blend is the first flagship wine from Mudbrick. Its rich and ultra-concentrated dark fruit with notes of licorice and mixed spice is supported by velvety tannins and a fresh lift of acid. New, but fine. (From Miller & Co, First Glass, Liquor Quay, Glengarry, Elliot St Stables.)
Barons de Rothschild Collection Reserve Speciale Bordeaux Rouge 2006 $22
A great everyday drop from the fine wine producer behind the renowned Bordeaux first growth, Chateau Lafite Rothschild that's a savoury and fruit-driven blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc with fresh dark berry and cherry fruit and a hint of freshly ground coffee. (From Al Dente Wines, Red Baron Liquor, Liquorland.)
Quartz Reef Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008 $43-$46
Quartz Reef's Rudi Bauer admits he's still learning about what his Bendigo vineyard can offer, but it is yielding some exceptional pinot, like this muscular example with its plush dark blueberry fruit, vibrant acid and minerally core. (From Caro's, Wine and More, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Scenic Cellars, Glengarry.)