How important is context?

Hi everyone,

So here’s a question without a straightforward answer: How important is it to understand typicity of a specific wine in order to appreciate it? I’m talking about from a drinker/enthusiast perspective, not that of a professional critic.

I ask because I recently enjoyed a Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico. My first Quintarelli. It tasted very nice, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t strike me as capital-G, GREAT. My first thought was that this isn’t the producer’s top bottling, but my second thought was that perhaps I’m unable to appreciate the wine’s greatness because I just haven’t had that much Valpolicella. Without the context of “typical” Valpolicella, how am I supposed to know what is supposedly GREAT about this wine? Then again, I have had lots of wine in my time, and should that be enough?

I have a few bottles of well regarded wines that I have little context for: a Gravner Pignolo, Domaine Economou Antigone from Crete, and Catena Zapata Mundus Bacillus Terrae come to mind. I’ve only ever had maybe two Pignolo wines. Never had anything from Crete. No high quality Argentina Malbecs. Does this mean I can’t appreciate or understand these wines properly? Or, is being a wine lover enough?

And then I’m left wondering, how granular or broad does the context need to be for proper appreciation? In order to understand the greatness of Haut Brion, must I have a thorough working knowledge of all red Bordeaux? Or maybe I need to know the reds from Pessac Leognan really well. Or maybe all the First Growths, or all the classified growths, or red Bordeaux blends from all around the world? Or maybe, the greatness of Haut Brion should be apparent to anyone who simply loves wine and pays attention.

I realize this is a bit of a nebulous topic, but I’d love to hear what you all think.




I like to think of it this way - wine appreciation is like intelligence but wine context is like wisdom. Do you need to understand everything about the Veneto to enjoy a bottle of Quintarelli (or pick the great winery and region of your choice)? Absolutely not. Would it help you understand Quintarelli’s place and their importance if you did? Absolutely.

Anyone can tell you that they like or dislike a wine. Fewer people can tell you why that’s so. And even fewer than that can use that information to map their own palate and find new wines they’d like. That’s what context gets you - the ability to see deeper into wines to discern patterns that are not readily apparent.




A great deal of my wine appreciation, and I’d like to think nearly 100% of my scoring, rests in how good a wine is in the context for what it is. By example, a St. Emilion, Souther Rhone, or CA pinot are all compared to the range of quality of wines I’ve had from those particular areas. It’s all relative. I agree you shouldn’t need to be an expert in a region or varietal to make this type assessment, but be familiar enough with enough to have formed an opinion of the range of quality you’ve experienced. When trying a variety or wine from a region I’m unfamiliar with, I feel free to say how much I like it or not but take it as a data point and an opening to trying more wines of that type in order to get a handle on them.

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I do agree that context is very important for understanding a wine, but the context sometimes has to be more narrowly defined than just the appellation. Rayas, for example, is totally coherent with its site, but a total anomaly in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, just like Burlotto’s Monvigliero in Barolo, or Guffens’ Clos des Petits Croux in Pouilly-Fuissé. And that is unsurprising given that there is a strong historic/administrative/political component to the creation of appellations.


It’s a good question. Wine is about enjoyment, so personally I didn’t find context important when I tasted a Bordeaux 1982 for the first time. It was a humble Bordeaux (Supérieur, I think) called La Cour d’Argent. I loved it. Of course, discovering other wines put it into some context but that never stopped me remembering how good that first 82 was. I’ve had countless similar experiences over the years.

For wine criticism on the other hand, context is indeed important. Knowing what a young Léoville-Barton is likely to turn into is really helpful, I should imagine, when judging an EP sample, especially if you have several years’ experience of EP. Because unlike art of any kind, wine evolves, so it’s useful to have context.

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Great question.

Firstly, your humility is noteworthy. I recognize that Quintarelli’s name carries plenty of weight to cause some introspection or almost doubt of one’s own palate, but that introspection is not the norm and I find it commendable.

I think we each have our innate biases, and learned ones, and when a wine aligns with those biases, it takes very little for us to be impressed, but when a wine is outside of those biases we require context and thoughtfulness. Complexity and subtlety in a wine only heighten that. But I do not think there is a “should” involved, just a question of whether you liked it enough to keep exploring it.

Lastly, I think you are in the perfect place for testing this out. Open a handful of Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella over the next month or so and in the most intentional way possible. Then, revisit Quintarelli and see if your appreciation has changed. I only have a few bottles, and they are relatively young, but I would be glad to open one if you do not have more. You just need to make a trip to NY!


For the Quintarelli without experience you don’t know if the bottle is closed, off, or a good bottle.

I think once we get to a certain level of breadth of experience, we can recognize greatness even in regions/categories we’re not familiar with. Still, to fully understand a wine (other than singular wines like Musar/Simone/etc.), we need a lot of context within the region. My guess is that tasting a lot of wines from Valpolicella will show you how distinctive Quintarelli is and why they’re so respected, but that your opinion of the absolute quality of that specific wine won’t change. You probably need to move up to their Amarone to see fireworks (which I did the one time I tried their Amarone).

Maybe Champagne is an exception? Burgundy?

Interesting thought. What do you think might be different about Champagne and/or Burgundy that your thoughts may not apply?

I guess that it took me a long time to recognize greatness across styles in those categories. But maybe that’s just me. I need to think more about why.

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this is the best example in all of wine. Rayas doesn’t taste like any other CdP, and yet’s it’s considered the best CdP.

But it does taste like CdP.

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an age old question this entire thread is.

Very early in my wine journey, an arrogant poster on a different board told me my opinion about PN wasn’t worth anything because I hadn’t tasted DRC.

what if the comment was limited to burgundy?

Didier Dagueneau is another one that strikes me somewhat like that. It’s Pouilly Fume, and it’s great wine, but it can be somewhat of an outlier in style and character to “typical” Pouilly Fume.

In that example, it can add interest to be able to note what similarities and dissimilarities it has to textbook Pouilly Fume. But it’s also perfectly fine to taste a Dagueneau (or any wine) and form your own opinion about what you like about it more or less just on a stand-alone, “respond to what is in the glass” basis.

Musar is a wine where knowing the history of the Chateau adds a lot of interest to the experience of tasting it (though it’s certainly not necessary either). But knowing other Bekaa Valley wines adds little or nothing, other than just to know that it has no particular similarity to any of the others. At least as far as I know from my experience, anyway.

it’s just that benchmarks are inherently outliers. as they should be.

the word typicity is really a misdirection.

Same with Rav. What does that say about CdP or Chablis? Most people would rather be drinking something else…

if you really want to be confused, if you have some good experience with Rayas (the whole range including De Tours), try some Newfound Grenache and explain that.

I think it’s bullshit in both iterations. You?