The death of wine scores?

 

Is the rating simply a tool understood within the context of marketing? Photo: Maria Vazquez/Fotolia.com

Is the rating simply a tool understood within the context of marketing?
Photo: Maria Vazquez/Fotolia.com

as seen on canada.com

Not so fast.

As time goes by, I am hearing less comments like, “well that one got a 95,” and “that one is better value because it got a 90.” Wine ratings may increasingly becoming maligned and less frequently employed but that does not mean they don’t have their place. Scores continue to be necessary as a way to evaluate wines that lack a certain level of honesty. Wines on the edge of being dodgily made, encumbered by heavy-handed, industry-fed, mass marketing machines. Scores separate and differentiate the wheat from the chaff when dealing with over the top residual sugar, hyper-acidification, bloated alcohol and (lack of fruit) masking. Embrocating one Malbec an 85 over another’s 84 makes a comment on the relative validities of those two sweetened confections.

Attaching a rating to a tasting note is not a question of right versus wrong. Ratings measure a bottle of wine against its peers. That is the simple answer. The problem is that the tasting experience is a subjective one and each reviewer has personal preferences, so in order to align with one (or more), the consumer must self-calibrate alongside a critic whose palate they’ve figured out. Very difficult to do, so relying on scores has always been the easiest road to travel.

Part of the problem is that tasting notes, on their own, are often fleeting and impossible to grasp. Guilty as charged. Fred Swan put this is the most eloquent terms. “Tasting notes are like photographs, portraying a subject at one brief moment in time and without a back story.” If tasting notes are just snapshots, is that not compelling testimony as to the need for an accompanying score? Or is the rating simply a tool understood within the context of marketing?

Jamie Goode’s take. “I find myself in a tricky position: I use points even though I don’t like to because readers find them useful. And I have to calibrate my scale with the major critics. This pushes me into a corner.”

Still the debate is growing and for good reason. The wine community is tiring of seeing scores, especially those tabulated using the Robert Parker Jr. anointed 100-point scale, attached to a critic’s wine tasting note. The question has always been this. Why would you need scores to sell wine?

Mr. Parker feels so strongly about the entrenched longevity of his system that he’s announced the launch of a new lifestyle magazine called “100 Points by Robert Parker.” Does this sound like a last gasp fling from a captain going down with his ship? Bill Zacharkiw seems to intimate the idea, but the Montreal Gazette wine critic is smarter than to lash out and drag anyone through the mud. Taking a high road, Zacharkiw writes, “from grapes to wine styles, there is truly a wine for everyone. I have my taste, you have yours, and Parker has his.” No, nor scores neither. Nor scores neither.

The fervor and sometimes rage in the argument reminds me of the (second) most famous of Hamlet soliloquys. “Why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man!” Most of the voices chiming in on this hot topic only see the ratings world in black and white. There are more shades of grey than many would freely admit. Scores have their place.

Meanwhile, Decanter is reporting that Château Pontet-Canet made a bold decision to test (more than 20 years) of uncharted waters by setting their en Primeur pricing in advance of the taste and ratings levies by the major critics. Since the nineties the likes of Parker, Decanter and Wine Spectator have all but determined Bordeaux Futures pricing. Pontet-Canet’s move is being seen as another nail in the 100-point coffin. One Bordeaux négociant commented, “If other chateaux follow this same pricing model, we might as well go home now.”

The real issue is the bottle itself. In the new world of wine, who has not thrown new stock and a vested interest into wines made naturally, in sustainable, biodynamic or organic ways? Who has not made a resolution to drink more honest wine? Producing good wine still trumps the natural theatre of viticulture and viniculture but honesty is the new order. Honest wines should go forth and be free of wine ratings.

Wine scores can be ignored if we concentrate on what matters. Like apiculate yeast, fermentative vigor, microflora, clonal selection and soil. We also need to talk more about and mention flaws, like chlorinated compounds, hydrogen sulphide and volatile acidity. These are things that are too often brushed under the rug.

I will continue to post ratings of the wines I review on WineAlign because as a community of critics we offer a round table of opinions that allow the wine buyer to make gathered, educated and informed decisions. In consideration that this forum is a singular expression of opinions, this column will no longer attach scores to tasting notes. It’s quite obvious, plain and simple. I only write about honest wines for canada.com. The prose speaks for itself.

With spring beginning this Friday, no joke, here are the last of the great big winter reds. Five wines recently tasted that thrilled by way of their fairness, their honor and their virtue. Wines that need no score.

From left: Mi Terruño Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc Cuvée Madeline 2010, Ruffino Ducale Oro Riserva Chianti Classico 2008, The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 1990, and Château Calon Ségur 2010, Ac Saint Estèphe

From left: Mi Terruño Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc Cuvée Madeline 2010, Ruffino Ducale Oro Riserva Chianti Classico 2008, The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 1990, and Château Calon Ségur 2010, Ac Saint Estèphe

Mi Terruño Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mendoza, Argentina (364133, $15.95, WineAlign) From the VINTAGES March 29, 2014 Release

Stands out for its honest fruit, this Mendozan from San Roque district in Maipú county. Qualified by an admirable level of restraint, low in residual sugar and alcohol, straightforward, unencumbered. Winemakers María Eugenia Baigorria and Sergio Giménez have let the fruit speak in clean, level tones, in red berries, licorice red and black, a dusting of spice, red cherry and even strawberry. This is textbook hands off winemaking with nearly exceptional length and simply solid from start to finish. Mi sueno, mi terruño.  Tasted March 2014

Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc Cuvée Madeline 2010, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula (winery, $38, WineAlign)

Francois Morissette’s 2010 is a pioneering example towards defining Bench appellation Cabernet Franc isomeric reactions. Relationships between grapes of a growing area and their ultimate destination in bottle. An affair of veraison, leaf drop, frost, hand harvesting, whole cluster sorting and berry oak fermenting.  Indigenous yeast, punch downs and overs for phenolic skin extraction and polymerization. Neutral oak and sulfur dioxide to provide antimicrobial and antioxidant protection. An eighteen month somniac’s rest, fine lees and no filtration. The structural arrangement in cohabitation of radicals and ions leads to such a Cabernet Franc. Fully expressive of an endemic, very ripe, vegetal varietal vicissitude that is both inbred and necessary. Currants and peppered berries of power and grit. Dry (2 g/L residual sugar), plump (13.7 per cent alcohol) and scarce (618 cases made). Reflective of the warm 2010 vintage and will always act in stark contrast to the elegant 2011.  Tasted July 2013 and March 2014  @PearlMorissette  On the card at Barque Smokehouse

Ruffino Ducale Oro Riserva Chianti Classico 2008, Tuscany, Italy (353201, $43.95, WineAlign) From the VINTAGES March 29, 2014 Release

A re-release showing an exuberance of advanced character. Now acting out the strikingly rich and golden vintage, in Lamé and gilded iron. Speaking a most Tuscan, elite vernacular, already recognizable and evolving into its own skin, with a notion towards herbaceous, dried fruit. A classic pasta and roasted meats red wine. Nonna’s Trattoria kitchen in a glass. Drying just a touch, so drink up. Earlier note: “Slight earthy funk, imparted by the vineyard floor and in part from the wood. Sappy, resinous, distinctively warm-blooded, plummy fruit. Tuscan tang though light on pucker.”  Tasted October 2013 and March 2014

The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 1990, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California, USA (662015, $59.00, WineAlign)

A seminal bottling from a game-changing year, for two all important reasons. One, it was a great vintage for Napa reds and two, the Mount Veeder sub-appellation was established. While only 24 years ago, a mere five wineries existed there at the time, including Mayacamas, Mt. Veeder and Hess. No hyperbole to say this is tasting a piece of history. Despite my “shouting all about love,” this splendidly aged Cabernet is not so much about resilience as it is persistence and infinite wisdom. All those years ago there were Napa reds made at a mere 12.5 per cent alcohol, with finesse and a sense of George-like calm. With little aeration there is fig, prune and toffee gently weeping but with air the aged fruit is swept away by a wave of gob stopping Cassis before its time. Preconceived notions of banausic, early days Cabernet are smothered by the magic dust of this Hess religion, a Dharma of licorice, ash and enlightenment. A wine to make you forget where you are. Depth, length and up to a half decade yet of reserved life lay ahead.  Tasted March 2014  @HessCollection 

Château Calon Ségur 2010, Ac Saint Estèphe, Bordeaux, France (259010, $149.85, WineAlign) An In-Store Discovery from the VINTAGES March 29, 2014 Release

A blend that in 2010 is extremely high in Cabernet Sauvignon (86 per cent), with support from Merlot (12) and Petit Verdot (2). Immaculate hue in blue jasmine meets red ochre, echoed by blue and red fruit aromas. A purity of freshness and an exotic perfume distracts from the absurdity of the price, if just long enough to become intoxicated by its qualifications. It really does have it all. Red velvet layer cake made of the finest chocolate, the world’s least refined and highest quality sugar, spices only found in places reached and hand-picked by agile, primate-like humans. So approachable and marked by sweet tannins that will carry this Saint Estèphe for three decades.  Tasted March 2014

Good to go!

Two dinners, 16 diners, 18 wines

The Gilead Café and Bistro’s Jamie Kennedy and Ken Steele (photograph courtesy of Jo Dickins)

as seen on canada.com

This memory goes back a bit in time. Here are two wine and food out-of-body experiences. Vine and dine encounters of the fortunate kind. The Gilead Café and Bistro’s Jamie Kennedy and Ken Steele worked an enticing concomitant seven-course tasting menu alongside 11 superstars, including a First Growth and two legends of Napa vinolore. Less than a week earlier Chef C and Sous E prepared the simplest, most extraordinary dishes to reign in seven stellar and all together unique bottles.

The Gilead Café and Bistro (photograph courtesy of Jo Dickins)

Le Mesnil Blancs de Blancs Brut Champagne (88) Sweet citrus nose, delicate and fine mousse, tart apples on a finessed palate. A NV to sip with food, though we downed the splash pour before any arrived.

WHITEFISH ROE & ORGANIC EGG TORTE, chervil, crisp toast

Flight One

Creekside Estates Viognier Reserve Queenston Road 2009 (89) Citrus slides straight from the bubbly into this limited production (80 cases) St. David’s Bench beauty. Pale yellow as if Clare Valley Riesling. The scent of Sevilla orange blossom. Organza of downy acidity. A unique local savoir-faire. Thin and tin, as in contrary viscosity and subtle minerality. Like petals falling from the flower almost before the touch of the hand.

Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Cuvee ‘L’ 2007 (86) The candied Sonoma nose and beguiling scents of spice islands made lift for heights great. A Prince Edward County celebrity so imagine the long faces when the fruit was absent at the first sip. Time is a recently opened wine’s friend so waited we did but never the twain did meet. More cogitation, then a vacuum of acidity in a flat finish. If closed down, reprieve on a round globe awaits. If lost, a flat Pinot pre-Columbus earth.

GRILLED ASPARAGUS, yam, white mushroom sauce

Flight Two

The general origins of these three wines were blindly determined but each not in the speculated glass. How is it that eight wine geeks can have their seasoning shattered by a single flight? “All the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again.” The heart of the matter.

Oyosoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2003 (91) One of three in a variable flight to confound. Black cherry in clusters, a power forward fruit first step then backed by biting tannins and striking acidity. Could have sworn it was the Napa. Held its own against two serious contenders. Eye opening as to the power of BC.

Von Strasser Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain 2000 (90) The cigar box and mineral tone threw me in front of the train with the surety I was nosing a Cos ringer. Smoky, distinct graphite and fruit half hidden suggested a 2000 Left Bank not nearly in its prime. Wrong!

Château Pontet Canet, 5th Growth, Paulliac 2000 (93) Was the best wine of the three, even when I thought it was the Larose! Poise, balance, length, insert fourth cliché here. Still youthful, a beautiful teenager before the awkward years. Will be seamless at 20.

LAMB, new potatoes, herb paste

J.K. BEEF SHORT RIB, marrow sauce

Flight Three

Château Haut-Brion, 1st Growth, Péssac-Leognan 1990 (98) Are there words to describe a wine so sublime? The essence of fresh picked berries from the edge of a forest so silent. The embodiment of still life beauty, as a bowl of plums and cherries just picked from the tree. The vehemence of the Haut-Brion in prime will remain entrenched as memorabilia for as long as I can produce cognitive thought. Why do I wax sentimental? “How can love survive in such a graceless age?” I thank CL for the opportunity and no man who partook should forget.

Dominus 1990 (93) Incredulous thought. Could it be? Is that dank and dour odour the beast within? Patience, patience. Now five minutes in and the wet duff smell vanishes. The wafting emergence of a cracking covey of nose candy. Heavy sigh of relief. Without warning the fruit eddies out and it’s gone. What the Sam Hill is going on here? Then 15 minutes later it oscillates again, scrambles from the depths and treads water effortlessly for the duration. Exhausting. Thanks M for providing the skiff.

CHEESE, pied de vent, sieur de duplessis, goat taurine, cow’s creamery cheddar

One More Red

Opus One 1989 (95) Unbelievable. A lesson in Napa iconoclasm. What every great 22-year old New World wine should strive to become. In harmony with every part of itself; fruit, tannin, acidity. Beauty within and without. Dark, sultry, full of all things berry and oak. The full gamut of red and black fruit, vanilla, mocha and chocolate. Like walking into your childhood and being handed the keys to Charlie’s factory. Another M gem.

APRICOT BEIGNETS, dulce de leche ice cream

Inniskilin Riesling Icewine 1998

Hugel Riesling SGN 2000

CROSTINI, goat cheese, honeycomb, fleur de sel, olive oil

Charles Baker (Stratus) Picone Vineyard Riesling 2008 (89) “Whoo-ahhh” Mojito, green apple skin scent of a Riesling. Seductive to sip, a bodacious body of influence, then back-end bite. A wolf pack in sheep’s clothing.

FRESH TAGLIATELLE, morels

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières 2008 (92) Restrained but tropical nose. So far from show time. In rehearsal the acidity is followed by fruit. By late decade opening night will display impeccable balance.

Closson Chase Iconoclast Chardonnay 2005 (90) Antithesis of the Leflaive; fruit first, acidity last. Bananas and I’m curious as George to behold PEC fruit yielding such a determined, complex specimen? Fortuitous choice to open now as I fear oxidization is around the bend. Still in a state of aggrandizement. Plaudits for Paskus.

Foxen Sea Smoke Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 (93)  Classic Santa Rita Hills candied red apple, sugaring pomegranate and fresh ground spices. A Michelin three-star complex dish with layers of fruit, spice and finished with a rosy-red rhubarb sauce. Full of life. Finishes long and true. Terrific example.

BRISKET AND FLAT IRON SLIDERS, american cheese, wonder buns, side of grilled raddicchio and belgian endive

Château Cos d’Estournel, 2nd Growth, St Estèphe 2003 (92-94) You could set your alarm clock, for tomorrow morning or after a cryogenic freeze, by the Cos ’03. A reasonable practicum suggests opening it, have a night’s rest, to wake six hours later and be told its story. Smokey, gripped by graphite and tannin, impossibly structured out of the 2003 heat. Showing no signs of age and despite warnings to drink up, the ’03 Cos will deliver for years to come.

Ca’ Bianca Barolo 1997 (91) Not the rose petals and violets of your zio‘s Barolo but bigger than your head cheese. Funky resin, more than raisins yes, raisins with a college education. A Pudd’Nhead Wilson moniker getting figgy with it. Barbaric and fantastic.

CHEESES, monforte dairy

Gaja Sito Moresco 2008 (89) A tale of two Cabs (Sauv and Franc) was my first thought but cut the Dickens out of my finger if that impression was way off the mark. The Langhe blend is Nebbiolo/Cab Sauv/Merlot and only Gaja would have first dared to trod such territory. Smooth, easy to consume and could have suffered as an admonished follower to the line-up previous. Stands tall, welcoming the tang of the formaggi.

MACERATED ONTARIO STRAWBERRIES, vanilla ice cream

Good to go!