What is a great wine?
Label design, wine critics scores, ratings, medals, quotes, tasting notes, wine descriptions are all fine to read and pay attention to and might to a certain extent help you to refine your decision, but do not let them dictate or take control of your mind and more especially your palate. As none of them should determine whether you will love the wine or not, more especially prior to tasting it.
And don't let anyone or anything like wine critics scores, ratings, tasting notes, medals and quotes influence your own taste, decision, and judgment !!!
And, please, please do not define the quality of a wine by just reading the scores, or ratings or critics reviews and quotes either. Do not say: "..oh, look, this wine got a 100 points, it must be really good...", as you do not know.
- By visiting your "Caviste" (or boutique-wine store) to ask for opinions and comments, and if the caviste is a good caviste, (like I used to be and like I used to do during my New York years), he/she might open a bottle in the store for you to taste the wine and judge it for yourself. He/she knows that the bottle is not lost as other customers in the store are always looking for an opportunity to get a free taste of wine, and also knows that he/she might end up potentially selling more bottles of that specific wine that day this way... (personally, when I was a boutique-wine store manager and wine buyer in NYC, I had no problem opening bottles in the store for some of my customers, which made for a more-than-welcome impromptu tasting session enjoyed by most of the other wine shoppers... it was fun).
- By subscribing to the newsletters of your local wine merchants and/or wine stores, to be informed of their up-and-coming tastings and other wine events
- By going to wine dinners, wine fare, as well as forums and expositions and any other events promoting wines.
- By being invited as often as possible by friends who have a substantial private wine cellar at home (😊)
- By traveling and visiting wine regions and wineries
And also note that I did not suggest to go to your local supermarket, as most supermarkets store their wines in far-from-ideal conditions (not to use the word "bad"). It is especially true when going to "over-the-top" supermarkets offering aisles after aisles of nondescript bottles of wine, taking dust while all standing up for months under damaging bright neon lights. Yes, these wines may have looked good on pictures on that supermarket wine flyer, pamphlet or brochure, with all of these flashy scores, ratings, quotes, stars, medals and god knows whatever else they tried to squeeze in on that picture to make you buy the wine, but the reality is often scary...
And those are the influencing factors I will talk about in today's post: why you should never decide that a wine is great (or could be great) based solely on
- the look and overall design of a label, or
- the wine critics scores and other rewards on a flyer, pamphlet or brochure, or on websites or in specialized wine buying guides, or
- the wine critics' tasting notes and/or description of the wine (found in the same sources as above)
|Chateau Picrate Label by © LeDomduVin 2018|
- "Cedella Vinasse" is a French made-up play-of-words for "C'est de la vinasse", which could literally be translated in English by "This wine is crap" (*)
- "Vincent Goût" is also a French made-up play-of-words for "Vin sans goût", which could literally be translated in English by "Wine without a taste"
- "Ajeterdanslevier" is a French made-up play-of-words for "A jeter dans l'évier", which could literally be translated in English by "to throw in the sink"
I mean, it is way too obvious, isn't it?.....
|Chateau Picrate Critic's ratings/scores by © LeDomduVin 2018|
- "Robber Parker" instead of "Robert Parker Jr."
- "Wine Stalker" instead of "The Wine Spectator"
- "Genesis Robinson" instead of "Jancis Robinson"
- "LRDVDF" instead of "La RVF - La Revue du Vin de France"
- "Jeannie sur Lie" instead of "Jeannie Cho Lee"
- "Wine Cellar in Cider" instead of "The Wine Cellar Insider"
Don't let yourself be influenced by the wine critic's scores or ratings
|Wine critics scoring a wine by © LeDomduVin 2018|
Over my 27 years career in the wine business, my palate and taste have changed and evolved as I was (and still) getting older and to a certain extent wiser. And it is the same for the wine critics. Therefore you should always keep track of these changes, the wine critic ones as well as yours too, prior finalizing your decision, more especially if you haven't tasted the wine yourself previously and only base your decision on scores.
If out of 10 wine critics scores for a wine (let's say between the range of 89 to 96), 6-7 are similar and the other ones are not far behind, then it means that fairly unanimously, most critics liked the wine and that there is a good chance for the wine to be good for your palate and even more chance for the wine to please a wide range of diverse palates. It might, or not, be to your liking, but it does not mean that it is bad either. It just means that your palate is different and the wine not suitable for your taste, even if it will please others.
In general, the more homogeneous the scores from various critics are the more mass appeal the wine will have due to its intrinsic quality and not only because a handful of the most famous critics give it a high or top scores. This is what happens to the top 250 best wines in the world. At this level, they are rarely "not good" and even less often "bad", they are just "not as good as" due to an off vintage, yet their scores usually still remain high.
If, on the opposite, there are too many variations in between the wine critics scores, for example, respectively 89, 92 and 96 (like in the illustration above), then you will have to go with the wine critics you follow the most to be sure that the wine corresponds to your taste. But you may have a comprehensible hesitation and ask yourself why the wine critic you follow rate it lower or higher than the other critics. The tasting notes might give you a hint of why he/she scored it that way. But in the end, the choice is yours, and there again it does not necessarily mean that the wine is bad, just that it did not correspond to the taste and palate of this or that wine critic, that's it. In that case, you know what to do, find a way to try it and judge it for yourself.
On top of that, depending on the wine critic you follow, some being more consistent than others, scores can be quite tricky to understand and may not even reflect the tasting notes, supposedly written to give you an incentive on the reason why the wine received such a score.
I remember, once back in NYC a few weeks after attending the En Primeur 2003 vintage in Bordeaux, reading the tasting notes of a few wine critics, for the Chateaux of the Appellation Margaux for example, to compare them and define what I will buy for the store back then. I was startled and doubtful by what I was reading. They all looked nearly the same. It was absolutely bewildering.
Imagine, you read 15 or 20 tasting notes from the same wine critic on the various wines from one appellation and in the same vintage. And you realize that not only all the tasting notes are approximately the same (despite some rare changes of a few words and sentence styles) and thus "astonishingly indistinguishable" from one another without looking at the names of the Chateaux, but, surprisingly enough and for some unexplained reasons their scores (or ratings) greatly varied. Go figure!
- Chateau Y 2003 Margaux
- Chateau Z 2003 Margaux
|The blind tasting wine critic's paradox by ©LeDomduVin 2018|
Well... what?!? What really differentiates these two tasting notes? They are roughly the same and say the same thing for both wines... So, why are the scores so different? What makes the first one only worth an acceptable 89pts and the second one a staggering 96pts? How meaningful is that? I wonder... what is the word I'm looking for? Ah, yes... "meaningfully meaningless" that is... 😊 ...as these tasting notes are in no way indicative of the superior quality of the second wine compared to the first. This kind of tasting notes are incredibly confusing and meaningless at best.
If someone has the answer, please let me know, as I'm very interested to know why there is such a big difference in between these 2 scores while the descriptions are nearly identical.
These are just examples that I created for this post. But seriously it is not even exaggerated, as for the tasting notes I read from these few wine critics for the Bordeaux En Primeur 2003 back in the days, they were to that extreme, meaningless, as nearly literally identical but showing huge differences in scores. It was mind-boggling.
Unprecedented hot vintage, yes, as neither the winemakers and their team of vignerons, neither the vines were prepared for such hot weather. As a result, facing an unprecedented situation, some got scared and harvested too early to try to keep some acidity and prevent over-ripeness (surely fearing their grapes will cook and/or the rain might come at some point diluting the early ripening grapes). While others, probably over-confident, harvested much later trying to take advantage of the sun to have riper grapes and tannins, to obtain fuller and stronger wines. And some hesitated, they harvested part of their crop too early, then stopped and waited, then harvested the rest of their crop later (way too late for quite a few of them), and ended up blending both harvests together, spawning unbalanced wines with weird characteristics.
In fact, some of the resulting wines from the early harvest were totally unripe, acidic, astringent, green and tannic. While some of the later harvest were strongly overripe, or obviously cooked, showing everything upfront with no structure and no harmony and a finish unpleasantly high in alcohol. And the rest of the wines were a strange combination of both characteristics (early and later harvest blended together).
In my true and honest opinion, the resulting wines across the whole region of Bordeaux in general, for this hot 2003 vintage, to say the least, were frankly inhomogeneous and unbalanced.
In the position of Wine Buyer and Wine Director for one of the most successful wine and spirits retail stores in Manhattan (NYC) at the time (PJ Wine), I remember when we traveled to Bordeaux for the En Primeur 2003 and being there, in my home region, with our team, tasting hundreds of Chateaux, some 2 or 3 times as they were presented in various tastings and events.
After tasting so many wines every day for about 8 days straight (at the wineries, at wine tasting events, with the négociants, and even during wine dinners), my mind was set on buying as little as possible, as I was irrevocably skeptical about the quality altogether of this rather strange "millésime" (vintage in English), resulting in "Bordeaux 2003 En Primeur tasting" being one of the worst and less homogeneous vintages I have ever tasted (En Primeur) in my 27 years career as a Sommelier and Wine Buyer for restaurant and boutique wine stores.
- Whenever they tasted concentration and ripe jammy fruit, I tasted over-ripeness and cooked fruit.
- Whenever they tasted some sort of freshness or crispiness, I tasted weird, sour and unpleasant acidity for some and total lack of acidity for others.
- Whenever they tasted solid grip of tannins that added texture and structure, I tasted unpleasant, unintegrated, astringent and green tannins contributing to the bitterness of the wine, or, on the other end, "overripe" tannins adding almost like a burnt sensation.
- Whenever they tasted concentration and strength, I tasted over-extraction and the high alcohol level.
Pauillac and more especially Saint-Estephe on the left bank were mostly preserved due to their proximity with the Gironde estuary creating a micro-climate preserving the vines from the heat by colling down the air, and the presence of sand, and patches of clay in the soils, which tend to stay cooler and also retain water, an essential key factor to produce good wines during a hot year like 2003.
NB: note that I did not mention gravel, which is one of the main component of the Haut-Médoc soils, as gravels absorb the heat during the day to restitute it at night to the vines, which usually helps the ripeness of the grapes in regular years, but in very hot year it increases it too rapidly and does not help to cool down the vines, therefore no point to mention it.
The wines crafted from vineyards of the right bank planted on calcareous and clay soils also did well for the most part, as both if these soil's components retain humidity and release it, allowing the vines to cool down, get the water and nutrients they need, and be more resistant when facing strong heat like in 2003.
But overall, it is just the harvesting time decision and the quality of the grapes at harvest time that define the quality of the resulting wines for the 2003 vintage (and most wines were not good for all the reasons cited above, but more particularly due to wrong vineyard's management decisions and harvest timing).
My first intuition was right and my fear of having difficulty selling that vintage became a reality.
The wines were still in barrel, not even bottled, but clients were already calling to cancel their orders and get their money back. My boss was both upset and desperate, not sure of what he could do anymore to turn the situation around.
Moreover, after the vintage 2000 when Bordeaux wine prices started to go haywire, 2003 came at a high price too and speculation that was quite high right after the En Primeur 2003 tasting week came rapidly to a low point as revised scores started to appear.
2003 came at a high price, as 2001 and 2002 were just average to bad vintages (not great, not good, but just OK... mediocre if you want my opinion - yet, some wines from these two vintages surprisingly ended up being quite good with a bit of age in the bottle; that is what we call "Classique Bordeaux" in Bordeaux, as an excuse of being austere and mediocre in their youth, but somewhat better a few years down the road).
Then again, some lower their scores after tasting the 2003 wines again after bottling, 2 years later, realizing that they had been partially or completely wrong in the first place. Then, once again, lower their scores again a few years later as the wine did not even improve and, in some case, even got worst. That said, I cannot generalize, as not all critics downgraded the wines. Some critics (a few, but still...) slightly elevated their score after bottling.... yet, it did not reassured our clients and did not help for the sale....
My boss had gambled on the success of this Bordeaux 2003 vintage, not on his own taste, but on critics scores, and the critics were changing their mind rapidly. At that time in the US, Bordeaux wines were products of huge speculations on both the regular and the grey markets. Lower ratings meant lower investment returns over time for most of our clients. About 3/4 of the stocks we bought went canceled or unsold, and he took us more than 2 years after receiving the stocks in our warehouse to liquidate them, most of them with a huge discount, just to get rid of them. It was a sad experience that had been driven by scores rather than taste and reason.
I'm sorry, once again and as usual, I'm slightly deviating from the subject to tell you my stories from the past. So, let's go back to the huge gap in between critics scores.
That is the reason why you cannot let yourself be influenced by the scores (or ratings) without knowing the palate, taste and rating pattern not only of the critic(s) you follow, but the others too.
|Chateau Palmer 2003 Wine Critic's Scores © LeDomduVin 2018|
|Chateau Palmer 2003 Wine Critic's Scores Graph by © LeDomduVin 2018|
To better explain what I'm trying to say, here is another table I created, which should help you understand (I hope it helps).
|Wine Critics 100pts scores vs 20pts scores scale by © LeDomduVin 2018|
1. Buy some wines from one region and one vintage (if possible) scored by at least 3-4 wine critics without reading their tasting notes (ask your local store and/or caviste and/or Sommelier to advise you on which ones you should taste if you do not know)
2. Taste, assess, evaluate and score the wines yourself with your own palate and own rating system (if you can that is....) at home, at a restaurant, alone or with friends and/or family
3. Now, read the various critic's tasting notes and scores, and compare them to yours to determinate, which critic(s) is (are) the closest to your descriptions and scores (the ones you have given to these wines yourself).
4. Repeat the process with various wines from different countries, regions, appellations, and vintage in order to confirm which critic(s) you want to follow.
You will see, it will definitely ease the pain when buying wines that you don't know and never really got the chance to taste before.
Don't let yourself be influenced by the critic's tasting notes,
For example, it used to be a time when Robert Parker Jr. was King, and whatever he said went. For most people with a similar palate, he was right-on, and defined what was good or bad for decades. I have much respect for the man (that I have met a few times long ago) and his palate. I have also a lot of respect for what he has done for many regions and wines and producers all around the world over the last 4 decades, and more especially Bordeaux (where I'm from).
However, for people (like me) who are more inclined to lighter, fresher, more balanced, less extracted, less woody and less alcoholic wines, Robert Parker Jr. taste was probably too bold, too strong, too jammy, too woody, basically too much for their palate.
NB: Note that I said "was" and not "is" as, and although he and WA remain strong references in terms of scores and tasting notes, I believe he (and/or WA altogether) is not making the weather in the wine world anymore.. (for quite a few years now I believe, but you probably knew that already...).
Yet, I have always preferred and expressed more enthusiasm to read and follow the tasting notes from more classic and less "new world" critic's palates such as Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Stephen Tanzer, Clive Coates and Allan Meadows and buyer/importer such as Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal (just to name a few) for my personal cellar and consumption, but also for some of my clients.
Nowadays, I also follow newer critics like Neal Martin, Jeannie Cho Lee (with whom I've worked for a little while) and a few others, as their palate and taste seem to better correspond to mine (... it is not always true though), yet my taste has evolved and changed over the last 30 years, as well as the wines have changed.
I remember reading the tasting notes of a famous critic (no name here, as with time I learned how to respect him somewhat, even if I still don't like his writing style) for the 2003 vintage Bordeaux En Primeur, and frankly, for Margaux (same example as above again and I want to insist on that), they all had similar tasting notes resumed in 2-3 short sentences maximum for each wine and were "astonishingly indistinguishable" from one another without looking at the names of the Chateaux.
And yet, some received scores way below 90 points, while others were well above 90 points, but by reading the tasting notes it was impossible to define or comprehend what was the reason behind the scores. Doesn't it sound ridiculous and confusing to you? It was meaningless to me, to say the least. (as said previously, but there again, it is important to repeat it as it happens more often than you think)
1. some are too short, too vague and/or not detailed enough to really describe the wine and reflect or justify the score, or
2. some are way too long with metaphors and made-up words supposed to trigger an image of something peculiar, often unknown to most common people.
It is true, I'm telling you. Some wine critics and other wannabes think that throwing around "meaningful" words such as "rocky mineral", "old saddle leather", "tingling salty tide", and so on, makes tasting notes sound more important, more imposing, more interesting... or something.
Of course, big words and metaphors can be fine when used correctly. They can even be built into a very good writing style, but I'm referring to tasting notes that use bad metaphors, rather odd terminology and so many supposedly "meaningful" words that it reduces them to be unintelligible in the context or even hard to imagine, and therefore become "meaningless".
Chateau Picrate Label by © LeDomduVin 2018
Chateau Picrate 2018 Appellation Ajeterdanslevier Recommandée
"Exuberant nose of ripe Durian fruit with notes of mildew, underbrush forest floor, just unearthed mushrooms, long vacated birds nest, undertones of flooded tarmac, moldy saddle leather, buried Alpine Ibex horns, crushed pencil shavings in coriander, cloud of attic dust, over moisturized cigars box, waterfall's rocky minerals, wet pebble stones, and overtones of wet animal fur, old mope, mothball, sponged chalkboard, dried Uhu stick and just opened black indelible marker pen. A slipper of the vintage. Highly recommended" 62pts
- LeDomduVin 26/08/2018