Last week in my post concerning The Nonsense of Scores I offered up a few problems with scoring wine, most of which have probably been debated to death over the years. Although there was one point I made that perhaps has not, even though it is one of the most obvious issues with scores, and that is scores say nothing about the style of the wine. Qualty (as perceived by one person’s palate at one tasting interaction), yes. Style (whether this is bright and acidic or richer and more palate-flattering for instance), no.
We’ve all heard the old adage “read the note, not the score” and this is good advice. Nevertheless, I still think – even when the note has been read – that muddied thinking about how scores relate to quality versus style abounds. I think when I review wines, the score does not have much to do with the style, because I have very broad tastes. These tastes tend to encapsulate structured, savoury, high-acid or challenging styles, right through to richer, more extracted, more ‘sweet ‘n’ creamy’ modern-Bordeaux styles. They stop short of a poorly defined line that separates the richer extracted styles from those where the wine has been (in my opinion) pushed too far, techniques such as long hang time being a particularly turn-off with all the over-ripe, unfresh, meaty-caramelly flavours this produces, moving into notes of balsamic, prune and raisin. Too little acidity – a related structural aspect of this style – I also find tiresome. My preferences also stop short of oxidation (where the wines are oxidised, not ‘oxidative’ – two words used carelessly and interchangeably by too many wine writers) although here it depends on the context of the wine; it works in some, not in others. But otherwise I think I can give a wide range of styles a fair judgement.
I don’t think that’s true of others though; many critics have much more narrowly defined ‘tastes’ (or ‘style preferences’ might be a better term) which are expressed through their scores. John Gilman, for instance, has a reputation for enjoying high-acid, structured wines and for rejecting anything that is warmer or riper; his recent panning of Bordeaux 2010 in the World of Fine Wine is perhaps the best illustration of that. In my personal opinion I think John is an outlier on this vintage, as I think most people will find pleasure here, but to my mind that only makes John’s comments – which I have already discussed in Pavie 2010: Critics must be allowed to be critical – all the more valid. We need dissenting and independent opinion such as his in wine writing. Such opinions are not ‘wrong’ despite what his critics might say.
Parker is another critic with a reputation for enjoying certain styles, especially bigger, richer, more creamy, more extracted wines, although it is usually hotly denied by his followers who proffer a few vintages of highly-rated Haut Brion or Haut Bailly (or similar) in his defence. Which I always think is unusual; to deny that Parker likes ‘wines with stuffing’ always seemed to me – until recently at least – to be like denying the Pope was Catholic. It’s a fact that runs as a common theme through all his reviews, of the Rhône in particular, but also Bordeaux. It also explains why he never really understood Burgundy.
All this seems to have been turned on its head with 2008 Bordeaux though. Tasting the wines at the primeur tastings it seemed pretty clear to me that these were just the sort of wines Parker would drub. Sticking with the left bank in particular (the right bank wines tended towards more glossy substance), the wines were lean, crystalline, with pretty fruit and more structure – an acid backbone, especially – than ‘stuffing’. I quite liked them; they were certainly miles better than the 2007s, and I thought they were quite akin to that other leaner vintage, 2002. But they were not wines to chase after, this was not a great vintage. The Bordelais were resigned to this fact, and hence started releasing the wines before Parker published his scores. If there was ever a warning sign that this was a difficult vintage, that was it. Whatever criticism you might levy at the Bordeaux proprietors for depending on Parker to set the prices, they know when they have something good on their hands. And they know when they don’t.
So it was surprising when Parker started raving about the vintage, because these weren’t Parker-style wines. Sticking with the left bank, only Pichon-Baron, Léoville-Poyferré and Léoville-Barton came close (all three showed beautifully when tasted at two years of age) to the sort of substance I would expect to be appreciated by the Parker palate. Pontet-Canet also (but this showed less well – an anomaly perhaps, as two previous tastes had been reassurring). Now the Parker team will offer this appreciation of leaner, more acidic wines as new evidence that their leader’s tastes are broader than his critics suggest. OK, fair enough, hands up, I accept that (although his primeur descriptions of deep colours and ripe fruit sound very different to the wines I tasted – but I won’t go down that road any further). The problem is that for so long Parker’s scores have reflected his style-preference rather than a more objective quality-judgement that when he scored these wines so highly (scores that he substantially downgraded, but that’s another story) people bought them believing they were in a certain style. We are now at the point when these wines are ready for delivery (my sole purchase, six bottles of Vieux Chateau Certan, arrived this week). I think as people “pop ‘n’ pour” these newly delivered wines over the next year or two we are going to see a lot of disappointed comments appearing on bulletin boards and wine fora.