Following on from last week’s post, this week I am thinking of points again. Having said that, whereas last week I voiced a freshly-formed opinion that came from reading Terry Theise’s excellent Reading Between the Vines, my thoughts this week have been knocking around my head for much longer.
You know the old adage; you have to read the tasting note, and not just the score. It’s a ‘warning’ that has long been voiced by many critics and publications where wine opinions are accompanied by a number. The score tells you whether the critic liked a wine or not. So should the tasting note although sometimes, especially with more ‘technical’ analyses, it’s not that easy. Sometimes you can read a note and yet when you come to the end remain uncertain as to whether the critic actually liked the wine; this is where scores can be useful – they provide a quick and easy view into which wines the taster thought ‘best’ on the day. The note can achieve much more than this, though, because, language is so much more descriptive than mere numbers. The tasting note can describe the style of the wine.
I’ve tasted a lot of Bordeaux in my time, with a focus that starts in the 1980s, with occasional forays back to older vintages such as 1975 and 1961. But more recent vintages have come under greater scrutiny, as I’ve made regular assessments of vintages from 2003 onwards either at two years of age when the wines have just been bottled, as well as tastings at four years of age at the Institute of Master of Wine, and I’m now a regular visitor to Bordeaux for the primeur tastings. My experience with these most recent vintages and my trips to Bordeaux have taught me many things, from the veracity (or lack of it) to be found within barrel samples, to the huge size of the Bordeaux region (a drive from one appellation to the next can take a long time).
But one thing I have learnt more than anything else is that points are rubbish at describing wine.
This has been hammered home by the recent 2009 and 2010 vintages in Bordeaux. By now you will know that 2009 is widely acclaimed as a great vintage. You will probably also know, even if the thought of it makes you roll your eyes in despair at the marketing hype, that 2010 has also received a lot of positive press. This latter vintage currently remains in barrel, so (in view of what I wrote above) we should remain circumspect for the moment, although having tasted a handful of 2010s in Bordeaux in October I’m confident – as the wines seem to taste better and better with each encounter – that the early reports on quality are not unfounded. And so we have two great back to back vintages. Both have received praise, and both have been showered with high scores.
None of which tells you anything about how the wines actually taste.
The two vintages are completely different. Like chalk and cheese, Laurel and Hardy, Sarkozy and Merkel, you would never mistake one for the other. One is round, voluptuous, seductive whilst the other is firm, composed, generous but less easy to appreciate (I’m talking about the wines, not the politicians). The 2009 vintage has given us big, creamy, velvety textures, quite unlike any other wines I have tasted before. The 2010 is much more classic, much more ‘of Bordeaux’ I think, and as it takes on a little weight or flesh in barrel I think I may come to prefer it to 2009, much more than I did during my primeur tastings. It can be joined by a thread to previous vintages, such as 2005, 2000 and 1996 on the left bank. You can’t do that with 2009; there are no valid comparisons.
At no time, now or in the future, will a point-based assessment tell you that. And yet both critics and consumers seem so hung up on scores. James Suckling and his “I’m 96 points on that” videos spring to mind; why is that a valid statement to make about the wine, when you have decades of tasting experience and could do so much more to describe the wine, give something to your readers (or viewers) that actually informs? And a handful of MWs and other critics I’ve talked with seem totally obsessed with points and how they validate their palates. The post-tasting back-slapping when critics score wines at the same level (agreement between Critic ‘Smith’ and MW ‘Jones’ that the just-tasted Château X is a 95-pointer – this really happens!) is always amusing; it suggests that the two believe that the points are an intrinsic quality of the wine, there to be perceived by palates that – if they settle on the correct number – are clearly ‘great’ palates. And yet, if you like voluptuous wines rather than structured wines you should be scoring 2009 high, whereas if the opposite is true you will prefer 2010. In the same way, some will prefer La Mission Haut-Brion, and some will prefer Haut-Brion (would that I could afford either!). Points, I think, do little to help us understand any of these wines, but do much I think to inform us about the palate of the taster, to which they are perhaps more closely related.
Perhaps this latter aspect of points is the most useful. If you can gauge the taster’s preferences from the points they dish out, perhaps this implies they are a consistent ‘taster’, and you can judge therefore whether (a) the critic’s opinions are useful to you, and (b) whether your tastes align with (buy the wines they like) or are different from (buy the wines they don’t like) those of the critic. If you look at the scores and find you can’t gauge the author’s tastes or preferences, perhaps they aren’t a very good ‘taster’, and you should walk away.