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Points: for the Palate, or the Wine?

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.

11 Responses to “Points: for the Palate, or the Wine?”

  1. Chris,

    Well said.
    When ever I read a review, I want access to the insight and information that the taster / critic has gleaned. This more than scores and pretty language will always be the most essential.

    As you say though, a score at least gives a reader the ability to calibrate and assess the validity of the critic.

  2. Chris,

    Not sure how I see this especially due to grade point elevation which has certainly occurred over the last 8 years, IMO beginning with the 2003 vintage. Even someone like Steve Tanzer has succumbed to this as his point ratings seem much higher than what I would expect from reading his overview of the vintage, for Bdx at least. That continued as he gave Bdx over to Agata.

    With RP the higher the number certainly correlates with the bigger more modern style the wine and in this respect I think he is somewhat consistent.

    However, I continue to fall back on the written word and ignore the points. If I see certain descriptors which clearly point to a more over ripe modern highly concentrated wine, sound familiar, I stay away, it is not what my palate likes. Even in Argentina the trend continues with those power houses getting the highest points and the more fleshed out, balanced wines certainly with a good core of fruit getting the lower scores.

    I have bought many wines scored 85-90 which I liked much better than those scored much higher. I have often wondered how a wine could be rated as a
    95 per se after I tasted it and how that wine could be so expensive. So in this respect there is often a disconnect between the critic and their score as opposed to what my palate prefers.

    Clearly, since 2000, points and not notes, sells wine for the majority of people whether expensive or cheap. Not a good thing. I always come back to the 2004 vintage, which I think is much better than evaluated by the critics from what I have tasted so far. It sits between 2003/2005 where prices and scores started their big upward trend. I remember a large local retailer trying to get rid of their stocks of 2004 and putting everything on sale and seeing every wine with a score of 90+ being quickly scooped up and those under 90 sitting on the shelves. Having tasted the 2004 at the UGC I already knew which wines were the ones I wanted based upon my evaluation and price point. Almost all were there to be bought as they were scored under 90. The best example was the 88 for Troplong Mondot which I got for under $28. No one touched a single bottle of the stuff.


  3. Nice article, Chris.

    On the point of scores helping to indicate the critic’s own preferences, I think that may depend on the critic. The late lamented Daniel Rogov used to argue that the critic should be objective and give high points to a “well made and good of its kind” wine even if it happened to be, say, an oaky fruit bomb which he himself would never drink at dinner. He did, however, agree that the TN should indicate the wine’s character so as to allow the reader to aim off.

    Personally I doubt whether it is really possible to be so objective and, if it is, it is not very useful to the reader.

  4. “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”

    I see no problem!

    It’s not whether they liked it, but whether I might like it. The former is really of no importance to me.


  5. Great topic Chris. I’m of the opinion that wine can’t be quantified, at least to the miniscule increments that the 100 point scale dictates. For me, the tasting notes are much more important and give the reader an actual idea of what the wine tastes and feels like. And when you add in the variable of wine changing over time, that “number” is most likely going to be moving up or down as you move along the timeline. Can you quantify a great piece of art? Is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” a 92 pointer while his “Sunflowers” warrants a 96? If we have to have numbers for wine, I prefer the more general 20 point scale that you use or even the 1,2 or 3 stars that Kyle Phillips uses in his Italian Wine Review. I agree with Gary above on Mr. Parker, who despite his claims to liking balanced wines, continues to give the biggest scores to the biggest, most unbalanced wines. I guess that’s okay for the reader who understands Mr. Parker. But in a retail operation, where a customer with lots of money and not much experience will throw down big bucks, the advice of a knowledgeable retailer may be more important than a 95 point score. Then again, some guys with big bucks may not really care what the wine tastes like, as long as it has that 95 point score.

  6. I need to see the note because a balanced complex wine with mature tannins at 89 from a palate I know is more to my palate than a RP 93 oaky fruit bomb, but that just me. Oh, and the 89 much much cheaper.

  7. Thanks for all these replies Edward, Gary, Tim, Ian, Jonas & Lee. Sorry not to reply yesterday, was run off my feet.

    The prevailing opinion does seem to be that notes are more important than scores (phew!), and perversely points perhaps set prices more than they do buying decisions.

  8. […] Points: for the Palate, or the Wine? Following on from last week’s post, this week I’m 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. Source: http://www.thewinedoctor.com […]

  9. Chris,

    I really agree. I’ve had some good buying opportunities lately and as a lot of the chateaux are ones I don’t have much experience with, I had a look at the scores on 90plusratedwines.com. I’m also a big fan of Clive Coates, Michael Broadbent, Stephen Brook, and Oz Clarke.

    After all of that looking around, I’ve come to pretty firmly believe that for just about any wine (especially when you include Bettane & Desseauve, La Revue), you’ll find a handful of writers who think the wine is the best thing that’s come along in years, a handful that think it’s absolute rubbish and a bunch in between. Try it out sometime. You’ll find few exceptions, I think.

    And for what maturity is worth – I opened up a half bottle of ’99 Palmer last night and it’s far from mature. So was Parker’s 95 points (and his silly drinking window) useful? Alas. No.


  10. Marc, I’ll try that out. And if there is broad agreement on any particular wine we could just throw John Gilman into the mix. He’s not afraid of swimming against the tide!

    Personally I think independent opinion is healthy, although I know it must be confusing for those who buy wines by looking for consensus on the ‘quality’ of the wine from critics, many of whom will in fact be judging the wine based on their own personal ‘style’ preferences.

  11. Well, Gilman seems to be a little more polarizing lately than at times in the past. I’m glad he is, frankly. I’d certainly agree that independent opinion is a good thing. Seeing the huge spectrum of opinion on most wines has made me less reliant on the scores, rather than more confused by them.

    Case in point: 82 Talbot, which I’m very much looking forward to opening soon.

    Revue des Vins: 16/20
    Quarin: 16-16.5
    Wine Spectator: 86
    Jancis: 17.5
    IWC: 89
    Parker: 95
    Decanter: 5/5

    Not one of these scores is an outlier. There are at least 2 quite low ratings, 3 middle ratings (to which you could probably add Coates who I don’t think much likes Talbot or Broadbent who has voiced a lot of ambivalence with Talbot), and a couple high points.

    Another interesting trend that I’ve noticed is that the back vintages of Lafite, which were pretty unheralded for years, are recently being rated more highly in tastings by Parker and his cronies (the 76 etc etc). Finding it difficult to say that a $600 bottle of wine is bathwater, eh? I’ll grant you my own experiences with Lafite are very limited, but the ’75 and ’79 were very ho-hum.

    cellartracker handle “englishman’s claret”