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Perfection: The New Norm?

Although there are nay-sayers who claim that Parker’s influence is on the wane, anecdotal evidence gathered during many visits to Bordeaux (so I suppose I am referring specifically to Parker’s influence for this region, rather than others he has written about in the past) strongly suggests otherwise. I have sat and listened to famous figures in Bordeaux describe their success measured in Parker points, and to rank themselves within their appellation based on how their Parker scores measured up against their peers. When Bordeaux proprietors use a critic’s scores to benchmark their success, and track improvement in the wine across a sequence of vintages, you know you have an influential critic on your hands. One who not only has the clout to influence the purchasing decisions of the consumer, but to influence the style of wine made within the region.

Parker undoubtedly has changed Bordeaux, in many respects for the better. The wines have certainly improved; I think there is probably a broader spread of desirable (perhaps not an ideal choice of words, but I’m trying to avoid using ‘better’ or ‘higher quality’, for reasons which will become apparent in one moment) wines coming out of the region today than there were 20 years ago. The story at so many châteaux – such as my recently revitalised Rauzan-Ségla profile – is one of regeneration, refurbishment and even rebirth that this has to be true. And this applies to many petits châteaux, as well as at the grand cru classé level.

But with a move upwards in quality – there, I said it – there has come also a change in style; this is why I shy away from describing modern Bordeaux as simply ‘better’. Bordeaux today is not the wine it once was. The Pontet-Canet of the 2009 vintage is not just a more convincing version of the 1994; today Bordeaux is ruled by richer, creamier wines, with slicker fruit, and more slippery textures. The winemaking has changed. The style has changed. It has, in many cases, changed to please certain palates. Or rather, one certain palate. When your success, and your sales, are measured in Parker points, that is inevitable.

We have seen some good examples of the benefit to the proprietors of garnering high praise (by which I mean high scores) from Parker within the last week, with the publication of his 2009 scores. There was a veritable feeding frenzy; some bloggers cried ‘scoop!’ (a word that always calls to mind the writings of Evelyn Waugh, rather than any hint of journalistic success) as they published the scores, with a focus on 19 (or was it 16 – there seems to be some confusion, and I’m not feigning apathy when I declare that I really can’t be bothered totting them up for myself) 100-pointers. Wide-eyed Parker followers managed to crash the erobertparker.com server as they scrambled to get hold of the scores, forcing a subsequent email-apology from “The eRobertParker.com Technical Team” (not from Parker himself, note). And naturally the prices rocketed; in the UK Smith-Haut-Lafitte – for example – went from £60 to £141 overnight as a result of its high score.

The conclusion – from the behaviour of the score-touting proprietors, price-gouging retailers and blood-crazed consumers – is to conclude that Parker still has a strong relevance to Bordeaux. Indeed he does. But admitting that a critic has relevance is not a conclusion that they are the sole, unquestioned, universal palate to which we must all reverentially yield. There is no denying that he moves the market, but he moves the market for a section of buyers, not all buyers. There are many Bordeaux buyers out there who have independent thought and have the confidence to identify that their palate and Parker’s are not one and the same. This is as important as ever with the 2009 vintage. The aforementioned stylistic shift in Bordeaux has been accentuated in the 2009 vintage; when writers use words such as “opulent” or “hedonistic” for these wines these are not simple metaphors. The wines really do have this style; the term that I thought fitted best was “velvety” (which just goes to illustrate how difficult putting a wine into words can be…..which is why scores were introduced, surely) but you could just as easily settle for Parker’s “glycerine”. The 2009 vintage is one that that has given us all more turbo-charged, glycerine-infused, unctuously “perfect” wines than ever before, so perhaps no wonder Parker refers to 2009 as “unquestionably the greatest Bordeaux vintage I have ever tasted“.

For those who prefer savoury, more classically styled wines, however, this is perhaps the worst vintage ever. And although I would place myself in neither the classically-savoury nor the sweetly-modern camp (I can see some pleasure in Bordeaux in all its forms….even the slightly fat and unctuous ones from time to time, as well as the drier more savoury types), I just want to give some recognition out to the lovers and drinkers of old Bordeaux. If you can remember when 89 was considered a strong score that really meant something, when Smith-Haut-Lafitte wasn’t ranked the same as Latour, when the word “scoop” wasn’t so over-used, when score inflation hadn’t crammed 20-ish wines to the very extremes of scoring (time to press the 100-point reset button, surely?), when scores didn’t have so much influence on whether or not you were the critic most likely to be quoted on the shelf-talker, when supposed ‘perfection’ wasn’t The New Norm, when tasting notes had more influence than numbers, and when there was more respect for the individuality of one’s palate, I just want you all to know that I hear you. I know you’re out there. Hold strong. You are not alone.

27 Responses to “Perfection: The New Norm?”

  1. Chris,

    It has always been clear to me that Parker’s influence has never waned in Bordeaux with respect to pricing and style. As with yourself I am open to many different wines and many different styles, but I do have my threshold for over-concentration and extraction. While the style of wines has changed in Bordeaux, the style has also changed in many other regions which clearly are trying to emulate Bordeaux’s “success”. Unfortunately in regions which already have excellent growing climates this has led IMO to a market saturated with so many overbearing wines that it has made finding more restrained wines exceedingly difficult in many instances, since retailers want those higher Parker point wines for sales. It is unfortunate as these regions have the best opportunities with bettter overall skill and techniques to make the best terroir driven wines, which has sadly not materialized. While I am really thinking S.America/ California here, looking at the Rhone region, these wines have become so supercharged and alcoholic that I have not bought anything since 2005. Not to mention that wines which were under $20 are now between $35-40. But, many are just undrinkable.

    On the pricing issue, I think the positive and thankfully so, is that quality has Improved across so many chateau in Bordeaux that there are always excellent value driven wines to purchase. No longer cru classe, but Bdx superior, etc… Which are now getting the most from their land, but still retaining the terroir of Bdx. Is it winemaking choice at these chateau or is there some limitation imposed by the terroir itself ? I do not know this answer.

    What has changed for me is that I no longer support Bdx and it’s chateau in “good and bad years” per se, but I have only purchased Bdx in good years since 2005. Only a few wines from 2009 ( three to be exact), of the ” known wines” and even these were not highly classed growths as I refuse to pay for the hype. I wait for the years like 2009/2010 so that I can purchase those wines in the $10-30 range which I can age, but due to the better quality of fruit are also very approachable when young with some decanting. I have been very impressed what I have had from 2009 thus far and the most I spent was $20. Same with 2005, great stuff in the sweet spot under $30, and so many in the $15 range.

    As always, the true test of the wine, for me, is how it accompanies a meal and I love the versatility that many wines have brought to the table in how they are paired when young and when older as they change. A young Rioja with beef, and the same wine at 20 years going perfectly well with scallops. What this new style will bring in this regard will require time. I for one will be very disappointed if this aspect of the wines is lost due to more concentrated wines which do not mellow with age.

    Gary

  2. I have never had a better bottle of wine than the 1961 Château Latour, not from any vintage. Which says everything when it comes to modern Bordeaux and my palate, I think.

  3. Classed growth Bordeaux is ‘investment grade wine’. The investment market has taken his opinions as it’s benchmark. There are just too many people sitting on too many wines, to risk the thought that there is anything wrong with the benchmark.

  4. Gary, thanks for that response. It’s clear that you have your own palate and have the good sense to look for wines that give pleasure, without worrying about what’s on the label. I’ll have to give the Rioja and scallops a try though; that’s not one I would have though of myself!

    Ralph, I looked up the score for Latour 1961 from Parker and it was 100 points (tasting note extracts: “syrup of Cabernet…. portlike…. unctuous…. jammy sweetness…. gorgeously sweet…. rich…. massive”) but then from that château, in that vintage, why not. But then we have 19 such wines from 2009? What gives? Is it just the new style, as you suggest, parodying all that was good in Latour ’61, or is it in fact just score inflation, the need to keep generating higher scores and hyperbole to be relevant?

    Ian, indeed, lots of people have a vested interest in keeping high scores going. You can only tell yourself that case of wine you bought really is worth 2500 dollars/quid/euros for so long, eventually you need the score to both confirm the value and facilitate the sale.

  5. Chris,

    I was a full flavored scallop dish– pan-seared with bacon. The aged Rioja (red) was perfect. Can’t remember the accompanying dish, but something else with earthiness and flavor to completment the red wine.

    Excellent

  6. Quality is great. Don’t get me wrong. Especially if you *drink* wine. But what about interest which, dare I say, is more important if you *taste* wine? I would take an interesting (but perhaps slightly thin) wine from 1997 any day over a competently made, richly-fruited, well-balanced, but utterly boring 2000 from the same price bracket. So laud Parker for raising the bar as far as quality goes – he does deserve that praise. But is it worth the trade-off in interest? For my palate, Bordeaux has become a little less interesting. A little more “red wine” rather than “Medoc”. And that is a crying shame.

    With Parker getting ready to scale back on his enterprise and go into semi-retirement, who’s going to fill his shoes? Does anyone really care what Neal Martin has to say? Further, what are all of the Bordelais who have essentially revamped their style to get Parker points going to do?

  7. Hey Chris,

    I’ve just put a link to your opinion on your blog on the local wineforum :)

    nothing to add : I completely agree

  8. Marc

    I think you are saying something that I discuss in the post above, and in other posts; its just that where you write ‘interest’ I would write ‘style’. The trends in modern Bordeaux – increased fruit ripeness, longer hang times, more extraction, sweeter fruit, more alcohol, more oak, etc – tend towards the style of wine that can be less ‘interesting’. Very good to drink, but there is perhaps less of a spectrum of styles than there used to be.

    Obviously I have no idea what will happen at the Wine Advocate and I’m not sure I should be postulating. But I imagine Parker will go on and on in a Broadbent-esque style rather than retire; the question will be whether or not he continues to review barrel samples and young in-bottle samples of Bordeaux as part of that work (I guess it matters for the Rhône as well, but I’ve been mostly ignoring Châteauneuf since the style moved more towards prune and raisin than something that resembled wine – terrible generalisation I know). If not then who? I would have hoped Neal, as he is a good guy and has plenty of respect for having an independent mind and palate, and people enjoy his relaxed writing, but he has remained peripheral at TWA; all his Bordeaux work goes on the eBob site, but not in TWA, other than the Sauternes reviews. Although perhaps this is a natural position for him as he awaits the move to take on Bordeaux fully, and – although I’m sure the fans of Spanish wine won’t like this thought – throwing Neal at Spain and South America might be a trial run for him, to see how he does reporting full time for TWA.

    The alternative, of course, is that Galloni will take over. He’s already been gifted California, an important assignment as TWA still has a huge American focus (witness Bob’s forthcoming coming tastings of “value wines imported into the USA” – tough luck on his subscribers outside America).

    The comment on changes on style with a new critic is very pointed. Whoever it is, the Bordelais will be very keen to see what he/she likes.

  9. Kris, thanks for that. Which forum?

  10. Chris, you’re so much less offensive than I am. Keep up the good work!

  11. http://www.vinejo.freebb.be

    how is your Dutch? ;)

  12. I think point inflation is a very real issue (prior to 2009 only 2 non First Growth wines were awarded the perfect score) although I’m not complaining: I bought the 09 Pontet Canet, Clos Fourtet and SHL at 1st tranche prices. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see the uber-perfect score of 101 points (hence a sort of reset).

    On a slightly different note, does James Suckling know what he’s talking about? He recently gave a very average Jasper Hill shiraz the perfect score. His tasting note was totally off too.

  13. If I can digress a little – UK readers may not be aware that Parker is falling (has fallen?) dramatically out of favour down here in Australia. There’s been a strong reaction against the ‘Parkerisation’ of Australian red wine, and the pendulum is swinging back to elegance (and regional variation/emphasis on terroir). I’d say that the decision of so many Australian winemakers to follow Parker’s palate a decade ago is at least one of the reasons that our wine industry is in the doldrums right now.

    I’m also going to be really interested to see what happens in Bordeaux and the Rhone once Parker’s influence has passed. I wonder if they could ever return to their pre-Parker styles? Hope I’m still around (and still drinking good wine) by the time that occurs.

  14. Kris – “how is your Dutch?”

    Err….OK, point taken! :-)

  15. Marc, don’t be so sure, sometimes I really have to bite my tongue to stop myself saying/writing things!

    Alex, good for you – looks like you made some good choices (either that or you bought a case of everything :o). I think if Parker ever dished out a score of 101 it would have everybody rolling in the aisles, I just don’t think he would do it. And he has always denied that point inflation exists, but going beyond 100 would say the exact opposite. I think he will just move backwards in 2010 and carry on regardless, maintaining his position that higher points reflect higher quality. Fortunately for the 100-point system the 2010s are less his style (less voluptuous on the palate) and yet really excellent quality (honest they are – how come I can hear you groaning?); scores will be lower, sadly the prices are likely to remain ridiculously strong.

    That’s interesting Josh thanks. I’m sorry I don’t really follow what’s happening in Australia, as I decided a few years ago to focus on just a couple of regions. Isn’t one of the problems Jay Miller was reviewing Australia? I think the problem with waiting for Parker to pass the baton to a colleague is that the chase-the-reviewer winemaking has proved so successful for the Bordelais I don’t think we will see Bordeaux emerge with a new confidence in itself, instead we will see them look to identify the next great critic. Don’t know who that is but it won’t be me; this April will be my fifth visit to the primeurs and I’m still waiting for a UK merchant to cite my notes/scores. They use Jeff Leve’s though, who has of course established himelf with his own Bordeaux-based website; perhaps he is, in the eyes of the Bordelais, a possible Parker replacement?

  16. In one of the threads on Jeff’s discussion board, he did mention (casually of course – I don’t meant to imply that there has been any offer) that he would not want to replace Parker in any professional capacity. Then again, he probably tastes enough for the Bordelais to use his scores regardless of whether he’s a true “professional” or not.

    As to scores above 100 points, even the Great Broadbent occasionally does note six stars… (several of the mid/late-40s Mouton, a vintage or two of Palmer, etc)

    Chris, what do you think about the 2011 vintage?

  17. The Parkerization of wine is a very widespread phenomenon. I mentioned a few regions in my post above and completely agree with the comments about Australia. California went this way as well, although I am hearing from a few sources that some winemakers beginning in 2007 have decided to pull back on the over-extraction and make more elegant wines instead of fruit bombs. Time will tell if this is really true or just a factor of the raw material during the last few years. Unfortunately Californis wines continue, even with some price drops, to be extremely expensive.

    Chris, could not agree more with your comments on Rhone, over-extraction, raisin and prune favors, confected cherries they all tell the story. It’s unfortunate as I really had a penchant for these wines. Luckily I bought a good amount of 2001/2004 which will last a long time and these wines need time to really come around.

    Gary

  18. Marc, far too early for me to say anything on 2011 Bordeaux. In the Loire it has been difficult, with a cool damp summer engendering vine diseases and rot, requiring a lot of work. In Bordeaux, the general picture – warm spring and autumn, cool and disappointing summer – were seen, but how this will come through in the wines? Don’t yet know.

    I have one or two snippets of tasting experience, some Margaux Cabernet Sauvignon (very good, no surprises there) plus varietal samples from Phélan-Ségur, Brane-Cantenac, so not much. All they say is probably not as exciting as 2009 or 2010, but no washout. Somewhere in the middle.

    A particularly honest Bordeaux proprietor I know who will remain nameless said to me recently, paraphrasing, that 2011 was not 2009, not 2010, but not a bad vintage, better than 2007, perhaps closest to 2006 in terms of quality.

  19. Chris,
    For my private customers I have gratefully exploited your tasting notes (and by extension your scores) since the 2005 vintage — many thanks!!
    Personally I don’t feel that Jeff Leve has the authority of Neal Martin, but for many eBob subscribers the latter is dangerously prone to having an opinion of his own.
    What disappoints me equally is the number of UK merchants who formerly wrote their own tasting notes in en primeur offers, but now merely regurgitate Wine Advocate scores. Is this down to budget constraints or lack of self-confidence?
    As for the 2011 vintage, I believe it promises to be MOST entertaining…
    Christopher

  20. For me, aside from the perfect sores madness, the funniest part of the whole story are the 99+ wines :)) Have these people gone crazy or what?

  21. Hi Christopher

    Well thanks; so you’re the one who uses them! :-)

    Interesting points about using scores; is this because merchants are seen as untrustworthy, that there must be independent review perhaps? Even so, no excuse for scores alone without notes.

    Farr Vintners seem to get it right don’t they? They publish their own opinions, and those of an array of critics.

    2011 is going to be very entertaining, but in a rather sad way. If the Bordelais really are planning minor price drops then it is going to be a real car crash.

    With the 2008 vintage Hubert de Boüard de Laforest led, and dropped his prices back to the 2004 level, correct for the quality of the vintage and the economic climate. With Parker subsequently praising the vintage (inappropriately in my opinion; it is a good rather than great vintage, although some right bankers are really v.v. good) and the wines looking underpriced as a consequence, perhaps there will be few so keen to repeat that mistake. They might wonder whether it is Parker’s next “vintage of the century”! :-)

  22. Hi Ciprian – the plus sign is effectively an extra 0.5 isn’t it? 99.5 for Margaux (stunning wine, although I preferred the extraordinary elegance of the 2010….all barrel samples though) and friends. Perhaps these wines didn’t have the correct level of unctuousness for the perfect score?

  23. Chris, that’s right, 0.5. I don’t know what’s going on in Parker’s head, but these kind of scores are just ridiculous, at least for me.

  24. I think the next level of perfection will be the 100+ points. It seems to me that Parker acts like some kind of super computer when giving these scores. And this is just…wrong

  25. I recently tasted some great wines, among them the 89/90 Haut Brion & La Mission, Margaux, Latour, Lynch Bages, Montrose etc. For me, at this moment, I have a hard time imagining Bordeaux much better than the ’90 Mission, ’90 Margaux, ’89 Haut Brion (which is still not fully mature). I wrote “100” down a few times that night. So perhaps I would be tempted to write 100+ if I tasted 45 Mouton or 1870 Lafite. What else are you to do when you taste something that redefines what a wine can be?

    It’s not just Parker, by the way; Broadbent occasionally gives six stars. What’s the alternative? Never write 5 stars or 100 points, always awaiting that day you taste the 1900 Margaux? Hm. For me, that level of rigidity would make the whole process less fun, even if it made it more (quasi) objective. I’m going to go test this hypothesis by cracking open an ’82 Mouton. Maybe – just maybe – it’ll be worth 100+

  26. Marc, I think you should enjoy the wine and forget about points :)

  27. Well you know, I almost did! I keep them solely because it helps me remember how I liked them by comparison. So maybe I’m atypical in that regard… it seems like a lot of people seem to infer some higher truth from a score. I don’t add up points from different components of the wine. That level of reductionism just seems a little weird to me. Do you keep points at all?