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.