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Real Wine Fair, 2012

It’s been an interesting week, what with the RAW Wine Fair (which I attended on Monday), the Real Wine Fair (which I attended on Tuesday) and yesterday’s Born Digital Wine Awards which were announced at the London International Wine Fair (which unfortunately I was unable to attend).

The Real Wine Fair was another great opportunity for me to get to grips with some new wines and new domaines, as well as re-acquainting myself with some ‘old friends’. As with the RAW fair, my focus here was regional; I viewed both fairs as an opportunity to expand my knowledge and coverage of the Loire, rather than try and get an overview of what is happening globally with ‘natural’, organic or biodynamic wine.

Real Wine Fair

One domaine I am familiar with is Domaine de la Louvetrie, home to Jo Landron, pictured above. He was showing mostly 2010s again, wines which I have already reported on in previous tastings published this year. He also had a couple of 2011s though, of which one was sadly displaying the rot of the vintage, a sign that not even the top names of the region have succeeded in this most difficult of years.

As with the RAW Fair there were more new discoveries in Vouvray and also Montlouis, from the likes of Ludovic Chanson and Lemaire-Fournier. These two appellations continue to excite, the latter because it continues to yield domaines and wines of quality from incomers, new blood attracted by fair prices for the land. And the former because, in an appellation sprinkled with superstars (Huet, Foreau, etc) much of what is produced here is in fact dull and uninteresting (a large proportion of the wines made here are unexciting, cooperative-made sparkling wines), and so it is always a pleasure to find a domaine turning out something of quality.

There were plenty of other new discoveries too, from Jasnières and Coteaux du Vendômois, as well as a few interesting examples of pétillant naturel. Sadly there were also some less exciting oxidised wines, in a few cases from winemakers of some repute from whom I would have hoped for better. Tasting a lot of these wines together also allowed me to tease out some more differences in wines that are simply oxidised, versus those that are oxidative. I’ve blogged about this before, here and here, but now I’m convinced there are important distinctions to be made here, and wine writers should be careful about which term they use. I have a feeling many oxidised wines are often blessed with the somewhat kinder term ‘oxidative’, but as Thierry Puzelat has said, the two are not the same.

Finally, congratulations to Jim Budd for a well-deserved win in the Born Digital Wine Awards for his (and Howard Heckle’s) journalistic perseverance in uncovering the No Pay No Jay scandal, the affair which has seen Robert Parker desperately trying to paper over the cracks in Wine Advocate organisation, administration and governance. Jim picked up the Best Investigative Wine Story prize in these increasingly prestigious awards. The full list of winners can be seen here. Well done Jim!

Born Digital Wine Awards 2012

I was slightly amused to get back to my hotel yesterday, after a busy day at the RAW wine fair in London, to find an email from the Born Digital Wine Awards organisers with a link to a ‘shortlisted’ badge.

Here it is:

Shortlisted Investigative

Why amused? The timing gives me about 36 hours to display the badge, before the awards are handed out on May 23rd at the London International Wine Fair. In a digital era, in an award scheme celebrating digital content, the timing feels a bit more ‘snail-mail’!

As I wrote in my original post celebrating my being short-listed (I am absolutely delighted to be recognised), I hope and anticipate that Jim Budd will win. Unfortunately as I’m on the road (I’m off to the Real Wine Fair today, in about ten minutes, then back to Scotland on an evening train – sadly I won’t be able to attend the award announcements tomorrow) I don’t have the time to resize the image, or set up the link on my home-page. So for now I will post it here, and wish all those short-listed the best of luck!

My Bordeaux Pocket Book

After learning that I had been shortlisted for a Born Digital Wine Award, yesterday turned into a good-news double-whammy with a knock on the door, and the long-awaited arrival of my book (well, OK, it’s actually only been two weeks since it went to print, but it felt like a long time). I’ve been working on this project for months and months, and it was amazing to finally hold a copy in my hands. And, although I am more than a little bit biased, I am over the moon with the finish on the final product.

A little bit more detail for you; it’s a magbook, so a sort of magazine-book hybrid. But with its A5 size and firm, card-like cover it feels more like a pocket book than a magazine to me. Inside is a mix of news, profiles, guidance and vintage reports, with hopefully something for everybody; a generic vintage guide for Bordeaux beginners, more detail on a selection of interesting châteaux for those more familiar with the region, and reports on the latest vintage and all the latest news for those who know the region well and just want to get to grips with what’s new.

And when I write latest news, I mean latest. I’m particularly pleased with the ‘current’ feel of the product. Most wine guides are already out of date by the time they hit the shelves, the copy for the book often having been submitted a year before you hand over your cash. Here, the short time between finishing the copy and holding the book in my hand (as noted above, a couple of weeks) means the news within is definitely not dated. I include a report on the 2011 Bordeaux vintage (added after my return from the Bordeaux primeurs in April) as well as other Bordeaux news from the past couple of months (as well as important snippets from 2011 of course).

I haven’t held back from expressing this in the introduction – nor from criticising some other elements of the annually published pocket wine guides!

What should also appeal is the asking price. I was tempted to countdown the figures here (must be the latent market trader within me) but maybe I’ll just come straight out with it: £6.99. Not a typo: £6.99. It will be available in hard copy in the UK with some copies going out to the Far East, the USA and a few to Australia. A major point of sale will be airport shops (WH Smith and the like), but happily in this modern era it should also be available through online retailers such as Amazon (it’s not listed yet though, to save you the time checking) and of course there will be electronic formats for Kindle in Amazon, and it should be available as an iBook.

Now I just need to read what the book-reviewing wine-writing community think of the product. Nervous, me? Absolutely.

Update: From myy publisher’s comments below, the book is available online now from Zinio, and will on the shelves and with Amazon from May 24th. Kindle and iBook versions to follow!

Born Digital Wine Awards 2012 Shortlist

No prizes for guessing why I’m posting on this today. The sad rule about competition shortlists is that – aside from a few notables – most people who aren’t shortlisted suddenly lose interest!

I’m delighted to note that I’ve been shortlisted in the Best Investigative Wine Story category of the Born Digital Wine Awards, for this piece: Pressure Sensitive.

Looking across the category I’m also delighted to see that Jim Budd has been shortlisted for his Campogate, no Pay no Jay story. Quite right too. This (a joint effort between Jim and Harold Heckle) is proper investigative wine writing, part of a long exposé which has seen him belittled and inappropriately criticised by Robert Parker, as well as threatened with legal action by the subject of the cash-for-review scandal, Pancho Campo. And the ultimate outcome clearly indicates that Budd was on the right track all along; Jay Miller resigned (apparently agreed before the scandal broke, but – reading his posts on the Parker bulletin board yesterday – he clearly associates his departure with the scandal) and Campo left the wine world, resigning his MW, which has the effect of preventing the IMW report becoming public.

I hope Jim wins the category. He deserves it.

The full list is as follows:

Best Editorial Wine Writing

Best Investigative Wine Story

Best Wine Tourism Feature

Best Winery Self Produced Content

Best Wine Themed Video

There is also a photo-essay category, details (and images) on the Born Digital site.

Bordeaux En Primeur: An Alternative Guide for Critics

It’s not long now until the frenzy and fury of Bordeaux 2011 kicks off. I will be there, tasting the barrel samples, my seventh year tasting and reporting on the nascent wines at this early stage, my fifth year of travelling to Bordeaux to do it. But for some, I know it might be an exciting first trip to the region to taste. So here’s my eight-point guide to would-be critics – perhaps those looking to fill the shoes of Robert Parker, who must surely retire sometime in the next thirty years – on how to make their mark.

(1) First up, you need to get out there as early as possible. Make sure you hit the primeurs week, and don’t go a week later, all the châteaux will be boarded up. Go earlier, at least a week before everybody else, to make sure you taste the wines first; this will be useful when it comes to point 2, below. If possible go several months earlier, and taste the fermenting must. Even better, make your predictions from a trip out last September, just from tasting the fruit; that way you can be certain your report was filed first. If you missed that opportunity, then consider this; the primeurs visit might be a good opportunity to pass your judgement on the 2012 vintage as well. File next year’s report now!

(2) In your report, use the word “Scoop!” a lot. Remember to include the exclamation mark, this is an integral part of the phrase. Use the word “Scoop!” when reporting your scores, via Twitter if possible. If you are so inclined, and don’t have your own scores, just regurgitate Parker’s. Just be sure to use the word “Scoop!” when you do so. Remember: with every score, there’s a “Scoop!”.

(3) Ignore naysayers who criticise you for travelling out early to “Scoop!” everybody else. Michel Bettane was the main critic of this practice last year, as reported by Decanter here. Fortunately, as the practice is here to stay and Bettane said last year that if it continued “this will be the last year that we play the game” then it seems he won’t be there to bother/criticise you anyway. Provided he sticks to his word, of course.

(4) In your report, there are several key ingredients that cannot be omitted. The first is a comment on the weather during the tastings. If fine and sunny, say so, and comment that this is great for tasting, thus implying your notes and scores are the best and most reliable. If dull, cloudy and wet, make sure the reader is clear just what hard work this has been for you, and how much you have striven to make sure your notes and scores are still the best and most reliable. This is despite the fact that the effect of a change in atmospheric pressure on carbon dioxide solubility – the usual mechanism by which weather is said to affect the taste of wine – is so small as to render such comments absolute drivel. See here for more detail on this.

(5) The next key ingredient of your report is to mention horses, but this must only be done in the context of a visit to Pontet-Canet, or at least driving past Pontet-Canet, or perhaps looking at Pontet-Canet from a distance, from the tasting room of Grand-Puy-Lacoste perhaps. Yes, I know you will see a few horses dotted about the region in other vineyards, on both banks, but you should realise by now that these are rented by the châteaux for primeurs week to fool the visiting journalists. There is a reason the race course in Pomerol was ripped up you know; it’s because the Bordelais were so entertained by their “How many journalists will mention that horse I rented for a week in their reports” sweepstake that nobody was visiting the real horse races.

(6) By no means should you mention how attractive the many attendants at some of the châteaux are, or imply that those châteaux that employ the most beautiful girls might make the best wines. Neal Martin has that aspect of en primeur all sewn up, and you need to make your own mark.

(7) You must, at least twice in your report, mention that there is much more to Bordeaux than the grand cru classé châteaux, that the region is full of unsung properties and overlooked appellations which deserve our interest. And that the region should not be criticised for ludicrously high prices, because that only pertains to the top 1% of the region. Stress that many of the smaller winemakers are struggling to avoid bankruptcy. When it comes to reviewing the wines, however, only taste grand cru classé châteaux. Do not report on little châteaux. That would be a waste of your time. Besides, all the best lunches and dinners are provided at the big-name properties. You aren’t going to be inundated with platters of foie gras and Sauternes if you choose to taste and take lunch at Château No-Name in Blaye, are you?

(8) Finally, on the matter of scores, you must use these. Make sure you score out of 100, as everybody knows Bordeaux drinkers don’t understand anything else. Yes, there are drinkers out there who get the idea that scores themselves are a blunt and flawed tool, and are not an inherent flavour detected in the wine, and there are even some that can get their head round the 20-point or five-star systems, but all these people drink Burgundy so you must not cater for them. Remember to give at least 100 points to two wines – especially weaker wines – as that way you are bound to be the critic with the highest score for those wines, meaning you will get quoted the most. Oh, and remember to write “Scoop!” at the end of your 100-point notes.

That’s my guide; stick to these eight basic rules, and you will be a famous Bordeaux critic in no time.

Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt

It is nearly two weeks since I battled my way from Angers down to Le Landreau in order to visit Pierre Luneau-Papin and to taste the 2011s from cuve, plus a large selection of older vintages and cuvées, everything from very young Folle Blanche (perhaps better known as Gros Plant du Pays Nantais to some) to aging bottles of L d’Or. When I say ‘battled’ I’m not being too melodramatic; the snowfall of the night before had turned many smaller roads from convenient thoroughfares into treacherous, ice-bound skating rinks. Only the autoroute had seen any gritting or salting, and then only a single lane, making for slower progress than was ideal. Nevertheless after a couple of hours we arrived at Luneau-Papin’s residence. The sight of his vineyards, swaddled in a blanket of snow, was something quite special.

Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt

The scene reminded me of my trip to Finland a few years ago (although there were no vines there!) or indeed one or two days from recent winters in Scotland (no vines there either!), when the sky has that heavy, grey-white appearance which almost blends into the snow on the ground. It was a photographer’s paradise – it’s just a shame I’m not much of a photographer!

Anyway, the ‘salt’ referenced in the title of this post is not the salt that the French authorities were half-heartedly spreading on a small and select number of the roads, but rather than large pinch of salt required when reading tasting notes (and scores too, I suppose) and, specifically, using those tasting notes to determine whether or not the wine is to your taste, or of sufficient quality or value to merit a purchase. These thoughts came to me during an early-afternoon tasting and lunch with Pierre Luneau-Papin and his wife and son.

The wine in question was the 2003 L d’Or; for those not in the know L d’Or is his classic Sèvre et Maine sur lie cuvée, serious and bold, fine in its youth but better with a little bottle age and capable of very long aging – my favourite vintage tasted during this trip was the 1989, but I also tasted the remarkably fresh, still-going-strong 1976 from magnum, so this is certainly an ageworthy cuvée! The 2003 vintage wouldn’t be my first choice for just about any wine, from any appellation, in all honesty; the heat of the vintage comes through in a soft, baked, roasted character in many reds (recently tasted Burgundies tasted more like Châteauneuf du Pape) and the whites display low acidity and a tendency to flabbiness. There are always exceptions to the rule though and this 2003 struck me as – for the vintage – uncommonly interesting.

Sure, on the palate (so I’m talking about sensory assessment, not figures for titratable acidity) the acidity was way down, giving the wine a much softer feel than many (probably all?) other vintages of L d’Or, but there was some acidity there, so the wine didn’t fade into a soft, shapeless form in the mouth, and there were some grippy phenolic notes helping to give the wine some shape as well. And there were interesting flavours too, not archetypal for Muscadet admittedly, but rather interesting notes of fruit with a rather dried, desiccated, candied edge, atypical but enticing, and there were little notes of almond tuile coming in from behind as well. All very interesting, not really what most people want from Muscadet, but with prior knowledge of the wine’s style still a worthy wine, not one to be disregarded like so many 2003s. Then came lunch:

Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt

The langoustines came with a dip of crème fraîche seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper – together they were absolutely delicious. The scallops, meanwhile, bathed in a sauce of beurre blanc, the sauce for which was based on a Muscadet reduction – one bottle of Muscadet reduced down to a teaspoon of liquor before adding a little crème fraîche and butter. Also absolutely delicious. And a slug of the 2003 tasted with these foods would obviously do the trick, I thought.

The wine hit my palate; uh-oh – this was totally wrong!

Surprisingly, having been swayed by the character of the 2003 in a slightly more clinical ‘tasting’ setting, when putting the wine up against a little food it fell completely flat. Whereas other more classically styled vintages of Muscadet really came into their own here – the 2007 L d’Or worked particularly well, the acid really shining through – the lack of acidity from the 2003 thwarted its usefulness at table. What had been at least an interesting wine, the low level of acidity coping quite well when tasted alone, fell apart when challenged with a few langoustines and a little beurre blanc. In this situation there simply wasn’t the desired acidity.

OK, in retrospect this finding is not that surprising. But at the time I was taken with just how different the wine seemed when tasted without food, and then with food. All wines do this of course, but this seemed to be a completely different wine, chalk one minute and then cheese the next. Wines often show different sides of their characters in different situations, but this one changed its personality altogether.

All of which led me to thinking of the veracity of tasting notes, and their usefulness to consumers, when ‘tasting’ and ‘drinking’ are such different experiences. Tasting thirty-plus samples of Muscadet in the cellars on a freezing cold, snow-bound Sunday morning, or in a clinical setting at the Salon des Vins de Loire, or tasting one barrel sample after another at the Bordeaux primeurs, dashing from one appointment to the next, are all very different scenarios to how I will eventually drink the wine. I’ve always regarded wine as something to drink with a meal (and before and after it) but the principal purpose of wine is to highlight, accentuate and complement the meal (and vice versa – the food should bring out the better features of the wine). I suspect the same is true for most Winedoctor readers, who are probably just as food-interested as you are wine-interested. But I know some see wine differently – as a beverage of relaxation, with a bottle open in front of the fire or the TV, rather than something for the dining table. For me, a positive tasting note on the 2003 – from my clinical tasting – would be misleading, as it doesn’t work in the context I want it to – with food. But for the consumer sitting with an open bottle, the lower acid of the 2003 may well make it the best option.

Bearing this in mind, it seems that tasting notes from wine reviewers/critics have to be taken with a pinch of salt (or perhaps an even larger pinch of salt than the one you already use). Not only do they represent one palate’s opinion of a wine at one point in its evolution, but they may often be falsely negative/positive based on the context of the tasting and how that relates to your use of the wine. I wonder if the ideal method of wine reviewing might be a series of wine with food reviews (“Twenty Muscadets with Langoustines – Which Works Best?”) rather than reams of tasting notes and scores?


It’s been pretty hectic recently, with two major Bordeaux tastings – of the 2007 and 2009 vintages  – in the last few weeks. I’ll be writing them up imminently, with 2009 first in the queue, following the UGC tasting in mid-October. But first something tangential, an aspect of wine tasting I confess I haven’t considered in any great detail before, and that’s the effect of changes in atmospheric pressure on our assessment of wine.

Low atmospheric pressue is said, by some, to have a negative effect on the taste of many wines, and although the mechanism remains up for debate the most commonly proffered explanation is related to carbon dioxide moving out of solution with the arrival of low pressure (taking with it freshness and vigour) and moving into solution with the arrival of high pressure (reinvigorating the wine). Why would my mind turn to this, at a tasting of Bordeaux 2009 at two years of age? Simple; the tasting prompted me to think back to the 2009 primeur tastings in April 2010 when, in their Bordeaux 2009 reports, the low atmospheric pressure system which passed over Bordeaux during the tastings was reported as negatively influencing the showing of the wines by a number of critics. Perhaps the most notable comment on the effect of the low pressure system was from James Suckling, who has such tasting acuity he felt the wines change as the clouds rolled in, as documented in this blog post. And similar comments came from Robert Parker, in his Bordeaux 2009 report, but in this case describing the beneficial effect of the higher atmospheric pressure and clearer skies that blessed Bordeaux a week or two before the primeurs proper got underway, the wines tasting bright and fresh as a result. I would link to his comments, but they sit behind a paywall so there seems little point. They are within the introduction to his Bordeaux 2009 primeurs report, if you are interested.

Reviewing the atmospheric pressure over Bordeaux during the primeurs week in April 2010, however, suggests a story rather more complex than some have suggested. On the Sunday, as the main week of tastings kicked off, the pressure was a very reasonable 1018 mbar, before dropping to 1004 and 1003 mbar on Monday and Tuesday, rising again to 1010 and 1017 on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. The preceding week had seen a similar dip but also, in a similar fashion, some days where the pressure was respectable, whereas those tasting a week or two later enjoyed much higher pressures. Thus the atmospheric pressure was indeed on the low side, especially on the two days at the start of the week, although on many other days the recorded figures are, on retrospective examination, unremarkable. If you believe it is not absolute figures that are important but the changes in pressure, a detrimental fall at the start of the week was more than matched by a beneficial climb thereafter.

Either way, these figures look less than convincing to me. First of all, if the atmospheric pressure really has such an important effect, why did I not see (of course, I may have missed it – please let me know if any critics commented on this) reports that the wines tasted later in the week were showing much better than earlier in the week. Secondly, taking the measurements at face value, the pressure certainly varied, but these are very small changes. How likely is it that they would influence carbon dioxide solubility at all?

A little research led me to any number of documents and publications, but I will link to just one, the most useful and pertinent I feel, which is this paper, The Solubility of Carbon Dioxide in Water at Low Pressure (links to pdf, so you will need Adobe Acrobat if you click this link), published on the National Institute of Standards and Technology website. It’s from 1991, but as the laws of the universe haven’t changed too much in the last two decades, I think it is still relevant. “Low” in the context of this paper, by the way, means less than 1 Megapascal (which is 10 times atmospheric pressure) – you would be surprised how many papers focused on pressures much higher than this.

Looking at the paper, Figure 4 is the most important for my argument. To save you clicking through, I’ve reproduced it here, without the authors’ permission, I hope they will forgive me that.

Normal atmospheric pressure is 1013 mbar, so just above 0.1 MPa on the pressure axis going up the left-hand side (which is a logarithmic rather than linear scale, by the way). Trace the line across and you will see this corresponds, using the 20ºC plot, to a carbon dioxide solubility about 0.07 mol%. Now, consider these two situations:

(a) how wine tastes in an aircraft. It has long been held that wine does not taste as good at altitude, even in commercial airliners where the cabin is pressurised. Let’s suppose this is related to reduced carbon dioxide solubility because of the lower pressure within aircraft – although pressurised, they are not pumped up to 1013 mbar. Instead, a figure of 750-800 mbar would be more typical – that is why your ears still pop as you ascend and descend. Find 0.075 MPa (i.e. 750 mbar) on the Pressure axis on the left and, again using the 20ºC line, you will see this corresponds to a solubility of about 0.05 mol% – about a 30% reduction. I might be prepared to believe, therefore, that changes in taste of a wine under these conditions might be due to carbon dioxide solubility. It’s not proof, I’m merely suggesting plausibility.

(b) now consider this – Bordeaux primeurs, March-April 2010 vs Bordeaux UGC tasting, October 18th 2011. Let’s take the lowest pressure for the former, from the data presented above, which was 1003 mbar, or 0.1003 MPa. The latter figure, taken at midday on October 18th 2011 in London, was just a shade over 1010 mbar  (0.101 MPa) – I’m using this figure as I haven’t heard any comments about how bad the wines tasted on the day, but you could take a higher figure if you wish – my argument would still hold. Look at the Pressure axis – both figures lie a mere hair’s-breadth above the 0.1 MPa marker. Tracing across to the 20ºC line illustrates that carbon dioxide solubility is essentially the same, about 0.07 mol%. In other words, no big change. A fraction different. I really do doubt that such minute alterations could have such a profound effect on the taste of a wine. I’m not saying I have disproved it, of course, but there is certainly a lack of plausibility here.

My conclusion is that if you believe the taste of a wine is negatively affected by low pressure weather systems, you might need to find a better explanation than carbon dioxide solubility. Big changes (such as on an aircraft) might have some effect, but I’m dubious about atmospheric fluctuations. The taste of a wine is an interaction between palate and wine, and I wonder whether weather doesn’t have more of an effect on the owner of the palate, than on the wine. This is particularly important when considering conditions during the London tasting, where tasters ‘endured’ pressures very similar to those during the primeurs (1010 mbar vs 1003 mbar), and yet I do not think we will be reading reports of how difficult the wines at the UGC event were to taste from all the acute and sensitive palates in attendance. 

After all, it’s easy to comment on how atmospheric pressure affects your ability to taste, assess and comment when you need to generate a ‘story’ about the vintage, and outside there are gales blowing and rivers are bursting their banks (as was the case in Bordeaux in March-April 2010), but when the cues aren’t there (mild Autumn day in in London, October 2011), I don’t think it is such a prominent thought in many minds. Even though atmospheric pressure on the day of the tasting in London in 2011 was very similar to that experienced in Bordeaux in 2010.

Maybe some of these pressure-sensitive palates aren’t quite so sensitive after all?

The Roederers: Who Will Win?

Well, not me for a start.

I think there’s a tendency to maintain a muted air of disinterest about the annual Roederer Wine Writing Awards. I can think of several experiences where a UK-based writer has feigned unawareness (“…oh really, there are wine writing awards, who would have thought it? Oh, and an online category too?” – and this was after the closing date) only for me to see them go on to be shortlisted. Is this to avoid having egg on your face if you don’t make the shortlist, I wonder? How vain.

The Roederers started up four years ago, if memory serves me correctly. Their inaugural year was the first time a specific ‘online’ category was introduced, and thus the first time I entered. The next year I didn’t have time, and the year after I am unsure, but think I probably entered. This year I know I entered, because for the first time I’ve been shortlisted for an award.

The award ceremony is this evening, and even though it is a slog for me (5 hours on the train there, and an overnight sleeper – or ‘don’t-get-much-sleeper’ as I think of it – for the return journey) I’m going, even in the face of certainty (and I mean certainty) that I won’t win. Why go then? Well, I think it is an honour to be shortlisted, and I’m glad to go, show my face, and acknowledge their acknowledgement, if you see what I mean.

Here are the categories I entered:

Category 6 – International Wine Website of the Year 2011
(not shortlisted)

Tim Atkin M.W. – www.timatkin.com
Tom Cannavan – www.wine-pages.com
Jamie Goode – www.wineanorak.com
Neal Martin – www.erobertparker.com (Neal Martin’s Wine Journal)

Category 7 – online Wine Columnist / Blogger of the Year 2011

Tim Atkin M.W. – Various from www.timatkin.com
Alice Feiring – Various from The Feiring Line www.alicefeiring.com
Jamie Goode – Various from www.wineanorak.com
Chris Kissack – Various from www.thewinedoctor.com
Peter Richards M.W. – Various from www.winchesterwineschool.com

Predictions? I am loath to make any, the only certainty in my head being that, against some stiff competition, I won’t win. I think this might also be the first time Neal Martin has been shortlisted, so I wish him well, but Tim, Tom and Jamie all have strong reputations, the latter two for their online work (and this is an award for the website note) especially. As for the blogging category, I think it is probably a three-horse race between Tim, Alice and Jamie. But who knows? I suppose only one thing is sure; at least the Champagne being poured should be good!

The Nonsense of Scores

It might seem a little hackneyed to talk about wine scores but I’ve certainly been thinking about the validity of scoring this week, in part stimulated by this website, Score Revolution. Although to be fair on me I’ve long had concerns about scores, how they are used by critics and by consumers, and the effect they have had on the world of wine.

The Score Revolution site proposes an anti-score manifesto; as the manifesto goes, “if wine is, as we believe, a subjective, subtle, and experiential thing, then by nature it is unquantifiable“. That’s an anti-point message; I think some people have interpreted it as an anti-critic manifesto, but that isn’t the case, as the manifesto continues “To discuss a wine’s tannins, acid, balance, structure, fruit, etc, is essential. To share our thoughts and experiences with other humans is arguably one of the most important parts of drinking wine. To introduce a score to this process is condescending, overly simplistic, and often largely inaccurate.” The aim seems to be to shift the emphasis away from scores, and to develop greater respect for the wine and what it is trying to say.

There are certainly many ridiculous facets to the process of scoring wine. Some which particularly bother me include:

(A) A score is taken by many as an intrinsic, inherent quality of the wine, as embodied by the phrase “that’s a 98-point wine”. Wrong. Scores actually rate to an interaction, not the wine itself, and other people may have very different opinions. I know of MWs and critics working for important international journals who subscribe to this ‘intrinsic’ view, who gain solace from tasting in groups and rating the wine the same as their peers, as if a different opinion somehow meant there was something wrong with their palate, or more likely the other taster’s palate. It’s all pretty nonsensical, and a good reason why I continue on using my little 20-point scale, rather than switching to 100 points as many have done. I could go on about this perhaps flawed thought process of mine at length, but will save expanding on this particular point for another day.

(B) Scores are increasingly clumsy. Because critics tend to score higher and higher, for various reasons (including genuinely ‘better’ wines, whatever ‘better’ might mean to that critic, but also the need for hyperbole to ‘sell’ their opinions and scores over those of other critics) there is an increasingly narrow range of scores available. The 100-point scale only runs from 89 to 100. This ‘grade inflation’ towards a self-imposed ceiling of 100 points means that today, rather than aiding communication, the 100-point system actually inhibits sensible reporting.

(C) Scores are increasingly inadequate. As wine quality improves, the chance of a bottle of top-class Bordeaux or Burgundy disappointing simply because of bad winemaking (whether it be poor fruit selection, too high a yield, dirty infected barrels or whatever) is less likely than ever. Looking at Bordeaux as an example, vintage variation is more narrow and even in poor years such as 2007 the chateaux work hard to make a decent (if ultimately over-priced) wine. What is more important today in determining whether you enjoy a wine or not is style; that is greatly varied and certainly merits description, which a numerical report can’t do. Some indication of structure, how the wine feels in the mouth, is far more important to me than (a) any description of flavour and (b) any score. In other words, the old adage that you have to read the tasting note and not just look at the score is more true today than ever before. It also helps if you understand your own preferences. Understanding those of the critic in question also helps, but if they write a decent descriptive note then the reader can at least understand the style of the wine; I’ve long tried to do that (and I know I go on about the flavours as well, but that’s as much for my benefit as anyone else’s!).

Having said that, I do find scores beneficial for me personally. My own scores that is, not anyone else’s! That is because descriptive notes such as mine sometimes look like an uncertain judgement; you can read them, and find yourself asking at the end “yes, but did you actually like it?”. Years later, returning to the note, I might ask myself the same question. Scores remind me (and could inform you too) of whether that is the case. What I don’t mean them to be is a persistent judgement on the wine into the future, or seen as some inherent characteristic of the wine, nor are they meant to describe the wine’s style. They do indicate in an admittedly blunt manner what I felt about the quality of the wine though, alongside my notes which describe the style. Seen like that, with an appropriately relaxed eye, they seem less evil to me. Having said that though, I come down on the side of the anti-score manifesto. We certainly need more emphasis on the wine, its origin, what it says of the terroir and what experiences it might offer us, and we should focus less on some inadequate attempt to provide a numerical representation of all that.

Roederer Awards: shortlisted!

So my ‘Thank you’ to Philippe Vatan has turned out to be not quite the final post before my summer break after all. Just hours from my departure to Tuscany, I am absolutely delighted to learn I have been shortlisted in the Roederer 2011 Awards, in the online columnist/blogger category.

I always wondered what it would feel like to be shortlisted for something – now I know! It feels great, I am delighted to be listed alongside such erudite writers. In my category, these include Tim Atkin MW, Jamie Goode, Alice Feiring and Peter Richards MW. So the competition is stiff, and I wouldn’t place any bets on me to win! But to be shortlisted is a really welcome accolade. As I said, I’m delighted!

For the full shortlist in all categories, see here.