Some Thoughts on Wine Ratings

A wine rating is a summary of the appraisal of a wine by one or more critics, most notoriously Robert Parker, who assigns ‘Parker points’ on a scale of 0 to 100—although the lowest possible score is 50, scores of less than 70 are rare, and scores of less than 80 are uncommon. Since the 1970s, the practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale has proliferated. Other scales, including 0-to-20 and 0-to-5 (sometimes featuring stars in lieu of numbers), are also frequently used. Certain websites enable consumers to emulate critics by contributing to ‘community’ notes and scores. In competitions, wines are generally tasted blind by a panel of critics, usually alongside other wines from the same appellation or region. In theory, a rating is merely intended to supplement a tasting note; in practice, the tasting note—if it even exists—is often ignored or omitted, with the wine reduced to nothing more than a headline number.

Wine ratings convey information quickly and simply, guiding the purchasing decisions of novices in particular. Assuming strict single-blind conditions at the time of tasting, they reflect performance rather than price or pedigree. Scores can easily be compared, which encourages producers to compete and improve their offerings, and rewards them for doing so. Wines with 90-plus points are much more likely to shift, and those with scores in the high 90s can develop cult followings. Château Tirecul la Gravière in Monbazillac became an overnight reference after Robert Parker gave 100 points to its 1995 Cuvée Madame.

However, wine ratings can be criticized on the triple grounds of concept, procedure, and consequences. While a numerical score can come across as scientific, it merely reflects the personal preferences and prejudices of one or several critics, and it may be that grading wines is as misguided as ranking people in a beauty pageant. For what is beauty, and can it be measured on a stage? Like the contestants in the pageant, the wines are often very young, and scores cannot fully account for the delights and disappointments that they are yet to reveal. In any case, the most beautiful girl or boy is probably not on stage, but sitting at home buried in the Nicomachean Ethics. Many hallowed producers shun competitions, partly on ideological grounds, but mostly because they have little to gain and much to lose.

Scores are influenced not only by personal preferences and prejudices, but also by the context and conditions of the tasting, and, in a panel, by the group dynamics, with junior judges exquisitely sensitive to every ‘um’ and ‘aah’ of the distinguished panel chair. The number that comes out of this process might be of existential import to the producer, who has toiled for a year, indeed, several years, to make his or her wine, but reflects no more than a few seconds of tasting with no or very little time for discussion and debate. In competitions, there is also a financial incentive to dish out medals, which encourage further paid entries and increase sales of medal stickers.

As for consequences, wines with the highest scores fall prey to speculators and are traded like financial commodities, effectively removing them from the market-place. More gravely, ratings tend to favour the sort of wines that are able to stand out on a fatigued, tannin-coated palate, at the expense of more delicate wines, which are likely to be more elegant, more interesting, more faithful to terroir, and better suited to the table. This phenomenon has contributed in no small measure to the homogenization, or ‘Parkerization’, of wine styles as producers vie to obtain the highest scores—though Robert Parker himself stepped back significantly in 2016.

Wine ratings have played an important role in the rise of wine culture, but their grip seems to be loosening, if not quite fading, as consumers become more and more experienced and knowledgeable. To me, a score of 98 can also function as a signal for caution.

Adapted from The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Advertisements

The Wines of the Mâconnais

The rock of Solutré

The climate of the Mâconnais is considerably warmer than that of Chablis or even the Côte d’Or. The relief is not as marked as in the Côte d’Or, and vineyards are mixed in with other forms of farming. The most reputed wines are from the south of Mâcon, in an area that rises into three limestone peaks: the Mont de Pouilly, the Roche de Solutré, and the Roche de Vergisson. The Roche de Solutré, which is a prehistoric and pilgrimage site, is picturesque, and well worth the gentle hike to its 493m summit.

Chardonnay predominates in the Mâconnais, but some Gamay and Pinot Noir are also found, especially in areas that are richer in sand and clay. The regional appellations are Mâcon, Mâcon-Villages (white wines only), and Mâcon + commune name. In addition, there are five commune-specific appellations (white wines only): Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, and Saint Véran to the south of Mâcon, and Viré-Clessé to the north. The vines are pruned as simple Guyot, with the cane trained in an arc (en arcure), which helps to delay budding (especially of terminal buds) and protect against frost.

Compared to Beaune, most Mâcon is simple and easy to drink, and unlikely to improve with age. That said, certain villages and producers have built a solid reputation and can offer great value for money. The limestone peaks of the Pouilly area belie the geological complexity of the surrounding terroir, with numerous faults and dips associated with at least fifteen distinct soil types. Some of the vineyards around the three peaks are deserving of Premier Cru status, and, in a first for the Mâconnais, there is a project to introduce about twenty. In 1866, Dr Jules Guyot wrote a report for the French ministry of agriculture in which he compared the potential of Meursault to that of Pouilly-Fuissé, and it’s interesting that he put it that way round.

The plan for Premier Crus

As with Chablis, much Mâcon is unoaked. However, Mâcon is less acidic than Chablis. Compared to Beaune and especially to Chablis, it is deeper in colour with riper aromas and a fuller body. The Pouilly wines, which are often lightly oaked, tend to be richer and riper on the one hand, and finer and more complex on the other. Owing to their sought-after smoky, flinty, or ‘wet stone’ character (goût de pierre à fusil), they are, I think, easier to confuse with Chablis than with Beaune. Pouilly-Vinzelles (~40ha) and Pouilly-Loché (~30ha) are exclaves of the much larger Pouilly-Fuissé (~760ha) and the wines from the three appellations are very similar in style. Vinzelles with its two castles was known to the Romans, who called it Vincella, or ‘Small Vine’. The soils in Vinzelles tend to be more ferrous, which can translate into spicier, broader wines. Neighbouring Loché can be labelled as Vinzelles, and is harder to find. Saint-Véran envelopes Pouilly-Fuissé like a scarf (or, to be more precise, like a bun) with wines that tend to a leaner, fresher style. Owing to an administrative cock-up in 1971, the village name is ‘Saint-Vérand’ but the appellation ‘Saint-Véran’, without the ‘d’. Viré-Clessé to the north of Mâcon varies in style, but the best examples, especially from Viré, are easily mistaken for Pouilly-Fuissé—as are the best examples from Saint-Véran.

Notable producers in the Mâconnais include Domaine de la Soufrandière and the related négoce Bret Brothers (very classic regional style), Guffens-Heynen and the related négoce Verget, Ferret, Valette, Chagnoleau, and Rijckaert. It’s all too easy to underestimate the Mâconnais, but the best wines can be as good as anything in Burgundy, at a fraction of the price.

And that’s saying something.

A Technical Guide to Food and Wine Pairing

Food and wine can have a synergistic relationship, such that the wine improves the food and the food the wine, unleashing the full taste potential of both. In many European wine regions, the wine styles and culinary traditions developed reciprocally such that the wines naturally pair with the regional fare. Many of these so-called ‘food wines’ can seem overly tart or tannic if drunk independently, but come into their own once paired with food, and, in particular, those dishes that they co-evolved with. If you respect these time-honoured pairings, you are unlikely to go wrong.

Otherwise, you need to choose what to put into focus: the food or the wine. For instance, if it is the wine that you wish to emphasize, pick a dish that is slightly lighter and complements rather than competes with it. Take care not to pick a dish that is too light or it will be overwhelmed by the wine: although you want the wine to lead, you want the dish to follow closely behind. If it is the food that you wish to emphasize, you are effectively using the wine as a sauce or spice. In all instances, the wine and the food should interact synergistically, with the wine bringing out the best in the food, and the food the best in the wine. This is certainly the case with such classic pairings as Muscadet and oysters, Claret and lamb, and Sauternes and Roquefort.

Taste, however, is subjective, and there cannot and should not be rigid rules for pairing foods and wines. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the wine lover is in experimenting with combinations and, in so doing, multiplying the flavours, textures, and sensations of everyday life. That said, you do need to be versed in the principles that you may, or may not, decide to break.

First, identify the dominant component of your dish. For example, the dominant component of fish served in a creamy sauce is more likely to be the sauce than the fish itself. Then pick a wine that either complements or contrasts with the dominant component. Examples of complementary pairings are: a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with sole in a lemon sauce, an earthy Pinot Noir with mushroom vol-au-vents, a peppery Syrah with a steak in peppercorn sauce, and a nutty Vin Jaune with Comté cheese.

Four important elements to bear in mind are weight, acidity, tannins, and sweetness. The weight and texture of a wine is determined by such factors as alcohol level, amount of extract and tannin, and winemaking processes such as extended maceration, lees ageing, and oaking. In general, lighter wines pair with lighter foods, whereas heavier, more robust wines pair with heavier, more rustic foods. Good examples of pairings by weight are Chardonnay and lobster or Chardonnay and roast chicken.

Acidity stimulates appetite and cuts through heaviness, explaining the success of such contrasting pairings as Sancerre and goat cheese, Alsatian Riesling and pork belly, and Tokaj and foie gras. In all cases, the wine must be at least as acidic as the dish, and preferably more so: if not, the wine is going to seem thin or insipid.

Tannins can lend chalkiness or grittiness to a wine, and also bitter astringency. Tannins bind to and react with proteins in food, by which process they are ‘softened’. While tannic wines go hand in hand with red meats and cheeses, they pair poorly with spicy or sweet dishes, which can accentuate their bitterness and astringency, and also with fish oils, which can make them taste ‘metallic’.

A sweet dish requires a wine that is just as sweet or sweeter if the wine is not to be overpowered. Sweetness balances heat and spiciness, and also contrasts with saltiness, as, for example, in the case of port and blue cheese. Conversely, alcohol accentuates the heat in spicy food and vice versa. So much explains why Mosel Riesling, which is both high in residual sugar and low in alcohol, is often an excellent choice for spicy food. However, very spicy food will overwhelm almost any wine, so pair with some other beverage such as water, tea, beer, or lassi. Some foods are difficult to pair with wine, most notably chocolate, eggs, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus.

Finally, remember also to match your wine to the occasion, your companions, the season, the weather, the time of day or night, and your mood and tastes. If you are serving more than one wine, think about your line up and make it as varied or interesting or educational as possible.

And of course—even if the tasting conditions are far from ideal—serve the wines blind!

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Why Blind Taste Wine?

WINE is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, polyphenols, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the amount consumed—on mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, wine- making, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, which can be analysed and interpreted by the experienced or attentive taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label. Even our past experiences (‘I once had a lovely picnic in this vineyard’, ‘I hate Sauvignon Blanc’) and the context and conditions of the tasting (‘This room is cold’, ‘This Empire style Château is amazing’) can influence our appraisal of the wine.

While all these factors can, and inevitably do, play a part in our personal enjoyment of a wine, they can lead us to prejudice one grape variety, region, producer, vintage, etc. over another, and, ultimately, one wine over another. By holding us back from tasting different wines and thinking about wine, they limit our understanding, and so our enjoyment, of those wines and wine in general.

By far the best way to control for biases is to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass, preferably in a more or less neutral setting and without flourish or fanfare. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may be usefully compared and contrasted with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for instance, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the tasting is said to be ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

btpicture

Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Focusing on nothing else but the wines in our glasses.
  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses.
  • Applying our judgement.
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories.
  • Comparing our analysis and interpretations with those of our peers.
  • Getting it completely right, more or less right, or ‘wrong for the right reasons’.
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general.
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

In philosophy, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Wine blind tasting is the best phenomenology, phenomenology par excellence, returning us from our heads into the world, and, at the same time, teaching us the methods of the mind.

The more practically-minded among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more down-to-earth purposes: winemakers need to taste a wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their stocks; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers and patrons; and imbibers before sharing it with their friends. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of local, national, and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering into the wine trade, which is no doubt more life affirming than many other trades.

Adapted from the new third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e

I’m delighted to announce that the new, third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is now in stock and shipping from the UK warehouse.

Just in time for Christmas, phew!

Apart from some light reorganizing, refreshing, and enriching, the third edition includes new chapters on the philosophy of wine, Greece, and Georgia, and new sections on Savoie, Irouléguy, Corsica, and Montilla-Moriles. Following recent research trips, I have reworked the chapters on Austria, Burgundy, Chile, and Hungary, and the sections on Cahors, Madiran, Jurançon, Languedoc- Roussillon, Sicily, and Sherry.

Many thanks to all those who helped me design the striking cover.

Reviews of previous editions

A comprehensive education in wine –The Times Literary Supplement

Splendid, concise, up-to-date, comprehensive and accurate –Clive Coates MW, Author of The Wines of Burgundy

Delightful yet sophisticated –Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Author of The Wines of Greece

Trustworthy and valuable –Richard Hemming MW for JancisRobinson.com

An indispensable guide –Michael Palij MW, Founder of Winetraders and Winematters

Anyone on a wine course should consider this essential reading –Thomas Parker MW, Purchaser at Farr Vintners

The Wines of Uruguay

In the 19th century, French Basque settlers brought the Tannat grape into Uruguay, a small bucolic nation to the northeast of Buenos Aires. Today, Uruguay is a welcoming, liberal, and forward-looking country with lush grasslands, virgin beaches, and no traffic jams. Cattle, mostly reared on grass, outnumber people by four-to-one, and an invitation to stay for lunch typically takes the form of “Would you like an entrecôte?”Many people assume that Uruguay is a tropical country, but, at 35 degrees South, the capital of Montevideo shares a similar latitude to Colchagua in Chile, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, and McLaren Vale in Australia. Uruguay is at the northern end of the cold Falklands Current, and the Atlantic Ocean exerts a strong moderating influence, as does the immense Plata Estuary at the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. Indeed, the climate in and around Montevideo is often compared to that of Bordeaux, although average temperature and average rainfall are both higher. The most common training systems are espaldera alta (VSP) and lyre to mitigate against high humidity and minimize frost damage.

The terrain in Uruguay is mostly flat or gently undulating. The coastal and more populated south of the country accounts for some 90% of production, and the Canelones department around Montevideo accounts for some two-thirds of that. The soils in Canelones are for the most part limestone clay. Other centres of viticulture include Carmelo near the Argentine border, and Garzón to the east in the Maldonado department. Garzón is noted for its rockier granitic soils and slightly cooler climate and has seen some heavy investment especially from Argentina.

IMG_1829
No expenses spared at Bodega Garzón

Uruguay counts around 180 wineries, often run by the third or fourth generation of Italian, Basque, or Catalonian settlers. From the 1970s, these families shifted from bulk to quality wine production, with a focus on Tannat which has come to account for more than a quarter of the ~6,500ha under vine. In my time in Uruguay, I tasted every possible style of Tannat, including a soft, ‘nouveau’ style made by carbonic maceration (at Pizzorno) and even a sparkling style made by traditional method double fermentation (at Pisano). The signature full-bodied style is deep purple with a heady aroma of plum and dark fruit, tobacco, leather, and petrichor. In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied with high tannins, balanced alcohol, and refreshing, multiform acidity. Compared to Madiran or Irouléguy (which are also Tannat or Tannat-dominated), it is likely to be softer, with slightly higher alcohol and more spiciness than minerality.

Other important grape varieties in Uruguay include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and I also tasted successful examples of Petit Verdot, Riesling, Syrah, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Viognier… Because there are many parallels between Garzón and Galicia, I was very curious to taste the Albariño from Bodega Garzón: compared to its Old World counterpart, it is fuller and riper, with notes of white peach, canteloupe melon, honey, fennel, sage, and cardamom, a bitter and balancing backbone, and a long and salty finish.

IMG_0375
Tasting with Pablo Fallabrino of Viñedo de los Vientos

Because Uruguay has no appellation system, the wineries have a very free hand to experiment and respond to consumer tastes. With some ‘softening’ blends, this can seem as much a curse as a blessing—by which I mean, if you’re going to put 20% Viognier into your Tannat, you might as well be making Merlot.

Unfortunately, Uruguayan wines can be hard to source. Compared to Chile and Argentina, production is small and artisanal, and the silver beaches around Punta del Este are a magnet for well-heeled (and often high-heeled) Argentine and Brazilian tourists. Still, most wineries are keen to export their wines and show the world what they can do.

Favourite producers include Pisano (the RPF range is especially good value), Antigua Bodega Stagnari (try if you can the Osiris), Bouza (pronounced ‘Bow-za’), Familia Deicas, Garzón, de Lucca, Marichal, Pizzorno, and Viñedo de los Vientos. 2018 is an exceptional vintage in Uruguay, while 2014, owing to harvest rains, is the weakest in recent years.

The Wines of Corsica

IMG_4109
Patrimonio

One of the 18 regions of France, the island of Corsica lies to the south-east of mainland France, off the coast of Tuscany and just north of Sardinia. From early antiquity, Greek colonists cultivated the vine in Corsica. In the 13th century, control of the island passed from Pisa to Genoa, and then, from 1768, to France. The following year, an Italian noblewoman Maria Letizia Buonaparte gave birth to a boy, Napoleon, in Ajaccio—now the island’s capital. In the wake of the Algerian War (1954-1962) many pied-noirs resettled in Corsica, contributing to a four-fold increase in vineyard area. In recent decades, initiatives by the European Union have led to a refocussing on quality wine production, with vineyard area falling back to ~7,000ha. This being fairly limited, Corsican wines do not come cheap. But progress in recent years has been phenomenal, and the best examples are worth the outlay.

Corsica is very mountainous, and vineyards tend to be planted nearer the coast. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and short, mild winters, although the shifting landscape allows for a range of mesoclimates. The sea moderates temperatures, while the mountains can significantly increase diurnal temperature range. The main threat to the harvest comes from heat and drought. Most of the island is granitic, but the Cap Corse peninsula in the far north is rich in schist, Patrimonio just south of Cap Corse is rich in limestone clay, and Bonifacio in the far south is rich in chalky limestone.

The catch-all Ile de Beauté IGP accounts for more than half of the island’s production. The generic Vin de Corse AOP also covers the entire island. Subject to stricter rules, five areas can append their names to the Vin de Corse AOP: Coteaux du Cap Corse, Calvi, Sartène, Figari, and Porto Vecchio. Patrimonio and Ajaccio have their own AOPs. Finally, there is an AOP for Muscat du Cap Corse, a vin doux naturel made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Production of Muscat du Cap Corse is small, but the wine can impress, with notes of rose petal, orange blossom, litchi, and honey, high but balanced acidity and smoky minerality. Rarer still from Cap Corse is Rappu, a red vin doux naturel made from the Aleatico grape, which is also behind Elba Aleatico Passito DOCG.

A Pieretti vineyard on Cap Corse

About half of Corsican wine is rosé, a third red, and the remainder white, although, compared to the cooperatives, leading producers tend to make proportionally less rosé. One producer sought to justify his rosé production by saying, “A Ferrari is not much good without petrol.” By far the most important grape varieties are Nielluccio (Sangiovese) and Sciacarello (Mammolo) for reds and rosés, and Vermentino (Rolle) for whites. Reds and rosés made under Vin de Corse AOP must include at least 50% Nielluccio, Sciacarello, and Grenache. Patrimonio reds and rosés are heavily dominated by Nielluccio, which does best on calcareous soils. Sciacarello on the other hand does best on granitic soils, and is the leading variety in Ajaccio and the south. Producers are enthusiastic about local varieties, including rarer varieties such as Bianco Gentile, Aleatico, Morescola, Morescono, Montanaccia, Carcajolo Nero… One producer I visited had been grafting Vermentino onto 50-year-old Grenache because “we don’t want to drown in the Rhône”. Nielluccio is bold and structured with notes of black fruit, tomato leaf, and maquis herbs. It is often blended with Sciacarello, which is lighter, with notes of red fruits, almonds, and coffee or pepper. Corsican whites are often 100% Vermentino. They are typically pale in colour, with notes of grapefruit, peach, almond, flowers, fennel, and anise, with balanced acidity and a bitter finish. Depending on terroir, they can be either rich or mineral. The unblended Bianco Gentile from Yves Leccia in Patrimonio is fresh yet mouthfilling, with notes of lemon, beeswax, chamomile, popcorn, and smoke.

Some favourite producers in Corsica include Pieretti and Clos Nicrosi in Cap Corse, Domaine Arena and Yves Leccia in Patrimonio, and, further south, Jean-Charles Abbatucci, Yves Canarelli, Clos Culombu (try the Storia di cuvées), and Domaine Vaccelli (try the Granit cuvées). Abbatucci and Canarelli are leading the revival of rarer varieties and, in the case of Canarelli, the limestone terroir of Bonifacio. At the time of writing, there are about 150 independent producers in Corsica, but just five in Cap Corse and three in Bonifacio, highlighting the unrealized potential of this serene island.