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Bill Zacharkiw: Heres the score on scoring wines

Time:2016-11-13 23:07wine - Red wine life health Click:

wines score Bill Zacharkiw Heres

This email recently arrived in my inbox:

“I’ve been following you in the Gazette since you started. One thing I’ve noticed is you seem to have become less precise in the way you explain wines in your tasting notes. You now say red or black fruits as opposed to naming them. I like comparing what I smell to what you did, and it helped develop my wine tasting. And you still do not score wines; I believe you are one of the few critics who doesn’t. Are you getting lazy?”

Great letter. No, I don’t believe I’m getting lazy with regards to either tasting notes or scoring wines. The day before I received this email, I had another heated debate about my unwillingness to score wines.

I know people who only buy wines that have received over 90 points. The Société des alcools du Québec has a similar approach when choosing wines to list. It gives preference to wines that receives a 90-point or more benediction from what it considers a trusted publication.

After nine years as the Gazette wine critic — and almost 15 years of publishing wine reviews — I still refuse to do it. The reason: The system is loaded with false precision. What is the real difference between an 89-point wine and 90? What are the criteria by which a wine is being judged?

There are a number of scoring systems out there, but whether a wine is rated out of 100 or 20 or 10 points, they all share the same inherent problems. One is whether a wine should be judged in absolute terms or relative to its category. How should value be considered in the equation? I faced this dilemma this week.

I tasted a Muscadet that I found exceptional for its $20 price, as well as a very good Napa Valley chardonnay at $80. There is no question the chardonnay was richer and had more going on in terms of aromatics. But is that inherently worth more than the Muscadet, which showed a precise minerality and a purity of fruit that I found exceptional?

Both wines are highly recommendable. Should they have the same score? Should the Muscadet have a higher score because it offers up so much pleasure for a relatively small price? I know many critics would balk at the idea that a very good $80 wine could receive an equal score to a $20 wine.

“Absolute” quality is a moving target. Current fashion has a lot to do with perceived quality. One hundred years ago, the most sought after wines were sweet. At the turn of this century, dry red table wines that showed intense concentration, high alcohol and lots of oak were awarded the highest scores. Today, these same wines are seen as anachronistic by many critics and wine lovers.

I would say “drinkability” has replaced “concentration” as one of the most important qualities of what is considered a great wine. If concentration has replaced drinkability, or the equally relative term “balance,” then is it complexity and ability to age that makes a chardonnay inherently better than a Muscadet?

Complexity is good, sometimes. Gewürztraminer is naturally more complex than chardonnay, but I would guess few wine lovers or critics would put the two grapes on the same level of nobility. Why? Again, current fashion. Most gewürztraminers have residual sugar; unlike 100 years ago, dry whites are more sought after.

There is no absolute or Platonic Form of what greatness should be. Personally I have many more uses for Muscadet than chardonnay. If versatility should be part of the equation, then the edge goes to Muscadet. But again, if you are simply looking at a number, and do not know in what context the person scores a wine, then what does that number really mean?

Another problem: These judgements are a “moment in time.” They are snapshots often taken after a couple of sips. Wines change. I have re-tasted wines a day after opening that were far better than they were upon opening.

When should a wine be judged? Many believe every wine should be served at the same temperature, in the same type of glass, and after an equal amount of aeration — that to make things “fair,” we need a level playing ground. This is what happens at all competitions and large scale tastings.

But changing any of these factors can have a huge effect. Some red wines will shine when served in a Riedel Ouverture tasting glass at 16C. Others won’t.

Inherent in any scoring system is precision. We critics have years of experience and can imagine what a wine could be if served in a manner that would highlight its qualities. And yet, that is speculation.

Speculation is rife within the world of critics. Most of the highest scores are given to wines that aren’t even ready to drink, like high-end Bordeaux. I have tasted my fair share of young cabernet-sauvignon-based wines that are arguably painful and little fun to drink. Some critics, I imagine, are basing their scores on the wines’ potential.

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