What is a great wine? This question has been asked of more experienced wine connoisseurs many times by people that are just acquiring a taste or interest in wine. When experienced wine connoisseurs evaluate a wine we go through a personal judging sequence such as the one described below:
- Evaluate the color and appearance of the wine.
- Quickly smell to get a first impression. Gently swirl your glass to open the wine and smell again to get the aroma and bouquet as the wine.
- Take a fair amount of wine into your mouth and chew so all the taste buds can come into contact with the wine and the tactile receptors in your mouth can sense the wine.
- Gently breathe air through the wine to volatilize the flavors. Then swish the wine around the mouth. Spit the wine out to detect flavors of acidity and tannins.
- After taste an overall impression can be achieved by taking a small amount of wine into your mouth and swallowing. Fine wines are judged on how long the flavor lasts in the mouth before it decays and disappears.
As a note, it is very important when tasting wines to avoid pungent smells, perfume, after shave, scented lotions, scented candles, etc as they will interfere with the process of smelling and evaluating wines.
Now that we have established the process that we use for evaluating wines, go back to the original question, “What is a great wine”? Many wine enthusiasts have been asked to recommend a good wine from time to time. When we provide a recommendation, what are we basing it on–our own personal taste or are we looking at it from the prospective of the person asking?
Many years ago, I was asked to select two wines for a gentleman and his wife of which neither were experienced with wines. I asked a price range they were willing to spend and to my surprise the response was $200. My first thought was that he could buy 8-10 bottles of different wines and acquire some appreciation as well as an idea of what they like or dislike. Since he wanted two good wines, my selection was based recommending wines that were going to provide a fabulous experience without approaching his $200 budget. Based on that I selected the Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) and Belle Glos Pinot Noir ($40). Both of these wines have a fine reputation and I hope they enjoyed and appreciated the wines as I do.
So here is the dilemma for the wine aficionado: How do we rate wines? Do we use the 100 point rating system (RP, WA & WS)? Below is John Vankat’s (author of the Pocket Wine List) opinion of the 100 point system.
Wine Numbers Numbers, numbers, numbers.
You see and hear wine numbers everywhere.
Robert Parker gave this cabernet an 89. This chardonnay was rated 91 by the Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast said 86 for this zin. I’ve been thinking about wine numbers ever since the “Chardonnay Challenge” appeared as a Wine Spectator cover story. The Challenge involved two tasters, one an expert on California and the other on Burgundy. They compared 20 California and 19 French chardonnays in a blind tasting, using the standard 100-point evaluation scale.
Sure, it was interesting to see which region “won” (it was California, by a nose). But to me the most interesting result was that the two experts differed greatly in their evaluations of the same wines. Of course the experts sometimes agreed, but only on two of 39 wines — and they were one point apart on just two others. The differences? Well they ranged up to 13 points and averaged 5.1 points.
Five points in wine scoring is enormous. The difference between 89 and 94 for example would be the difference between good and spectacular sales. Ask any wine store. It’s BIG. And the differences weren’t due to the regional preferences of the two experts. No, the differences were due to the subjective nature of wine tasting.
So what do we take home from the fact that experts don’t agree? First, unless your genes and your environment have fortuitously provided you with exactly the same tastes as a wine expert, don’t be obsessed with numbers and depend solely on him or her to tell you what to drink.
Second, the common 100-point scale used by many wine periodicals is misleading, especially when the evaluations come from a panel of reviewers. For example, one of the chardonnays evaluated in Wine Spectator received ratings of 95 and 82 from the two experts. A tasting panel would average these and give a rating of 89, but note that this value doesn’t convey anyone’s perception of the wine.
So should wine drinkers believe that there are real differences between wines rated 1, 2, or even several points apart by a tasting panel? Obviously not. But I’m not condemning wine evaluation; we all need advice in selecting from the hundreds of new wines released each week. What I am condemning is the assumption that there is precision behind the numbers of a 100 point scale. Can you imagine Siskel & Ebert giving TITANIC 96 thumbs up? And then giving AS GOOD AS IT GETS 95 thumbs — as though that was a meaningful difference?
No, I’d use the 0-100 numbers only as a general guide. In fact, I’d convert them to an A-B-C or 1 to 5 stars grading system. At Wine PocketList, we grade on an A+, A, A-, and B+ scale. Anything lower and what good is a recommendation? But an A- wine at a great price makes it worth a taste. I’d also ask wine periodicals to give us some help with this. Show people that wine evaluation is not an exact science and replace the inaccurate, deceptive 100-point evaluation scale with a simpler scale that is more likely to express genuine differences. Something everyday wine drinkers can understand, and use. In short, get real.
John Vankat, PhD Founder
The Wine PocketList
I agree with John Vankat that unless the people judging these wines have the same palate as yours or mine, paying extra money for a 95 point rated wine may be ridiculous. I found from personal experience that when I was brewing beer for competition, I had to increase the alcohol and the hops in order to gain recognition from the judges and win awards. This is not the way I like to brew beer for my own personal consumption. I have never been a hop-head. That is why I enjoy Belgian, English, Scottish and German beers. The hops are subtle in these styles adding slight character and balance without feeling like I just bit into a grapefruit.
During an East Coast Grape of the Night meeting, a comparison was made of two top Australian Shiraz wines, Molly Dooker Boxer and R Winery First Class. I could not say that one was better than the other. The Molly Dooker Boxer was a syrupy heavily extracted fruit bomb wine that had a long lingering finish. The R Winery First Class was more subtle, reminding me more of a French style wine, slightly dry in the finish with well defined flavors on the palate.
One member of our group stated that the Molly Dooker Boxer would pair well with a large, juicy steak adding that he would be in ecstasy. Obviously, he favored the Boxer. After some thought, my opinion was that it would depend on the situation and mood. I would serve the First Class with a large juicy steak due to its elegance and have the Boxer while sitting in front of the fireplace on a rainy day. Are either of us right or wrong? Go back to the article by Vankat: IT DEPENDS ON YOUR PALATE. My rating on these two wines at the Grape of the Night meeting were both #1 on their own merits. The caveat being the criteria that I explained above.
I love the R Wineries Boarding Pass and First Class Shiraz. The Boarding Pass is an inexpensive wine ($16) that I open during the week. The First Class I tend to enjoy more on the weekends or with guests that appreciate wines. The First Class seems to be more structured and balanced with a unique complexity compared to the Boarding Pass. The fruits are well defined and the lingering flavor has the essence of finely layered fruits. First Class and Boarding Pass, in my eyes, are great wines and bang for the buck they are a must have in your wine collection. I also cannot pass up the bold flavors of the heavily extracted Molly Dooker Boxer, another must have.
What are your opinions? Does the rating system provide the criteria in the selection of your wines? Do you favor a particular judge, such as Robert Parker, over others? What is your method for judging a wine? The debate continues.