Several years back, I was invited to be a panelist at the World Vinifera Conference in Seattle on the subject of rating wines. Essentially we debated the value and appropriateness of the 100-point scale, and no doubt I was expected to defend the system, since I'd used it for years in my bimonthly wine-reviewing publication International Wine Cellar.
Instead, I said I'd be the last to defend converting a wine to a number and that I employed the 100-point scale simply for competitive reasons--that is, because other wine-reviewing publications used it. And I made it clear that I'd be perfectly happy to let my detailed tasting notes speak for themselves, without numbers, if other critics agreed to do the same.
Which is unlikely to happen in this particular lifetime.
As we know, all adult life is a continuation of high school. American consumers have a long history of being graded on a 100-point scale. They get it. They're less comfortable with the 20-point scale employed by important French wine critics, which is itself based on the grading system used in French high schools and universities. And forget about those four- or five-star systems, with pluses and minuses, used by some English critics. How does two stars-plus translate to the 100-point scale? When I was a budding wino, I read all the English wine criticism I could get my hands on, and invariably I found myself wondering, "yeah, but what do they really think about the quality of that wine?"
So I suspect that many consumers prefer the unambiguous "precision" of a score, even if they agree with me that a distinctive wine, like any work of art, can't be reduced to a number. I can tell you that I take scoring wines seriously and sometimes find myself agonizing over whether, say, to rate a wine 89 or 90 points (an 89 on my scale represents an excellent wine and 90 one that is borderline-outstanding). But my scores represent a shorthand assessment of a wine's quality and are meant to be used in conjunction with my descriptive tasting notes and your own predilections.
I rate wines within the context of their broadly defined categories (e.g., cabernet-based wines, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc). In addition, my own wine-tasting history of more than 30 years tells me that certain grape varieties grown in certain favored places are capable of producing wines that flirt with perfection, while others simply do not have the concentration, complexity, character and structure to rate scores higher, say, than the low 90s, or possibly even lower than that. Obviously, wines from so-called noble grapes like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay can theoretically reach 100 points. But I don't feel the same way about dolcetto, or melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet), or verdejo, much as I enjoy drinking them on a regular basis. A dolcetto I rated 92 or 93 points would be dolcetto at the top of its game, and it may be a far better wine for drinking tonight with a particular dish than a way more expensive 96-point red Burgundy that's in an awkward stage of its evolution in bottle.
So read the notes. Literate consumers buy better bottles.
Incidentally, this month's baker's dozen of worthy wines includes the first contribution from the IWC's Italian wine expert Ian D'Agata.
Pale yellow. Sharply focused aromas of lime, pink grapefruit and lemongrass, with a subtle floral overtone. Racy and spicy on the palate, accented by an array of citrus and underripe orchard fruit flavors and a deeper note of honeydew. This very suave sauvignon finishes with excellent clarity and sappy persistence. (JR)
Good bright, full red. Wonderfully aromatic nose combines sour cherry, blood orange, mace, nutmeg and an exotic suggestion of apricot. Then supple, silky and harmonious in the mouth, with captivating sweetness to the flavors of red fruits, mocha and spices. Impeccably balanced, firmly structured Brunello with a long, lively finish--and an expressive example of the sangiovese variety. Brunello di Montalcino typically retails between $60 and $90, so this superb bottle, from an outstanding vintage for the category, represents strong relative value.
Bright, light medium yellow. Pungent aromas of orange peel, cinnamon, rose petal and flowers; I was reminded of a dry gewürztraminer. Supple and aromatic in the mouth, with ripe acidity giving a light touch to the dense flavors of pineapple syrup and rose petal. A bit soft in the middle but firm and perfumed on the back end, which features good citrus lift and grip. Less exotic than the 2009 version. Argentina's most intriguing white wine makes for a lovely warm-weather aperitif.
Bright dark red. Rather delicate but complex aromas of cherry, flowers, dusty herbs, subtle pepper and flint. Rather restrained in its sweetness and texture but this wine is floral, spicy and fine-grained. Softened with air to display strong fruit. Finishes with hints of pepper and minerals and an attractive light touch. Subtle and long on the aftertaste.
Light yellow-gold. Intensely perfumed citrus aromas are complicated by notes of ginger, pear skin and quinine. Spicy and brisk on entry, then broader in the middle palate, offering underripe orchard fruit and lime flavors and a touch of honeysuckle. The finish is firm and energetic, with the quinine note repeating. This will be even better with another year of bottle aging. (JR)
Bright dark red. Spicy red berries, cherry, rose petal and sandalwood on the nose and palate. Juicy, suave and penetrating, with a lovely restrained sweetness in the context of the very ripe 2009 vintage. A firm acid/tannin spine gives this Beaujolais cru terrific inner-mouth energy and lift. The slowly building finish offers excellent cut.
Orange-tinged pink. Aromas of strawberry, orange pith and rose. Round, seductive flavors of orange, red fruits and spices, with a touch of sweetness giving it immediate appeal and a more inviting quality than most renditions of Tavel. A brisk note of white pepper lingers on the long, dusty finish. This rosé will be a very versatile wine at the table. (JR)
Bright straw. Intense aromas of lime zest, quince, pear and herbs, with a dusty floral quality adding lift. Taut, penetrating and pure, with pungent citrus pith and orchard fruit flavors underscored by a zesty white pepper element. Becomes more floral with air and finishes on a clinging note of honeysuckle. Really impressive for New World riesling. (JR)
Crisp apple, white flowers, grapefruit zest and a musky whiff of mint on the inviting nose. Juicy and penetrating without coming across as hard; boasts very good density and concentration for its gentle price tag. The flavors of crisp apple and white peach are refreshed on the lingering finish by piquant notes of lemon and grapefruit. Carrying a modest 12.5% alcohol.
Light gold. Spicy citrus fruit and floral aromas are complicated by notes of lemon thyme and anise. Sappy, penetrating and dry, offering vivid lemon and quince flavors and a hint of succulent herbs. Puts on weight with air and picks up suggestions of peach skin and honey while retaining its energy. Repeats the herb and peach notes on the long, focused finish. This will work with all sorts of light or richer foods.
Deep, bright red-ruby. At once sexy and serious on the nose, showing slightly liqueur-like scents of blackberry, licorice, violet, bitter chocolate. Then juicy, chewy and concentrated, offering lovely concentration, a penetrating sweetness to its creamy black cherry, berry and floral flavors, and real energy and definition. Finishes with suave but firm tannins that dust the front teeth. Quite full and long for the category: you'd be hard-pressed to find this much fruit, energy, texture and early appeal from a California wine in the same price range.
Bright ruby. Knockout nose offers fresh, pure strawberry and red cherry aromas of uncommon depth; smells like a bowl of perfumed, ripe red fruits. Vibrant and juicy thanks to firm but harmonious acidity, with above-average concentration to the red berry flavors lifted by a floral component. Finishes with fairly fine tannins and very good length; there's plenty of wine for the money here. (ID)
Bright ruby. Lively red and dark berry and floral aromas are complicated by notes of cinnamon, musky herbs and minerals. Fresh and focused on entry, then deeper in the mid-palate, offering dense black raspberry and a touch of bitter cherry. Delivers a solid punch but comes off as lithe and elegant, with strong finishing cut and persistent tanginess. Delivers the depth of 2009 Beaujolais but with a light touch. (JR)
Region: South Africa
All cabernet sauvignon, made without new oak. Good full medium red. Cassis, pepper, fresh herbs and graphite on the nose. Suave and silky but not at all overly sweet, showing a medicinal reserve to the flavors of plum, currant, licorice and mint. A laid-back wine with a rather light touch, in an Old World style. Finishes with dusty tannins. This needs time in bottle to expand.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.
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