By Chris Gill
I have to admit that I have a problem with assigning scores to wines. Back in the early Nineties, when I started to collect seriously, I was confused when the two top American wine publications assigned wildly disparate point scores to Mouton Rothschild’s 1988 vintage. One publication gave the Bordeaux a perfect 100, while the other deemed it worthy of a rather underwhelming 90. Having owned and tasted several bottles of this wine over the years, I’d say the score belonged more in the 94-to-96 range, especially when the reviews first appeared. Some subsequent bottles I’ve tasted would rank higher and lower.
Ultimately, a score can only reveal what an individual drinker thought about a certain wine on a specific day, under particular conditions. While you may have that same wine in your cellar, that particular bottle may have come from a diff erent barrel and been subjected to entirely dissimilar conditions on its journey to your possession. Even bottles from the same barrel or batch can develop and age diff erently due to each one becoming its own chemical microcosm. The actual truth is suggested by the wise old saying, “There are no great wines; only great bottles.”
But while I don’t care much for the scoring process, which too many consumers use as a crutch for selecting wines, I think that critics’ descriptions are valid and worthy of attention. By now, most devoted wine enthusiasts have figured out what flavor profiles are preferred by Robert Parker (as have certain vintners who have modified their wine-making process in the hope of earning high scores from him).
Whether you agree with Parker or not, he does provide a baseline by which wine drinkers can “calibrate” their own preferences. Because palates can vary quite dramatically, it’s important for wine drinkers to identify what they like on their own instead of blindly following scores bestowed by a handful of critics. Do you prefer fresh and fruity flavors, a more rustic and funky personality, or earthy and complex attributes? Do you like lighter or heavier wines? Are you looking for crisp acidity or smooth, supple textures? Certain adjectives in reviews can help you pinpoint the flavor profiles you prefer, although you’ll still need to taste the wine to determine if the reviewer’s observations and taste buds match yours.
It’s also important to realize that wines often translate better in certain conditions. Many wines are made to accompany food, and the right food and wine pairing can elevate the flavors of both. However, some wines, particularly exceptionally concentrated “big” wines and certain delicate wines, are best experienced on their own as a “main event,” where the drinker can detect every subtle nuance and layer without having those elements diluted or masked by food. One of the best ways to determine what types of wines you enjoy is to develop a good relationship with a favorite local retailer.
Most retailers taste the wines that they purchase, so they can tell you a lot about what’s on their shelves and answer your questions. It’s also a good idea to attend tastings so you can try before you buy and make decisions on your own. For example, I recently went to a tasting sponsored by a retailer who specializes in “blowout” or “overstock” wines that he deeply discounts but also prescreens to make sure that they meet his own standards of quality. I discovered quite a few small independent wineries that are making great wines but for some reason have failed to make an impression on wine reviewers and retailers.
Cellartracker.com is also a great resource, since it consists of reviews by everyday wine drinkers like you and me. While the site compiles average and median scores from those reviews, I think it’s best for finding and identifying “tasting peers” who share similar tastes, styles and preferences to yours and who can help you discover new wines.
I also find Cellartracker very helpful for determining the right time to open or continue holding a bottle that’s been in my possession for several years—although it’s still important to consider the “great bottles” quote and realize that your mileage might vary.