Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: The points system for wine is a crutchBy JIM BEAUREGARD April 25. 2018 2:07AM
As most wine lovers know, the notion of providing a numerical score for a wine really began in earnest with Robert Parker. He devised a system, known as the hundred-point system, although it is really only a 50-point system: A wine starts with a base of 50 points just for just showing up, and, hopefully, goes up from there.
When Parker began using the system, wines of 90 points and above were considered the wines of the highest quality and enormous distinction. Wines that scored from 80 to 90 points were very good wines that showed character, development and so on.
Wines that scored from 70 to 80 points were considered everyday drinking wines: They had some good flavors, but didn’t develop a great deal. They were the types of wines the world over it that most people would drink at home, whether they had made them themselves or bought them very locally.
Then, as in all things, inflation struck. People quickly got to the point of saying that they only wanted to buy wines of 90 points and above, as if these were the only ones worth drinking. Rumors abounded that winemakers examined Parker’s scoring and writing and then tried to make wines that would garner high scores from him.
This is not how it was supposed to work.
Still, over time, though, his scoring system became pretty much universal, and most of the major wine magazines use it. Each year, for example, wine lovers eagerly await Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the year and their scores.
Here’s the problem: there’s lots of good wine out there that’s not going to score above 90 points, and it can be unjustly ignored. As wine lovers also know, the vast majority of wines on this planet are bought and consumed within four to eight hours of purchase — in other words, everyday drinking wines, not the high-end stuff like the Bordeaux first growths that are meant, and often need, to be laid down for number of years before they reach maturity.
The reality in wine writing is that the point system becomes a kind of shorthand, as if to say a wine with a certain number tattooed to it is guaranteed to garner sales. It also becomes a sign of laziness for wine writers. Next time you’re in a wine shop that has labels by the bottles that have quotes from tasting notes, pay close attention to the content of those notes. When you do, you will quickly discover that some of them tell you nothing whatsoever about what’s in the bottle. You might read something like,
“This wine has an excellent mouth feel, great bouquet and a long, pleasing finish.”
To which I would say, so what? Have you ever bottom line exclusively based on its mouth feel? I haven’t. What’s problematic about these kinds of notes is that they don’t tell you a single thing about what the wine tastes like, to give you some sense of whether or not you might like to purchase it.
Does this great “mouth feel” wine have flavors of tropical fruit, or citrus fruit, black fruit or red fruit, earthiness, signs of development that include mushroom type flavors, forest floor? Has the wine extracted flavors from the oak in which it was aged? Are the dried fruit flavors typical of the wines of northwest Italy, like Amarone? Are there any pungent spices that might be pleasing to lovers of Rhone wines? Green fruit or citrus fruit, characteristic of some very good white wines?
No way to know, unless you happen to have tried the wine at a tasting, or have bought it before. In other words, this really isn’t in the consumer’s interest.
In contrast, the spirits and beer industries seem to have largely avoided the numbers game. Writers in these genres tend to put their effort into describing what’s in the bottle, so that you have a pretty good sense of what you are getting when you purchase one.
So, after a fair amount of thought, I decided to abandon the number scoring altogether. The point is really what’s in the bottle, and if it’s a wine of high quality, that should show through in a tasting note, not just in a number.
Here’s one, for example, that we talked about last year:
Azienda Agricola Ca Del Monte DOC Classico Superiore Valpolicella Ripasso, $18.95, Angela’s Pasta and Cheese Shop, Manchester. If you are looking for a good Italian wine, be it eminently affordable or high end for a special occasion, as well as anything else in between, Angela’s in the North End of Manchester is well worth a stop. This Ripasso is oak aged for 18 months and then aged six months in bottle before it is turned loose on the world. It’s a a medium intensity wine. Clean nose of fruit and oak, dry on the palate with medium-plus acidity, medium tannin, medium-plus alcohol (this one benefits from some air, 10 or 15 minutes open before you drink it), medium body and medium flavor intensity of red and black fruit, with hints of red cherry, along with blackberry, prune and raisin as it opens up, black plum too. Medium length finish.
In the end, is it really more important that I assigned it 87 points, or that you know what’s in the bottle?
Contact wine and beer writer Jim Beauregard at firstname.lastname@example.org.