The complexities of rating or judging wine

Rating and scoring wine is a most bizarre procedure. Or so it seems to me increasingly, the more I drink the stuff (and I confess I do drink it more).

judge_0Of course, judging wine is inevitable, and good and we all do it – in the sense of “this is good, this is better, this is wonderful, but this is stuff not to put in your mouth!” It’s where there are different goods and different not-so-goods that things become difficult. Is three stars a failure or a success?

These incoherent thoughts are prompted partly by an email discussion I’ve been having with a wine-producer recently, but more immediately by the fact that my first load of Platter samples arrived yesterday. I always am terrified at the start of my round of Platter tasting, I confess. Am I really going to dare to pronounce on these wines, say that some are worth this star rating, some worth that rating? Especially in the early tastings I dither somewhat – yet, it’s not so hard after all, and in most cases I’m fairly confident that (according to my own aesthetic) I’m fair and reasonable. Though I know I sometimes get things wrong.

But what is troubling me a bit now (prompted by that email discussion) concerns precisely the criteria. Is it always my own aesthetic judgement of the wines that guides me, or some established set of criteria? Or both? How to rate a wine that one likes but doesn’t think “excellent”, versus a wine that one doesn’t like so much, but accepts as a valid style and accepts is “excellent of that style”?

spitter-biggerLet me put a relevant example clearly. Let’s say we have on the one hand a big, powerful wine made from very ripe shiraz, with a lot of new oak. It’s extremely well done. It (predictably perhaps) does well in competitions, and a lot of people genuinely seem to love drinking the stuff. Personally, I wouldn’t care if I never saw another glass of it in my life – but according to a well-established set of priciples (balance, intensity, length, probable longevity and development potential, etc) it is undoubtedly good.

On the other hand we have a light, early-picked cinsaut (or perhaps a carignan, or a gamay) that I find delicious, more-ish drinking. I would care deeply if I didn’t see more of it – and the sooner the better is when I want it. It is a deeply desirable wine, but according to most established criteria it is not a great wine: it has not great concentration, complexity, longevity etc. Should I score it as much, or more, just because I want it and I don’t, personally, want the other?

Obviously there’s no straight answer, but it isn’t an easy one. To an extent, obviously, it depends on the extent to which each wine is good of its type. But in my example, both are good of their types. Is one type “better” than the other type – In terms of scoring, at least?

My problem, perhaps, is that I can easily imagine giving a higher score to the wine I would, personally, thow down the sink, while reaching for the bottle of the other. Is that so perverse? Am I being absurd in thinking that this is objectivity in action?

To a large extent, any description accompanying the rating could put things in context. I could say of the cinsaut: “Fresh, lovely, utterly delightful, but not very complex; drink over the next few years”. Of the ultra-ripe syrah I could say: “Rich, powerful, needing a few years to bring into some sort of harmony; one for those who like oak influence”, etc.

Trying to be objective in these things is not easy: think, perhaps, about being fair if you were judging a human beauty competition while you had a definite preference for blonde busty women, or muscular hairy men, while being well aware that other people liked slim brunettes or slight, smooth men.

That’s my job in Platter. Those who think that in sighted tastings it’s simply a question of how much the wine costs or its reputation or whether it comes from a well-established region – they simply reveal their own crudity and inadequate understanding of the complexities involved in any sort of tasting.

But I will venture something here, in relation to the specific discussions and thoughts I’ve been having. I remain wedded, to an extent, to traditional notions of quality: balance and harmony above all (and that’s a neutral set in relation to my caricatured cinsaut/shiraz example), and adequate expression of origin and variety, but also intensity, complexity, potential for beneficial ageing. However much I might love well-made cinsaut or gamay, and choose to drink it, neither is easily going to be as “good” as equally well-made cabernet or syrah from a suitable terroir, even if it’s in a style that I don’t much care for.

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