Scoring difficulties

spitter-biggerI’m back to the point I was going to make a month ago, when I wrote about difficulties in scoring, before I got somewhat sidetracked (and then waylaid by too much other stuff going on). Please bear with me – it’s not a complicated matter, but it might take me a while to get to a clear formulation, as I know I’ll get sidetracked again as I seek my little path through this forest.

It connects, I suppose to that idea I quoted of the absurdity of giving scores to paintings, artworks. Actually I’m not sure it’s a very fair analogy (though fairly frequently invoked by people, like me, who have severe doubts about the ultimate usefulness to winelovers of scores). There’s arguably an aesthetic dimension to wine, but, basically art is infinitely more multifarious in its human and social implications, and therefore its complexity.

However, how do you compare – and rate – an abstract oil painting with an etching with a piece of performance art with a pencil sketch, etc, etc? Of course you can compare and evaluate, and we do it all the time. Art galleries and their customers do it – most of them would infinitely rather have a tiny etching by Rembrandt (and implicitly rate it, say 100/100 points) than a large oil painting by Thinus de Jongh (rated, say 81 points). The more experience the judge has, the more useful the rating to beginners and others who seek guidance about value. But surely any rating by itself is an arid, useless thing?

There’s been a bit of discussion here and there about whether the best lowish-alcohol cinsaut can get the same sort of score as the best full-bodied shiraz or Bordeaux style blend. Not to mention ‘natural wines’.It’s something that critics are having to grapple with, and it’s not easy if you have to give absolute scores rather than “mere” descriptions.

The dominant international aesthetic, which rewards intensity, richness, concentration, bigness, etc is certainly changing; the tastes of Robert Parker and all the Brits who loved Australian sunshine-in-a-bottle (they’ve mostly forgotten they ever did, but still) no longer dominate everywhere.

We’re in an interregnum, perhaps. Here in South Africa the debate, when it surfaces, seems to be about how to score those modest cinsauts and ethereal 11% alcohol chenins. I’m getting a bit braver myself, and rating the good ones higher (when I have to rate them, as in Platter), though of course they’re not all good.

But let’s face it, there are still producers and legions of their fans who want something entirely different, and that’s the style that troubled me most this year in my Platter tastings.

There’s a winery (better be nameless) that makes seriously priced red wines that are legally and effectively off-dry (something over 5 grams per litre of residual sugar), but this leads to more richness than really overt sweetness. Very ripe, but the fruit not “dead”. Alcohol levels are not very high by modern standards – say 14 -14.5%, but they don’t result in the slightest bit of unbalancing “heat”. There’s quite a bit of new oak, but it’s beautifully managed and unobtrusive. The tannins are deliciously smooth and ripe.

In short, these are wines that I find undrinkable, even unsippable really, but I have to admit they are excellently crafted, fine examples of their type. It’s a type that some people love (including the Michelangelo judges, who can always be relied on to on occasion eccentrically reward anything awful that’s liquid). So who am I to punish these wines with a low score? I ended up giving at least some of them 4 stars. That is, 4 stars for wines that I disliked. Huh?

judge_0To me it seemed the professionally correct thing to do, but it was hard.

We are confronted with competing aesthetics right now, and it’s difficult to respond to wines made accordingly if one, as a critic, is obliged to be open-minded and fair. Personally, I don’t much believe in the usefulness of open-mindedness, but the Platter Guide does, and they were my employer in this case.

It’s the demand that I score rather than merely describe that’s the problem. I’ve no idea how people judging big line-ups of wines for competitions, etc deal with this. They don’t tend to mention it, so I presume they don’t find it distressing, let alone disabling.

4 thoughts on “Scoring difficulties

  1. Hi Tim,You may be surprised to learn that I think this is a very sensible post on the whole. However, I do not entirely agree that “art is infinitely more multifarious in its human and social implications (than wine)”. When I start to think that wine criticism is basically a frivolous activity, I often return to this observation by US journalist Mike Steinberger:”Wine sits at the nexus of some of the defining issues of our time: globalization, climate change, the emergence of an international overclass. There are important stories to be told these days about wine and its place in the world.” Whether old-vine Cinsaut prevails over internationally styled “super-reds” or vice versa is more than just a parlour game although it may often feel that way.

  2. Thanks Christian! And for the excellent Steinberger quote. I should amend my suggestion to say that any one wine (rather than the category) is less multifarious etc than any one work of art. As a category it is indeed complex, etc, as Steinberger points out so well. BTW, not being art doesn’t make something trivial, anyway.

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