Wine Blog

Fine Wine and the question of numbers

Jean-Yves Bizot's Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits: evades scoring

Jean-Yves Bizot's Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits: evades scoring

A rather inherently linked chain of occurrences have happened to me over the past couple of weeks that have led me to contemplate scoring.

I met once more with a South African  winemaker who created a wine that I feel very deeply about (piece to be published soon), I read Terry Theise's wonderful and powerful Reading Between the Wines, and yesterday I listened to BBC Radio 4's Five Green Bottles episode, entitled The Parker Effect, narrated by the brilliant Jancis Robinson OBE, ComMA, MW.

I will begin with Reading Between the Wines. It is beautifully written. It evokes true feeling and emotion and manages to convey what I would hope is the sentiment for people serious or passionate about wine: wine is emotional.


There was one excerpt that particularly affected me. "I didn't know this was coming. How do you get higher than the summit? Stand on tiptoes? Now comes the saltiness to the shimmy into the sweetness and glide in an itchy gorgeousness over the palate [here it is, the precise moment I lost it and let myself be carried away]... profound and magnificent yet without opacity, rather delineated to the last molecule of detail." I tasted it again and again as if to break the spell, but the wine was bigger than I was, and I vanished through the membrane. "It tastes this way for the same reason blossoms open - for the bees to be useful, for the plant to live and make new plants, for a few human passersby to pause, sniff, delight and feel a strange longing, not quite sad, wanting to touch another warm skin, oddly happy and alone in the odd lonely world."

It made me inhale and pause, just for a minute. It reminded me very much of why I am here in the first place, and why I love wine. Great wine has the ability to speak to you, and to move you.

There is another part of the book that evokes how wine can trigger intense imagination and memory. Not all wine, of course, or we would be walking around in a rather stupified haze all the time. Just some very special wine.

Too many of us, in life and in the wine trade, get caught up in busy lives, busily tasting, busily writing notes, busily writing articles, and busily scoring.

I have never scored a wine yet. I've thought about it. I have ranked wines in a judging panel, but I have never scored. I read scores with interest, but I find viticulture, technical details and the stories behind the wine and the people behind the wine, as well as tasting notes, of far greater interest. For me, there is something inherently strange in writing a score for a fine wine, for one that has moved me. Wine score inflation is also becoming an enormous issue.

I entirely understand why scores exist. I understand why people score: it is a useful benchmarking process, and also may help us assess what we deem qualitative in wine. It in turn gives people an indication of quality, and consumers find them useful.

This also links to why panels exist and why opinions matter. Jamie Goode recently wrote this rather excellent piece about why the opinions of wine critics matter. To quote him, he says, "we have an aesthetic system for fine wine, in which certain wines are serious and other are not."

I hope to myself one day be able to sit around more panels and discuss in which direction a certain region should be moving, or whether a stylistic shift has become too great. Topics such as hybrids, picking dates and reduction and oxidation come to mind, and I often find myself wondering what the topics of the future will be. I also strongly believe that we should speak up when we disagree, or even when we feel that a wine is simply not good. These discussions are learning exercises and are meant for guidance.

Back to scoring. Many wine writers and critics score. Hugh Johnson doesn't. In The Parker Effect, he finishes on a rather poignant note, something that really resonated with me. He compared scoring wine with scoring music, or art, with the example of Titian's Venus.

This is something I was thinking about yesterday, thus even more solidifying the bizarreness of these events occurring so soon after one another. I have a lot of articles on the go at the moment, and so for inspiration I had just begun listening to Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 "Moonlight" in C-Sharp Minor, which was followed on my playlist by "Lux Aeterna" by Clint Mansell, the leitmotif of Requiem for a Dream, which I consider to be one of the most powerful pieces of music written in our time. This, in turn was followed by Burial's Come Down to Us, a hugely gifted electronic musician whose music I am somewhat obsessed with and have been since I first heard it circa five years ago.

I was thinking about my trip to Beaujolais earlier this year and the wines of Fabien Duperray of Jules Desjourneys, while simultaneously thinking about Terry Theise's book. I was musing on how strongly I feel about his wines, and indeed about Beaujolais, and how I didn't feel like my tasting notes would ever quite convey those feelings, or indeed the energy in the wine.

Furthermore, if I felt this way, then how would I be able to score the wine? I could give it 100, of course, but that wouldn't really be the point, just like it wouldn't be the point to listen to Burial and score that track 100.

As Terry wrote of a 1990 Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Smaragd, "wines like these don't seek to be included in the world, or even in your world, because they already are. They didn't ask your premission, any more than the rain does or the leaves do. When you drink them they include you."

As Hugh Johnson said, "wine is a friend to me, and I'm not going to treat it that way."

Why should I sit in front of a wine that is speaking to me and connecting with me on an emotional level, and tell it, "hey you, you're a 98. But you're not quite a 99."

Just like Terry did at the beginning of his career, I will continue to write my tasting notes, and I will continue to buy the same identical black notebooks and fill pages upon pages with notes from back to front, including the covers when I run out of space, and try desperately to grasp the essence of the wines on those pages, even if just for the reason that I may etch them onto my memory and convey them to others as best I can.

I write about wine and love doing so. I will write about wine energetically, descriptively, excitedly and who knows, perhaps even angrily.

But scoring wine? That's not for me. It doesn't make sense in my head, and it doesn't have to. Not yet, and perhaps never.