As I write these columns and delve into the intricacies of what makes a wine taste as it does, I am sometimes hit by the thought that I am not answering the reader’s most pressing question; which is, often, where can I find a good wine with character for under (say) £7? I can’t give that sort of recommendation, because I write too far ahead of publication for there to be much chance that the wine will still be on the shelves when The Whistler reaches you. What I can do is use a recent discovery of my own to point to certain principles.
In May I bought a Rioja from Waitrose for £6.66 (reduced from £9.99). It was called Club Privado 2015, a horrible name, but I bought it because it was made by Baron de Ley, who makes good Riojas, and because the 2014 version scored 91 points in the Decanter World Wine Awards 2016. It was a rich and complex, albeit young, Rioja, well worth the £9.99 that it was selling for when I went back down the hill for more.
So what are the principles we can discuss? Firstly, don’t be too cynical about supermarket special offers. They may be designed to get sales of a good wine off the ground, rather than be a way of off-loading poor wine.
But the bigger point is, what do we think of a score of 91, indeed, what do we think of scoring wines at all? Part of me says it’s ridiculous, like scoring friends, or Beethoven Quartets. You may have your favourites but even what you think of them will vary according to mood, context and a hundred other factors.
The present trend to score wine out of 100 originates from Robert Parker (pictured), founder and, until recently, editor of ‘The Wine Advocate’ in the USA. He gives 96 – 100 to a wine he considers “extraordinary”; 90 – 95 to an “outstanding wine”; 85 to 89 to wines that are “good or very good”. Anything below 60 he considers “unacceptable”. What’s wrong with this? It ignores the individuality of different wines. If you taste a perfect Muscadet, would you give it 100? I think not, because it’s still a modest wine. Parker’s scores of over 95 tend to go to the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the USA. Furthermore, scoring makes no allowance for individual preferences. A criticism of Parker is that his preference seems to be for powerful intense reds; it is these that get the highest scores. Someone else might prefer wines of a more elegant and subtle style.
To be fair, Parker himself acknowledges these criticisms and says that the score is no more than the opinion of the professional taster and that the detailed tasting notes will give more useful information about the wine’s style and personality. But the truth is that, like Michelin’s restaurant guide or newspaper theatre reviews, what do we look at first? The score. And with my Rioja it proved a very handy guide.