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Some thoughts on wine prejudices

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Domaine Tempier Bandol 2016
Pink you can drink.

According to a recent comment on this site, I “score the lighter red wine styles [in particular Pinot Noir] rather low compared to the fuller bodied varieties and blends” and I “clearly have a proclivity for structure, fruit and body” (see here).

Producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Stellenbosch, meanwhile, have often told me that they are bemused that their carefully crafted, concentrated and structured wines get stuck with scores in the low 90s while wines made from old-vine Chenin Blanc using minimal intervention often do so much better.

Apparently, I’m a Chenin Blanc lover and Sauvignon Blanc hater but I consider a visit to Les Monts Damnés in Sancerre as memorable a vineyard visit as any. Then again, Chardonnay is probably my favourite variety of all and Montrachet my choice of death-bed wine.

Chardonnay, they say, is a white variety that wants to be red and Pinot Noir is a red that wants to be white. Many fall in love with Pinot because of its supposedly ethereal nature but what of those examples of Burgundy that are as black fruited, forceful and spicy as any Syrah?

I’ve been writing about wine long enough to remember the shift towards “full phenolic ripeness” and away from “thin and weedy” which came about in SA during the late 1990s and early 2000s and now we are seeing an inevitable reaction to this, new-wave winemakers attempting to make wines of greater elegance and transparency, this typically involving lower alcohols.

So what is the state of play right now? Local Pinot Noir only became interesting in terms of a critical mass of producers working with it in the last 10 years, the ground work that Hamilton Russell Vineyards who first undertook plantings back in the 1970s notwithstanding. It’s also on trend by virtue of being a “light red” and everybody thinks Burgundy is hipper than Bordeaux. Quality advances have been made but this is coming off a low base and we should see even better examples of the variety soon.

Cab is in a tight spot because by its very nature, it needs a good deal of bottle maturation before drinking at its best and few have the time for that. Witness the rise of other “light reds” like Cinsault and Grenache.

I’ll admit to fancying Swartland Syrah and Syrah-blends quite a lot but then again the Rhône varieties seem well suited to this part of the world while simultaneously we have some of our most talented winemakers choosing to work here.

Pinotage has had a checkered history but the best versions of this variety are now no longer to be sneezed at, whether they be traditional (Kanonkop) or new wave (David & Nadia, Radford Dale et al.) in style.

As for our whites, there’s plenty of old-vine Chenin around as we all know and this does seem to deliver fruit of grapes of particular quality, more so than if you’re working with virus-infected reds. It clearly responds well to free-style winemaking which is so much in vogue these days and it’s therefore relatively easy to make top wine from it.

Sauvignon Blanc is the people’s favourite and the more canny producers continue to leverage this with increasingly sophisticated and, in turn, more expensive versions. Chardonnay remains blue-chip and there’s a wide range of styles out there, although very leesy, heavily oaked renditions which were in fashion 10 or 20 years ago have pretty much fallen away.

The point is I generally like good wine, light or full, red or white. The one category I’ve always thought I wasn’t very partial to was rosé but I recently had a Domaine Tempier Bandol 2016 which I thought was brilliant. Now if only SA could start making stuff like that…

5 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Christian

    I think what my previous comment didn’t quite make clear is that you score “predictably” low on the lighter reds. Depending on variety I can often judge to within a point or so what you’re going to score it.

    We even have a game now between a few of our friends where we read the variety of the wine you’re reviewing without opening the article first and seeing who gets your score closest – I have a 10 out of 10 hit rate for your scores on the cinsault, pinot noir and grenache front.

    I completely understand what you’re trying to do – I’ve heard you speak once saying you want to help form the dialogue of SA wine. But by being predictable and conservative you’re basically saying nothing.

    • I don’t think anyone should try and be unpredictable, exciting or liberal (or conservative, for that matter) when they score wines. Credibility will soon be out the window.

      When tasting blind it’s mostly possible to stick to only what’s in the glass, but sighted tastings of wines from producers that one has knowledge of (or particular cultivars) will unavoidably always be influenced in many other ways too.

      Perhaps even rightly so. Because no taster is perfect, perhaps the good pedigree and track record of a wine (let’s say Kanonkop Pinotage) should after all be considered when making a judgement from a sighted tasting of it. It’s during blind tastings that the underdog has a fair chance to shine – and where the not-quite-up-to-its-sterling-reputation wines can be called out for not being up to scratch.

      Barring the odd surprise, I can also make pretty accurate predictions of Christian’s scores, but I think that is much more a result of him not tasting blind than anything else. When he does blind panel tastings with Roland and James, the scores are definitely more unpredictable. The fact that all three of them then influence the scores, is not really the reason for the surprises – it’s the fact that they taste blind.

      Any taster ever will show discrepancies between their sighted and blind scores. Sometimes they will be the same, sometimes they will be close, and sometimes they will deviate much from each other. Jamie Goode was recently quite frank about this reality – see here: http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/oregon/oregon-pinot-noir-tasting-11-top-examples-blind

      It’s a terribly difficult, far-from-exact exercise to try and score wine and all scores should be taken with a really healthy pinch of salt. It’s a good idea to try and align yourself in particular ways with commentators that score wines. If you hate so-called natural wine, you’ll have to adjust Jamie Goode’s scores of natural wines down significantly. If you love pyrazine-driven wines, you’ll have to add points when Christian scores them, etc.

  2. That sounds like a pretty boring game.

    And as good ‘ol kwisp says, reliability and consistency IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT IN A CRITIC.

    The real issue here is using 10 fucking numbers to really anything useful about a hugely complex, mystifying, hedonic, subjective beverage.

    In your guessing game, can you predict Christian’s descriptions? His opinion on the Wine? Because that’s where he’s actually saying something.

    • Hey Harry!

      Fresh out of the shower I’m sure.

      Yes us winos live a boring life, so we do score predictions. Inbetween polishing our tulip-shaped tasting glasses and wondering where our next 91 point pinot noir is going to come from that is.

      And sure I can predict some of Christian’s descriptions – his syrah will often have “scrub” as a descriptor. Cabernet he uses “leafy” often. Descriptors mean bugger all – as Eben Sadie once put it – my banana doesn’t taste like your banana.

      The point here isn’t to criticise Christian’s ability to taste wines. The issue here is the scoring. Why bother at all if you score 95% of the wines you taste the same? Just write about the wine then.

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