Tim James: Scoring the same for different reasons
By Tim James, 29 July 2019
I have become so used to the (self-awarded) luxury of avoiding the nonsense of scoring wines that I find it more problematical each year making my Platter’s guide judgements , when I am obliged to score (self-imposed – in exchange not only for money but for the great privilege of tasting so many complete ranges of wines in ideal, unhurried conditions).
The last few years have seen Platter’s demanding ratings out of 100 in addition to the traditional five-star system (including half-stars). The correspondences between the two systems are fixed, of course: four stars is the range between 86 and 89 points; four-and-a-half stars is 90 to 94), etc. I rather reluctantly confess that I prefer the new system, in that one can discriminate between a “just-squeaked-in four-star wine” (86 points) and a “nearly- next-level wine” (89 points), a discrimination which is obviously often desirable.
Nonetheless, however hard one tries, the awarding of points can sometimes seem close to arbitrary. Especially when there are more than a dozen other tasters involved in the Guide who you know might have different standards and different aesthetics from your own and might well have scored a particular wine differently. (To help compensate for this, Platter’s tasters rotate the wineries they are responsible for every three years.)
On Saturday I tasted about a dozen wines, which is quite a lot for me to do in one go (I came back to many of them the next day to check – and didn’t actually change my mind); but they were all wines that were known to me, though the vintages were new, which makes the sighted tasting task that much easier, because you can bring your experience and understanding (and prejudice, yes) to bear. And most of these were also wines of modest claims on the world.
What I found particularly interesting was that, as I realised afterwards, I’d given five rather different wines rather similar ratings within the three-and-a-half star bracket – that is, from 83 to 85 points, but all for very different reasons. An 84 score (like all scores, of course) can convey so many different things, not quite all of which are easily expressed in the short note – though sometimes more can be conveyed in a vehicle like Platter’s by comparing the score with that of a previous vintage.
Two of the wines (I obviously can’t identify them here) were in fact not very dissimilar rosés and got pretty standard sorts of comment pointing to the nice things about them: pleasing aromas typical of the variety, quietly fruity, good texture, fresh dry grip – that sort of thing. This score is pretty good for a rosé, though there are many more getting it than there were five or ten years ago, and only a handful rate higher.
Another was a merlot, a new wine in fact, screw-capped and not expensive, and I reckon the producer is not going to be too disappointed in the rating. Again a positive note, in which the key word was probably “easy-going”.
A fourth wine was a shiraz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the producer thought the wine deserved more (it hadn’t been tasted for a few years, and previously had rated rather similarly). So, in more explanatory mode, it was not altogether a positive note I wrote, including a suggestion of obviously high alcohol and acidity a touch unbalanced – nonetheless, the wine had plenty of flavour, etc and I think deserved the rating.
Then there was a wine which I’d better not characterise closely here. The final note in Platter’s will indicate that the rating is a full star lower than the previous vintage had been rated by me. So I was obliged to indicate the reason for this wine falling short of its own standard. Not a bad wine at all – three-and-a-half stars is supposed to be a very respectable score. It’s just that in some cases the score can indicate a success, and in others, the same score can make an accusation of comparative failure. A number by itself doesn’t convey the important matter.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.