Greg Sherwood MW: Wisdom in the score or the words?

By , 22 March 2023



US wine critic Robert Parker popularised the 100-point rating system.

A bit of light-hearted chatter on a wine WhatsApp group this week reminded me of an earlier time in my wine career when I had a lot of newcomer private clients to the fine wine sector, most of them young successful professionals with vast amounts of disposable income that instantaneously elevated them head-and-shoulders above many a serious fine wine collector simply because of their buying power. We all know how the old adage goes, money can’t buy class and it certainly can’t buy you knowledge. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing as this premise has kept fine wine specialist buyers like me and many others in well paid employment for many years. Of course our knowledge has generally been earnt through the hard yards of academia, business experience and endless tasting, so its only natural that we should be called upon to share our knowledge and experience. Everyone likes a shortcut!

What many of these affluent low-knowledge, high-involvement wine drinkers and collectors had in common was their shared passion for buying 100-point wines. They had the financial means, they desired the affluence and reflective glory of serving or drinking these icons, and some of them, a few, even truly appreciated the contents of these exceptional expensive bottles. One of my more affluent young clients used to demand that I only buy him 100-point wines. For him, the scoring of wines was taken so literally so as to exclude bottles that did not hit this critical level of perfection. I did, of course, try and explain that a 100-point score did not necessarily dictate that they would like or even enjoy that specific wine or wine style, but usually, this commentary was pushed to the side lines among the hubris of drinking these iconic estates.

For another very wealthy collector, when I was asked to acquire as many cases as possible of both Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982 and Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982 for their cellar, primarily because they were both solid 100-pointers, I did point out that there was the vague possibility that one day, one or both of these maturing vintages would eventually be downgraded to perhaps 99 or 98 by a leading critic like Robert Parker Jr. or James Suckling and then their whole world of 100-point consumption bliss would be thrown into complete chaos! And as fortune would have it, not long afterwards the Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982 was eventually downgraded to a mere 97-point wine while the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982 has retained, even until today, its 100-point perfect status among most recognized critics.

I can hear readers asking what happened next? Well, true to form, I was indeed asked not to buy anymore Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982 and to focus on solely the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982! For all these trials and tribulations, I was of course rewarded with many an evening with this client drinking copious amounts of both of these exceptional wines, something I will no doubt reflect on in my old age with some humour but mostly delight. All old crusty Masters of Wine need to have these eccentric stories in their repertoire to tell their grandkids one day!

But the light-hearted chatter that reminded me of these lofty bygone days of the naughty 90s also made me reflect on the absolutism of wine reviewing. Indeed someone had just pulled out a bottle of Saxenburg Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 and had commented how incredibly well this wine was drinking despite its initial circa 87-point (3 stars?) score from the Platter’s on release. Many were quick to point out that of course, when big blockbuster vintages like this are tasted so young, “the inner beauty of the wines” can often be missed by reviewers. I can certainly vouch for a portion of this phenomenon as I myself was recently caught short (well, kind of) with a wine I had reviewed several years ago, only to elevate my score after tasting the same wine again blind from a client’s cellar. The particular wine in question was the fabulous Black Elephant Vintners Dark Side of the Vine Semillon 2017 that I had reviewed very favourably back in February 2021 with a stonking score of 95/100. But based on my blind tasting in February 2023, all tasters were in agreement that the wine was certainly more worthy of a 96+ or 97-point score. As the font of all wine knowledge, Angela Lloyd recently pointed out, Semillon is often the guiltiest of candidates when being assessed young and one only needs to look at the incredible Hunter Valley expressions to see how these taut, complex wines age almost faultlessly in stasis for decade upon decade.

Wines are living and evolving creations, maturing, changing and developing, never static at any point of their development. Who does not love an iconic Kanonkop back label to elucidate perfectly the “plateau of a wine” after its initial bottle shock and then mellowing upward curve of maturity? As a professional taster / reviewer / wine judge, understanding the moment of time you are tasting a wine is of utmost importance and quite simply, there is no substitute for experience. You just need to ask the old wine trade merchants slogging around Bordeaux En-primeur for their 30th or 40th vintage how they know how a specific wine will turn out once bottled. They will all caveat their experience with a presumption that what they tasted in a notional barrel blend will actually be comparable to what is eventually bottled two years later. More often than not, there is certainly a direct qualitative comparison and predictive trajectory of style and quality, unless of course you are a famous journalist tasting in private, about which wine merchants would often quip, they are served the “Parker barrel” or in layman’s speak, the sexiest new oak barrel in the cellar!

The reviewing merry-go-round debate will continue to rack up column inches for years to come, but more important than the number a specific wine might garner is the accompanying tasting note that drinkers and collectors would be well advised to read and absorb. Absolute scores only tell a brief story about a wine at one moment in time, while a well written, illustrative, “purple prose puffery” note will invigorate the mind and palate and live on long after the score of the wine is forgotten. Most consumers will remember Robert Parker for making the 100-point scoring system famous, but I for one, will always remember his most resonating words: “Read my notes, not my scores!”

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.


4 comment(s)

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    Greg Sherwood MW | 30 March 2023

    Hi Mike,

    I understand your question but the answer is little more tricky to elucidate. Like any experienced taster, I guess I have my own parameters based on a lifetime of tasting some of the best wines in the world on an almost daily basis while working in the UK fine wine trade. I do continuously cross reference the international critical scores of these wines which I have also tasted with my own scores to try and establish my own calibration.

    Some people obviously score too high, queue James Suckling, and some often score too low, especially when they don’t understand the wines and their potential. But when it comes to South African wines, what I will say to you is that I am fed up with people scoring some of South Africa’s best reds 88, 89, 90 or 91… just because they are from Africa.

    I know and love the wines of California and am always confounded by the 95-100 point scores dished out on a regular basis by their local critics to good to average wines while our truly serious offerings stuggle to crack 90 points. Well, sorry, I’m not going to feed that fruit machine that’s never going to pay out.

    Lastly, I will say that I am as mindful as any serious taster not to encourage score inflation and over rate wines that don’t deserve big score, but sometimes, wines show better in one setting than another, better in Cape Town than London or vice versa. I am fortunate to taste a lot of great wines very early in their evolution and getting it 100 percent correct a 100 percent of the time is probably an unachievable ideal. Wines do change, improve or sometimes fall away quicker than expected. But I would maintain that I certainly get it right more often than I get it wrong.

    Not sure if I answered your question but barring writing a dissertation on a Thursday night, that’s the best I can do… 😉

      Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 31 March 2023

      Thanks Greg. Points well made, and I agree with your sentiments. But the question went unanswered… I suspect that you do regard the 2018 Z as good to very good, the equivalent of high silver, but not ‘stellar’ – though so many producers regard any score of 90+ to be just that. It would be nice if somewhere (on your website perhaps) one could look up some basic definitions in words of how you score by way of points… No dissertation required, just something succinct.

        Greg Sherwood | 31 March 2023

        Hi Mike, I have always presumed that I scored within the traditional boundries of the 100 point scale as set out in the wine advocate by Robert Parker. While some would argue that 89-90 point wines don’t cut the mustard anymore with producers, which may be true (and a little bit sad), I tend to only write up wines that I think are noteworthy rather than 85 to 88 point ‘also rans’… which I will leave to Winemag reviews, Tim Atkin Reports and Neal Martin Reports to pronounce on.

        With regards to De Toren Edition Z 2018 specifically, I have had a look at my note and feel 94/100 is a very good score for this wine. I have not tasted the 2018 again recently but I would certainly regard this level of score as pretty stellar if I was the producer. I did however taste the 2017 Edition Z and Fusion V 2019 again last week and that Z is certainly pretty epic, and drinking beautifully at the moment. Looking this one up, I see I scored it 95+/100 at release time (Jan 2021) and on my recent tasting, this could easily have matched the 96/100 points I rated the Fusion V 2019. (The 2019 is super young but certainly shows a precision, depth and intensity worthy of a notable score.) I think the + on the Z 2017 score suggested I thought this could be even more special given some time in bottle.

        I will certainly think about maybe rehashing Parkers 100 point scoring explanation (that used to adorn the covers of the Wine Advocate printed magazines) and try putting my own spin on it for visitors to my website to reference. This is the first time I have been asked to do so… but it might be worthwhile. I normally just get asked repeatedly to advise approximate retail prices in Rands / ££ / $$.

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 30 March 2023

    Greg, please can you elaborate on your rating definitions when you score a wine 94? Or 95? or 96? or 97+? You gave the 2018 vintage of De Toren Edition Z from Stellenbosch a score of 94, which they regard as “stellar” but a term that I would have thought you’d reserve for 96+.

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