Tim James: Are we ready for more complex wine scoring?

By , 17 May 2021



Those brilliant flashes one gets at times when one can’t do much with them – often when dreaming or drunk…. If you’re a writer with copy to submit in a few days and not much idea of what to write about, I’ve found, it’s only occasionally worth going to the trouble of noting down some vague gist of it all. A late Saturday night produced, for me, the following little self-reflective riff (now a little trimmed):

Things are complicated. I’m not always entirely sure what I like, even when it could, perhaps should, be a purely sensual pleasure, like enjoying a glass of wine. But reflections on the process tend to intrude. Things can indeed get complicated when you’ve had, as they say, a glass or two (even simple things like wine can get complicated, let alone the Big Questions). Sometimes they can get easier, of course, especially when you’ve had rather more than a glass or two – and you can blithely click “send” on that email or WhatsApp that in soberer moments you’d realise deserved a bit more hesitation. But even in those moments of greater simplicity you often have a little tinge of realisation that tomorrow morning, when you check what you did the night before, you made your life a whole lot more difficult.

I had the foresight to append “Or whatever!” to that late night paragraph. But when I came to look at it on the morning after the night before, I couldn’t recall what it was that I was finding so complicated. And then I noticed some notes I’d scribbled about the bottle of Reyneke Reserve 2010 red that I’d been drinking. This was the last of the Reyneke Reserve that was half cab, half syrah, before they moved to the brilliant straight syrah version. Because I’ve always thought the 2010 a splendid wine, I bought a case on auction a year or two back, and have been greatly enjoying it emptying it. But recent bottles show the wine at, or perhaps just past, its peak. So, although the texture of the resolved tannins is lovely, the weight of the ripe richness (14.5% declared alcohol) outweighs any freshness. While I have a great fondness for even slightly over-the-hill old-fashioned Bordeaux, say, which can be a bit lean and dry in its elegance, richer reds like the Reyneke can get a little sweetly heavy. Good and interesting flavours though.

My scrawled note got a bit portentous: “There’s a fascination, amidst the doubts, that is more important than simple gratification” (that reflects what I felt at the time, perhaps too anxiously regretful that I wasn’t thoroughly enjoying the bottle). Then, with a bit of underlining, I asked myself specifically: “Can interest outweigh obvious pleasure?”

And now I’ve been thinking about scores and how they can obscure significant observations about the character of a wine. There’s a nice example of the problem in Christian Eedes’s recent note about Radford Dale Nudity Syrah 2019, which he describes as (amongst other things) “lean, sour and grippy” – adding that “that’s either your thing or it isn’t”, while his score of 92 made it clear that it was, certainly, “his thing” (it’s not mine – I’ve never much liked or admired the Nudity). However, a clearly exasperated or bewildered reader compared this note and score with a recent one (just one point more) for a vastly nicer-sounding Mullineux Syrah … and the debate rumbled on a bit.

Of course, the crucial thing here is that the score should not be regarded without the accompanying note, and Christian didn’t intend that it should. That’s what those who score wines always insist upon – including Robert Parker (remember him?), who’s more responsible than anyone for the reign of scores in public/commercial wine appreciation. But, of course, scores frequently start having lives of their own, quite divorced from the words that initially qualified and explained it.

So why not have a more complex score system? I fully realise, by the way, that this is impossible – the punters want simplicity above all: one score, no nuances – but still, let me persist. I actually partly recall a book that appeared 15-20 years back (a valiant book about “real wine”, I blurrily recollect, though the name and the author have slipped away – as has the book, which I once owned), one which had a double scoring system: one score for enjoyment/(quality?), one for “interest”, as I recall.

And I’ve always admired the scoring system that the late Michael Broadbent used in his magisterial “Great Vintage Wine Book” – which I do still possess, as it’s very useful when I want to compare our reactions to 1847 Chateau Margaux or 1808 Malmsey Madeira. Broadbent, writing about his tastings of fine wine, would give a star-rating, out of a modest five, for the wine as drunk now, plus some additional stars in brackets if he reckoned the wine would be worth more at the full maturity it deserved. Ch. Lafite 1982, as tasted in 1989, rated **(***). And I’m delighted to say that Broadbent gave, for example, most of the fine 1988 top Bordeaux reds four stars, tasted in late 1990, four stars– but all of the stars in brackets, suggesting that (of course!) the wines are undrinkable in extreme youth. Wouldn’t even that be a major advance on the part of our scoring wine critics, who’re happy to assert elsewhere theoretically that fine wines need maturing, but still describe and score them as though they’re ready on release (and seldom bother to speak about ageing potential in their notes)?

One could get even more complex in scoring, I suppose, but just these few additions would be nice. And of course, it could be done in the 100 point system. So, someone might rate a young hipster colombard 89/89/92 – 89 for general pleasingness and quality now, the same score as it’s not going to improve much and is fine for drinking now, and 92 for interestingness. And a serious but conventional old-style Stellenbosch cab: 88/94/87.

OK, it’s just a thought.

  • 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

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8 comment(s)

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    Tim James | 19 May 2021

    Thanks to all for the useful, thought-provoking comments. Clearly the maturity question and how to take account of it is one that bothers many wine-drinkers – and even a few wine-critics! And especially thanks to Andrzej for reminding me (all the way from Poland!) about Patrick Matthews. Matthews is still, as far as I can see, an active journalist, though I’m not aware of recent writings on wine. He was obviously an early appreciator of the “natural” and “authentic” wine movements, and I was one of no doubt many who were influenced by his books (the two that Andzej mentions) – even though I couldn’t remember the details of his scoring systems. I wonder why I didn’t keep the books – they were no doubt victims of my stupid mania for abandoning things that I think (often wrongly) I will never need again…

    Andrzej Daszkiewicz | 18 May 2021

    The book “Real wine” has been written by Patrick Matthews (published by Mitchell Beazley in 2000), but the idea for scoring that you mention comes from his earlier book “The wild bunch” (Faber&Faber 1997), where he gives two scores out of 5: “for ‘oddness’, meaning non-conformity to fashionable wine styles, and for ‘niceness’, meaning immediate likeability”.

    Luke Meiklejohn | 18 May 2021

    I like Greg Sherwood’s approach to rating young wines. Giving a rating of “93-95” or, “95+” not only gives nuance but adds an implicit acknowledgement that a rating is a point-in-time observation and is not perpetual.

    Raymond | 17 May 2021

    Very interesting article.
    Sorry for wanting to ‘complicate’ it more , but for me general pleasingness now and quality now is not always the same.

    RH | 17 May 2021

    A simple score does seem antiquated when we rate our restaurants, hotels, tourism destinations on a whole range of criteria – comfort, amenities, value for money, originality, wow factor etc.

    @Tim, for a more complex scoring system (or maybe, let’s remove the word “score” altogether): how complex? What metrics would you propose?

    Our informal group of casual wine fans sometimes play with the following system of 0, 1 or 2 points per category, jokingly suggested to be the same way one might assess a potential mate.

    -smashability (would you smash it on its own, or even, by yourself?)
    -companionship (would it be best paired with a particular dish?)
    -provocativeness (weird? wonderful? conversation starter?)
    -relatable (is it a taste for all palates or is it an acquired pleasure? Would you introduce it to your mum?)
    -long view (would you settle down with this wine? Will it age and develop with time?)

    A weirdnwonderful FRAM grenache blanc is a conversation starter and a great food wine, but too much to smash on its own and too eccentric to be the one that you settle down with. Fun for a fling, though, and one never regrets those good times (7-8)

    A sensible stellies chenin like a Kleine Zalze may not make the pulse race, but it’s rock solid, gorgeous today and still gorgeous tomorrow. Good genes. Ultimately, 7-8 for different reasons.

    Incidentally, in our last meet, Alheit Vine Garden was awarded a unanimous streak of 2’s, well rounded in every regard (our only perfect 10, so far ). What a catch.

    Gareth | 17 May 2021

    I really like the idea of a score for what is currently in the glass and another score for what the wine is expected to mature into.

    Although I would expect it to improve, the 10 year reports on this site seem to suggest that local wines actually go backwards (in terms of scores at least). Perhaps something to ponder.

      Hennie C | 17 May 2021

      Yes case in point is Christian’s score and note for the Tokara Cab of the other day. He noted that he thinks it is unresolved – to me that is a wine that is in market too soon. Tokara’s own fault for submitting so young and going to market too early.

      So scoring it 89 in this context was probably right, but is the wine not perhaps worth more than that? A pedigree cab from one of the country’s top estates with a proven track record? That’s where the bracket scores would be handy for the punter and perhaps more fair to the wine.

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