Tim James: The old matter of wine scores versus notes

By , 25 November 2019



The old, classic questions and problems keep on returning – as they must until a new reality renders them redundant (hard to imagine in the case I’m thinking of). I suppose that’s partly what “classic” means here, and I also suppose that each time the question is aired there will be someone to whom it is new – while the old hacks can scarcely keep down a yawn.

The one I’m concerned with here is not just the hoary problem of wine scores as such (and also bringing in the difficult matter of a professional critic’s objectivity – desirable or otherwise). It’s more about scores in relation to notes – when one or other (usually the note) is ignored by the person seeking an opinion. Of course, I’m talking about the situation where the note is a half-way decent one that conveys a reasonable description of what a wine is really like – something more than the too-common list of various aromas and flavours that must inevitably differ from taster to taster.

The problem came up twice recently for me, in rather different ways; and in each case, the note in question is in the Platter’s Wine Guide. A few evenings back I got a rather irritated-plaintive email from a friend. It began with a sort of sigh: “Only looking for something decent to enjoy…” and ended with “Maybe I’ll always battle with other people’s joys of shiraz…”. In between was the complaint that a few years back I (and the final five-star panel) had given five stars to Remhoogte Reserve Syrah 2015. My friend found a bottle, opened it and had “been battling ever since to understand why it was rated thus”.

In fact, knowing my friend’s tastes, in this case, shared by me, I could have told him that he would undoubtedly not enjoy this wine. I had nominated it for five stars not because I hugely liked or admired it, but because it seemed to me an unusually good example of a style of syrah that in fact I don’t enjoy but believe to be valid, as many people do enjoy it. I looked up my note in Platter’s: it started off by pointing to the obviousness of the new oak, and I’d written that the “massive edifice of fruit, tannin, oak and acidity will take years for real harmony”; but I pointed to the great fruit intensity and the pleasingly dry finish.

The moral is obvious: a high score doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will (let alone should!) like the wine. As to my attempt at objectivity, well, the Platter’s guide has to aim at that in a way that an individual taster doesn’t really need to. (Me in my individual capacity, for example, or Christian Eedes on this website. I can’t imagine Christian giving this particular syrah anything approaching the sort of score he gives to, say, Craven’s light, scarcely-oaked version – though if he did taste it, I’m sure he could respond to its best qualities. Regular readers would understand where Christian is coming from in the matter of syrah, and that is all to the good.)

Incidentally, my friend didn’t even really agree with my positive comments about the Remhoogte (which I made a few years back, of course), and couldn’t find the fruit intensity.

The other example I was thinking of occurred at a dinner during my recent visit to Moscow, where an importer was showing some of its range of Cape wines to a bunch of smart sommeliers. Most of them were very pleasing to me, but there was one that I couldn’t appreciate – a Bordeaux-style blend which had all the heavily oaked power, ripeness and sweet richness that I (clearly unlike many others) dislike in the older-fashioned style of Stellenbosch reds.

This wine, I found, had received a score of 94 in Platter, just short of the 95 for the Remhoogte, which I think a far superior version of a big Stellenbosch red (not sweet, for an important start). I probably wouldn’t have scored this wine more than about 88 (and would have felt generously objective doing so!). But in fact, it wasn’t the score that made me indignant. If the note had properly indicated what the wine was like it would have been a simple matter of disagreement over the quality – that happens all the time, of course. But although the phrase “richly fruited” occurred in the Platter’s note, so did the words “classic”, “nuanced”, “subtly” (attached must unjustifiably to “generous”). But again, I have to suppose that the Platter taster’s concept of classic subtlety really can accommodate this wine and we must agree to differ. (I’m not naming the wine mostly because I don’t want to identify the taster, which wouldn’t serve a useful purpose now.)

So, where does this little tale leave us? Sadly, where we so often are with wine … in the throes of disagreement. But I do want to underline my main point. Even when the taster is perhaps not altogether competent (who decides?), or is certainly possessed of an aesthetic that is foreign to one’s own – the note should always be more important than the score.

And I will persist, whenever possible, in avoiding any need to score.

  • 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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9 comment(s)

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    Udo Göebel | 25 November 2019

    The score helps selling, the notes helps the buyer. Never tasted The High Road Director’s Reserve 2015 though 😉

    Top Wine SA | 25 November 2019

    If Tim gives a high score, surely Christian should at least like the wine, i.e. even if not as much as Tim, and vice versa. Otherwise the high score was the wrong score. Surely!

      Christian Eedes | 25 November 2019

      Not always. Pavie 2003, Parker vs Robinson comes to mind…

        Top Wine SA | 25 November 2019

        The spat between Parker and Robinson MW over Pavie 2003 revolved around a score of hers that he deemed too low. 12 out of 20 would suggest a faulty wine, with which some of her fellow Masters of Wine disagreed. That she was in the minority would suggest that either she tasted a dud or that she was off the mark – even the greatest can get it wrong once in a while. It shouldn’t be possible for one expert to go as far as hating a wine that several other experts like enough to give a score of 95.

    Colin | 25 November 2019

    Herein lies the crux – wine cannot be quantified. It is too fluid, too nuanced, too many variables. Dumbing it down to a number is just plain idiotic – especially considering that it is one (or a panel of 3 or 4) person’s opinion. Rather write a detailed note, explaining the style (and what that style entails for less informed, newer wine lovers) instead of only writing about flavours like berries and oak. Your berries and oak tastes like citrus and vanilla to me – so flavour descriptors are pointless as well. Like Eben Sadie once said at a Swartland Revolution – my banana doesn’t taste like your banana.

    To me an informative note is one where style is discussed, terroir/origin is explained and you touch on some of the more important wine making decisions (whole bunch or not, oak or not etc)

      Christian Eedes | 25 November 2019

      Hi Colin, You are not wrong that wine ultimately can’t be quantified but ratings on the 100-point quality system surely have some utility in quickly indicating whether a particular bottling is a good buy or not especially when factoring in price. I would also add that different sorts of producers need ratings for different reasons – a start-up needs a big score to put it on the map whereas an established, large-scale producer is often less concerned about the actual score and simply wants to be seen at the top of the quality stakes when measured against peers on a regular basis.

      As for tasting descriptors, again I would contend these should not be seen as absolute but a general indicator of style – green vs white vs yellow fruit on a white wine, for instance, or red vs black vs blue fruit on a red wine are not entirely subjective but help position said wine relative to its counterparts (I concede fretting over the distinction between raspberry, mulberry, loganberry or boysenberry quickly enters the realm of the absurd).

      Kwispedoor | 25 November 2019

      I especially like your very last sentence, Colin. Too often, tasting notes focus on flavour descriptors, while I’m more interested in the balance, texture, length, dryness, mouthfeel, refreshment value, body, etc.

      I think we should probably agree that to assign an exact numerical value to a wine is folly. However, in conjunction with a proper practical tasting note, some sort of numerical value does serve a purpose. A wine could be described much the same as another and be 4-5 points apart. But let’s serve the same wine to the same taster in two different hypothetical settings.

      Setting 1:
      – It’s 10:00.
      – The taster slept well and had very little traffic to the fantastic setting where he (or she, it, et.) is about to taste the wines, looking out over vineyards and mountains, with the ocean in the distance. Life is great!
      – It’s a beautiful day and the very friendly and amicable winemaker is in attendance.
      – The taster had some nookie the previous night.
      – It is a fruit day (if you believe in that sort of thing).
      – Amongst much interesting and impassioned discussions, each wine is allowed to develop in the almost weightless Zalto (Riedel, Gabriel, whatever) as the seven wines in the range are tasted through.
      – The taster receives a complimentary bottle or two to take home after the tasting.

      Setting 2:
      – It’s 18:00.
      – The taster is tired after a rough day and has a stubborn ingrown toenail that is throbbing away in his one Croc. He surveys the group of tasters with him and notices one journalist that always disses him in her (or his, its, etc.) articles is escorted into the chair right across from him.
      – As wind howls outside and a police siren wails in the distance, the host enters into a drawn-out, pretentious welcoming speech. The taster laments his choice of lunch as he does his best to politely swallow a garlic burp.
      – The taster didn’t even have a cookie last night after dinner.
      – It’s a root day.
      – The wine is served at two degrees Celsius warmer than in Setting 1 and the vibe in the room is about 10 degrees colder. A couple of minutes are spent on each wine, because the tasters have 23 of them to work through.
      – The taster rushes home in order to spend some quick time with his son just before bed.

      Of course there are much more variables aside, but in these different settings, I’d wager that the same wine (even if we allow for a scenario that one of the two bottles were not affected by even the tiniest bit of closure failure or other intrinsic variable) would not score the exact same score.

      If one must score, I’d suggest a slightly more realistic way of doing it, let’s say within a bracket of three points (89-92 or 94-96) or so. But nobody is currently doing this, so nobody is likely to go off the beaten path here.

      Wine scores will outlive Keith Richards – just consider who does the scoring, see it in conjunction with the tasting note and take it with plenty pinches of salt.

      Robert | 25 November 2019

      Well put Colin. I agree with you that too much emphasis is put on generic tasting terms. Primary, secondary and tertiary profiles should incorporate the reasons why. In other words; varietal, fermentation and aging factors that have played a role in the final wine.
      However, as Christian pointed out by referring to start-ups, without some of these notes newer (often better) wines would struggle to find a place on the market. Exciting cultivars would be completely lost on a market which is unwilling to spend money on an unknown style – especially in this economic climate.
      Both points have validity and at the end of the day it is for the reader to use as a guideline. An example of this is Robert Parker, often readers found that HIS preferred style of wine was suitable to their palate and followed his reviews as such. But when it starts (as it did) becoming the gospel, the wine industry and consumer suffer.

    Christian Eedes | 25 November 2019

    I incidentally had the opportunity to taste the Remhoogte Single Vineyard Syrah 2015 in August this year and my note was as follows: “Intense black in colour. Oak, dark fruit and pepper on the nose. Rich and full on the palate. Sweet on entry, drying on finish – seems heavily extracted. Made to impress.” Score: 90/100.

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