What happens when there’s no more bad wine?

By , 13 December 2021

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7

Curious how the 100-point scoring system hasn’t come for discussion recently. It used to be such a hot topic, but it seems less and less relevant. All the leading arbiters have had their say when it comes to SA fine wine current releases and we’re going to have to wait a couple of months before a new set of wines hit the market and the next round of hype begins.

The thing is pretty much all wine is too good these days for scoring to be that useful. What the 100-point quality system supposedly brought was a significantly more minute calibration system than the old-school 20-point system was capable of. But the guys and girls in the vineyards and cellar are now so competent that the issue is not whether inherent wine quality is good or bad but rather about style.

So are there more high scores than ever before? Yes, and the cynical take might be is that this comes down to big-name critics wanting to move the market and enjoy the resulting influence (and income). The now-retired Robert Parker established the model, and a few key personalities and wine titles are now trying to fill the vacuum.

Meanwhile, winemaking standards are better than ever before. At the bottom end of the market, most wines are technically flawless – supermarket buyers won’t accept anything less. If we are going to be hyper-critical, this fare is often a little boring but it’s difficult to mark it way down on the supposedly very nuanced 100-point scale. The result is that there are lot of quite cheap and perfectly drinkable wines earning scores in the late 80s or even in the early 90s that previously would’ve got 15/20 or Three Stars. It doesn’t mean the critic and/or tasting panel is wrong nor that the punter is being shortchanged but equally it’s not really helping any anybody navigate an over-traded market.

At the top end, meanwhile, scores track ever up but are an increasingly muddled indication of what to buy, essentially because they obscure stylistic nuance. A critic who’s competent at his or her job is going to be able to reward wines of contrasting character, but still of similar inherent quality more or less equally but what good is this to a relatively wine illiterate consumers, no matter how well off they may be?

How to stock the cellar becomes a problem. Price is not always a proxy for wine quality, at least not when it comes to South African fine wine – there are still some serious wines that are underpriced and some silly wines that are over-priced. Rarity is inevitably an important determinant of desirability but again just because a wine is in short supply doesn’t make it necessarily good. Wine as speculative good, the prospect of its increasing unavailability resulting in upward price movement, seems contrary to the ethos of a life well lived.

So where next? Well, perhaps wine for wine’s sake. Wine as a product of curiosity. Wine as a cultural artefact that demonstrates the synergy between man, plant and site. Wine as one of the highest expressions of what can be wrought by agriculture. Wine as a catalyst for good food and good company. Gather your friends and family around you this festive season and there will probably be talk about what is the ‘’best” wine on the table but hopefully there will be much debate about far more serious subjects and laughter, too.

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  • Edwin Doran14 December 2021

    What factors determine your fine wine purchase? How do you really know what you are buying? Unless you’ve been told or advised. Price? The recent Prescient rating series highlighted price and quality differentials. I like your idea about gathering wines and people together.

  • JohnW14 December 2021

    Exactly, great article Christian. My thinking along the last few years has been similar and has guided my buying. For example Sauvignon Blanc: the difference in quaffability between a R150 and a R100 bottle is so marginal that it would be silly to get 2 rather than 3.

  • Geza Steingaszner14 December 2021

    Well put. While there are certain common denominators that are prerequisite for quality wines, the knowledge and talent of young winemakers combined with fascinating new areas/terroirs, makes the choice subjective and a matter of taste. Prices therefore seem to reflect increasingly the marketing prowess of the wine making establishment.

  • Rolff14 December 2021

    We, as a family, have a huge Xmas lunch on the 25th.
    We all bring a bottle of our ‘great’ wine of the year.
    Discussion centers around the tasting! Then about the pairing and then about worldly topics.
    Wine is the glue around a festive table.
    I love your last sentence!
    May you and your family have a great celebration with some memorable wines. Do share what was on the table??

  • JamesB14 December 2021

    A great article and absolutely love the last sentence. Something we all need a reminder of from time to time. At it’s core, I believe all winemakers want you to simply enjoy their wine, share it among those you care about and let it start a conversation.

    It’s fantastic to collect, to debate and to fill the cellar, but make sure you open those bottles! After all, it’s just fermented grapes

  • David Clarke14 December 2021

    “So where next?” you ask.

    More of a focus on (and therefore improvement in) viticulture – you can only do so much in the cellar.

    I believe that will separate the good from the great, not only in quality, but also in price, and perhaps reduce production at least in the short term.

    A fascinating topic, thanks for bringing it up.

    • Top Wine SA16 December 2021

      Absolutely. It’s human nature to want to separate the great from the good, to seek out the more interesting, to compare notes… The top panels’ preferences make for good guides, even though it’s impossible for everyone to agree on the exact rankings.

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