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Rating wine

By Nick Alabaster 

There's nothing new in the concept of rating wine. Nature has given us subjective ways of viewing the world and we are governed by our preferences. In 1855 an attempt was made to rate the most highly regarded wines of the time, those of Bordeaux. It was based on the reputation of each wine and basically reflected its value at auction. This might, in the first instance, seem to be a crude way of rating wine, but in effect it measured the most tangible way in which wine was regarded. If, year on year, it attained status and price by the people drinking it, then why not say this wine is 'best' or has attained a certain class?

However, certain factors meant that this class system could fail. Communication was not as it is now and a reputation could outlast reality for quite some time. If the people buying the wine were doing so primarily because of its name and lacked the basis to differentiate great from poor, the results were going to be misleading also.

Things are also muddled today. We live in a rapidly changing environment. How many wines do we buy, case at a time, year-on-year regardless of its quality? Can we really say the wine's quality is an irrelevance? No, I'd suggest we've shifted from a somewhat predictable market in which tradition took priority to one which generally considers quality and value for money above all else. The 1855 Classification has its interest and does still affect the cellar price obtained to a degree, but today we have to bypass a wine's history and concentrate on the quality year-on-year together with the price we're being asked to pay for it.

What does this mean to the wine world today? Is it not the bottle contents that take precedent over the producer or vineyard? Should we not judge our wine through its quality and not tradition and value at auction? I think we do as a rule, and I think it is right that we should. I believe rating wine is of importance if a buyer has any quality or money judgement on the matter. Would anyone prefer to buy a wine for tens of pounds once it is available to taste personally, or would they rather be 'tipped off' when it's just a few pounds a bottle? Does anyone try every wine on the shelf at their own expense in order to find out which they'd prefer drinking? I doubt it. On the other hand, do you want to judge by what is printed in a glossy promotion offer? A flashy label? A salesman?

No matter how much value you place on the subjectivity or tradition of wine, having wine rated for you to help make you purchasing decisions when the wine is untasted by you is important. But the big question is, who do you trust?

The wine world is full of ideas: stars, gold awards, points out of 5, 20, 25 or 100. Single tasters, tasting panels, qualified tasters, amateur tasters or bulletin boards. But how many of these are biased by marketing forces ? How many provide anything reliable? Can a panel of tasters, changing each time, tell you anything useful about the wine when consistency of judging is in debate ? Can a big competition with thousands of wines tasted in a rushed and practically overwhelming environment tell you what will work best with your evening meal ?

I think you really need to question the results being fed to you and strip away glamour and prestige to get to a source that works for you.

I have nothing good to say about mixed, changing panels rate wine anonymously by points or stars. They are so utterly unconvincing in their ability to sort the greatest wine experiences from the mediocre. In fact if anything, mediocrity is exactly what this form of tasting promotes. A group acceptability. Even then I'm utterly dismayed by what's considered acceptable from some of these tests.

Applying points doesn't elevate these tastings into the realms of science either. What does a wine rated at 85 tell you? One which was considered very good by all or one which received scores between 75 and 95? One again, mediocrity rules and the overall results make you seriously doubt the expertise of the panel even when you know for a fact, each on their own have a wealth of experience and wisdom worth listening too.

One of the best recent examples of rating wine available in a British Journal happened this January (2000) in Decanter. Andrew Jefford reported, from his viewpoint, the whole proceedings; posting both his scores and the group scores. A personal view of each wine and then a group view if it disagreed largely with his. Firstly it requires someone of merit to publish their view. Secondly any generalizations about ageing potential as a group, style as a group, or a vintage rating must be just trashed. It's little more than waffle. Do you really care if the vintage was a success and the wines are expected to last 10 years when you have a bottle that's poorly made or designed to be drunk on release? Winemaking is making vintage variation less of an issue - it's time the publishers did too. Pigeon-holeing just clouds the issue and can't accurately reflect what's in the bottle. Maybe it's simply their way of avoiding specifics, by avoiding accountability. Well it's time to wake out to the fact that the label or vintage doesn't make up for our disappointment when the cork is pulled.

So does an individual rater provide the best solution? Providing the taster can reject subjectivity and variability in their recommendations, then the reader has a fairly fixed viewpoint from which to judge the comments and ratings made. Sure, you'll have disagreements, but then it has to be said, anyone who has an opinion on wine will do eventually. But providing a trust develops then I think you can find some basis for further purchases.

But what must these tasters do to garner your trust? I think they must take the analytic's view. Combine everything they know about wine, throw away preconception based on labels and vintages and prove themselves in an almost clinical and detached view. Yes, really put themselves out! No good socializing at big dinners and thinking a definitive rating of the wines can be deduced. How can someone be objective if they are personal friends and drinking with the wine-maker? Or they've drunk or eaten too much? Or they are in a group voicing opinions which sway and distract you? If the glasses are poor, or even if the measures aren't the same? The wines must be served blind. The order must be considered. Finally a review with the bag off is warranted. At that point things like ageing potential, doubts about a wines balance or bottle condition and then value for money can be made. Sure, no one is perfect - why not re-review a wine knowing your trashed a World's great perhaps misjudging future potential? Did you miss something or has the time come to question the perceived quality?

Do you know that to be really subjective you should not see the wine's colour? Have you any idea how much importance colour makes on your overall impression of a wine? Simple tests verify how much value we place on a wines colour. Even if we never report its colour, the dice can be cast before the wine reaches our nose!

So what does this mean? Even different lighting, glasses or fill levels can actually effect the final analysis of the wine ! It's true ! Not only does a wine's colour perception change, but so does the wine's aroma from different types glasses. Different temperatures, the order of the wines drunk, the mood, unclean glassware - maybe even the weather will effect the wines characteristics. (Not to mention variation bottle to bottle through a whole array of pitfalls of which corking is only one - can the reviewer detect these subtle bottle variations?)

So is rating doomed? The fact it is so easy to give a rating can mean that in many cases it is not worth the ink it's written in. However, providing a taster is experienced and recognizes each possible diversion on the way to an accurate rating of a wine, there is some worth in this practice. This leaves just one thing though - the readers. You must question the validity of group scores, as opposed to ratings made by one individual. Question the sly placement of adverts or lack of a representative sample. Trust your own tastes and question the validity of the results being presented to you. Also, question yourself! We each have our own subjective tastes - knowing the way in which we perceive wine must be worth factoring in when we rate the critics! Only then is it worth considering the merits of points over stars!

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