Feedback on my post on critics and style preferences

My recent post on whether or not wine critics can judge wines without their personal style preferences coming into play got quite a bit of reaction, both in the comments section, and also on Twitter. I thought it would be worthwhile looking at some of the responses.

Most of the comments agreed with my point of view. This doesn’t, of course, mean that what I said was correct: majorities have been wrong before. It does expose, though, a divide between the wine critic model popular in the USA (where the critic sets aside her or his personal taste to try to deliver an objective assessment of the wine that will be useful for all readers), and the reality most of us who taste lots of wine experience (which is that it is virtually impossible to set aside our preferences when we come to interesting wine, and it is probably not all that desirable).

Here are some of the comments:

‘Critics should involve their style preference so they can develop a following of like-minded readers’

‘Just name your style preference when judging, public will judge your judgement accordingly’

‘Opinion is by definition subjective. Just be clear as to what you value to readers’

‘Those who can recognize and assess wine quality in spite of style and personal preference are pros’

The three following comments make a good point. A critic can set out to be objective in their work, and be self-disciplined and scrupulous, yet still display bias in their work based on their own biology as well as their personal preferences:

‘Kahnemann won a nobel prize for showing how much biases influence our thinking. Silly to argue tasting is immune.’

‘The brain needs a huge amount of interpretation to recall and identify flavours’

‘Can one transcend one’s own subjectivity? Worth a try but not sure about the outcome though…’

American wine writer Mike Steinberger made a good point:

Interesting topic, but it seems to me you have missed a key point. Critics and especially those who depend entirely on subscriptions have an economic incentive to be equal-opportunity point floggers, to embrace all styles. If the trash a particular style they risk offending people who enjoy that style. It might cost them current or future subscribers.

This is an interesting perspective. Does this economic incentive box the leading US critics into a corner where they have to judge wine with one eye on their subscriber base? As an independent, I try to respect all the wines I taste, and be as useful a critic to my readers as I can. But there are some styles of wine I really dislike, and I’m not going to do the silly thing of giving them high point scores because there might be some readers out there that like this style. It all gets a bit silly if you try to recognize well made versions of wines you don’t like versus badly made versions. Some people like super-ripe spoofy wines. As a critic, how do you distinguish good super-ripe spoofy wines from bad?

Where the discussion got more complicated was in relation to my slightly naughty comment that not all styles of wine are legitimate. Here, many thought I’d over-stepped the boundary. Surely, it should be for the market to decide what is legitimate? Some pointed out my apparent hypocrisy: a while back I made a video in which I tasted Gallo’s Apothic red wine with its elevated residual sugar levels. I commented that this was well made in its style: surely, if any style is illegitimate, it is sweetened up commercial red wines?

‘Certain styles of wine are not legitimate’ completely agree, good taste is not a democracy

‘The bigger issue is, can you say certain wine styles are not legitimate?’

‘Consumers choice to make legitimate or not’

‘Some “wines” should simply not be. Period.’

‘There are perhaps degrees of illegitimacy, depending on how utterly faked up/spoofulated a wine might be’

‘Our job is to comment on styles and put into context, not create them. Market does what it wants with info after that.’

Let me explain why I said Apothic is good in its style, yet suggested that some styles are illegitimate. It’s about market segmentation. Different rules apply to inexpensive commercial wines and fine wine. What is acceptable (or excusable) for commercial wine might not be for fine wine. Tricked up commercial wine isn’t something I love, but I accept it and understand there’s a marketplace for it, and while I would rather commercial wines are more honest, I’m not going to go to war against them. But for wines playing in the fine wine sphere, fetching high prices, trickery and spoofulation are not acceptable. It’s a dual standard, but I think it’s justified.

Video: at the Real Wine Fair

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So on Monday, after judging at the International Wine Challenge, I managed to hot foot it over to Wapping (via the wonderful Overground, which makes East-West travel in London so much easier) to catch a bit more of the Real Wine Fair. I’m pictured above with Daniel Honan, aka The Wine Idealist, who’d come over from Australia to present a seminar.

It was worth it: I made some new discoveries. But I still left a lot undiscovered, alas.

Anyway, here’s a short film of me reporting from the Real Wine Fair, to give you a feel for the event.

Wine and emotions

Yesterday I watched a film. It wasn’t a very good film, but it made me cry. As a bloke, this is hugely embarrassing. But there was something about the film that stirred my emotions.

What are emotions? What happens, physically, to cause tears to be released from the eyes? It’s all a bit odd, isn’t it – how our empathy allows us to feel another’s pain in such a way, even when it is portrayed badly in a film.

But the real question of interest here is this: can wine stir our emotions in such a way as to elicit this sort of level of reaction? Can wine make you blub?

On its own, I don’t think it can. For me, at least, the only time I have been really moved by a wine to the point of tears is with a profound wine coupled with a particular context, in which I was already a little emotionally vulnerable. My feeling is wine can make you cry if you are already softened up; if you have already been moved some distance along the emotional pathway before you taste the wine.

On its own a wine can be so good as to be moving. But not really in a welling-up sort of way. This is just my perspective, and – let’s face it – I am male, and I’m British, so I’m probably not the most emotionally fluent sort of guy.

I’d be interested to know of the experiences of others. What sort of emotions does wine stir in you?

At the Real Wine Fair

Carla Kretzel and Craig Hawkins, Testalonga, South Africa

Carla Kretzel and Craig Hawkins, Testalonga, South Africa

Today was a glorious day. Not only was it one of those rare English spring days with a vivid blue sky and freshness in the air, but also it was the day of The Real Wine Fair. It’s a wine fair that brings together producers of natural and authentic wines, for a two-day show in a beautiful setting, Tobacco Dock in Wapping, East London.
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For me this is about as good as it gets. Interesting wines: wines that I can fall in love with. Wines that I just want to drink, made by interesting people with stories to tell. I arrived early, as the show was opening at 10 am, and tasted through to late afternoon.
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Lots of new discoveries. For now, all I can manage is a few pictures of some of the people who I met. The fair is on tomorrow again: alas, I will be busy with wine challenge judging, or I would have been back for a second day.

Etienne Courtois

Etienne Courtois


Fabien Jouves, Mas de Perle

Fabien Jouves, Mas de Perle


Roberto Morales of Suertes del Marques, Tenerife, and also Envinate

Roberto Morales of Suertes del Marques, Tenerife, and also Envinate


Noble Rot Boys Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew

Noble Rot Boys Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew


Dominik Huber of the fab Terroir Al Limit, Priorato

Dominik Huber of the fab Terroir Al Limit, Priorato


Salvo Foti, Etna legend

Salvo Foti, Etna legend


Nicola Massa of Occhipiniti, Sicily

Nicola Massa of Occhipiniti, Sicily


The fab Cristiano Guttarolo from Puglia

The fab Cristiano Guttarolo from Puglia

Beeslaar Pinotage 2012, a fabulous debut

abrie beeslaar
Abrie Beeslar (above) is the winemaker at Kanonkop, and he’s doing a bit of homebrew. This, his debut vintage, is one of the most profound interpretations of the often tricky Pinotage grape that you can imagine. It’s the Grand Cru Burgundy of Pinotages: structured, fresh, complex, ageworthy and elegant despite its obvious concentration. Website is here. I’ve gone big on the score: I’m not afraid to even for a debut vintage when the wine is this good.
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Beeslaar Pinotage 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This spends 17 months in French oak, 50% of which is new. It’s taut, dense and quite structured with fresh, expressive ripe red cherry and berry fruits. Concentrated and structured, yet still fresh and elegant with the oak perfectly integrated into the dense fruit. There’s a savoury, mineral dimension under the fruit. Like a Grand Cru Burgundy, this isn’t really ready yet (it’s still tight-wound and a bit burly), but should age into graceful elegance over 20 years. 94/100

UK agent: Vincisive

Judging the International Wine Challenge

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So we are four days into judging the International Wine Challenge. Now, as a panel chair, contracted for all 10 days of judging, I am biased, but I think it’s the best and biggest blind tasting competition in the world.
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Of course, not all wines enter. But well in excess of 10 000 do (the figure is around 15 000 I believe, but the actual number is not published, because the organizers don’t want to get into a ‘mine is bigger than yours’ squabble with the main competing event), and if you tasted through the gold medal winners, you’d be pretty impressed.
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The strength of this competition is in its rigour, the quality of the judges, and the organization (the amazing IWC team have been in place for five weeks in advance of the tastings setting everything up).
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Every wine is tasted at least twice. This week we have been tasting everything, deciding whether or not a wine is worthy of a medal, and therefore entry into round two. Any wine that is cast aside by the panels is then tasted again by the co-chairs, who are able to reinstate wines that they feel have been unfairly passed over. This safety net is vital.
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Next week, we will be tasting all the wines that got through and assigning medals, with the option of not awarding medals if we decide the wine isn’t up to scratch. The co-chairs recheck any medal assignments to make sure that judging is consistent.
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All wines are given a really good chance to show their potential, and the teams of four or five tasters are all assessed, as are the panel chairs, with a view to promoting those who perform best and getting rid of any tasters or panel chairs who aren’t up to scratch, or who don’t work well in a team.
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This feedback means that the quality of judges is high, and we have a nice happy family of tasters, which makes for a rewarding experience for everyone. It’s two weeks of work that I look forward to a great deal each year. This year we have a new venue: The Oval. One of the world’s great cricket grounds, and ideally suited to what we are doing.
ovalcricket

Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?

Should wine critics allow personal stylistic preferences affect their judgments on wine?

I recently had a discussion on twitter with a respected US wine critic from a major publication, who kept emphasizing that personal stylistic preferences had no place in his ratings. He was quite insistent.

It’s a question I haven’t really considered before. I like the idea that a critic can be objective and assess wines for every palate. If you are a big magazine, and give a single critic the remit to rate the wines from one country or region, then you need to spin this angle, and instruct the critic to be even handed to all producers. The critic is, after all, writing for all the readers of a magazine.

Thus you have created the myth of an individual critic as a global arbiter of style.

Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.

Why? Because of balance.

Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.

Look at the tastings carried out by The World of Fine Wine. They have three expert tasters on each panel, and the individual scores are given. More common than not, there is wide divergence in the scores. You could conclude a number of things from this: that some tasters are better than others, for example. Or, that people have different tastes, and try as they may to be objective in their criticism, they can’t be, fully. I’ll settle for the latter.

Look at spoofulated wines (here I am exposing my style preferences). Take a new world red wine at 15.5% alcohol with lots of spicy new oak, and sweet liqueur-like dead fruit fruit, with added acidity sticking out like a sore thumb. As a critic, do you say ‘I don’t like this style of wine,’ and yet score it 94/100 because ‘it is very well made in its style’? Or do you say, ‘this wine is unbalanced and quite disgusting to drink,’ and give it a low score?

The sorts of critics who score these monster, childish wines very highly often say that they are not judging style. But put an elegant, fresh, pure Loire Cabernet Franc in front of them and there’s a good chance they will call it thin, weedy and undrinkable. We have probably all seen this happen! When they travel to the northern Rhône they fawn over the ripe oaky wines with no sense of place, and ignore the fresh, vital, peppery Syrahs that could have come from nowhere else.

I believe you have to be open-minded, and recognize well made wines in a variety of styles. But only to a point: certain styles of wine are not legitimate. A wine grower needs to produce and intelligent, sensible interpretation of her or his terroir. And for the writer, it’s just not possible to separate out style preferences from doing a proper job as a wine critic.

You can’t go so far as to hate entire genres of wines if you want to be a useful critic. But you do need to make a call on styles. It’s a myth to think that there is some objective measure of wine quality that professional critics can tap into. Yet many critics choose to project this image of wine criticism to their readers.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV, comparing 2012 disgorgement with 2005

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This was an interesting excercise. The same NV Champagne – the excellent Charles Heidsieck – from disgorgements seven years apart. The older bottled had been professionally cellared in the interim. The younger wine was laid in the cellar in 2008 and disgorged in 2012; the younger laid in the cellar in 2001 and disgorged in 2005. Heidsieck uses a high proportion of reserve wines (40%), many of which are over 10 years old.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV
2012 disgorgement. Profound, with fresh toasty, lemony notes, and lovely pear and peach flavours. With some toast and nut complexity, and great acidity, this is focused and alive. 93/100
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Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV
2005 disgorgement. Full yeallow/gold colour. A hint of mushroom on the nose, as well as nice toastiness, and notes of almonds and nuts. Sweet crystalline fruits and some fresher citrus characters, with lovely precision. 92/100

Lindes de Remelluri 2010 - a lovely new-wave Rioja

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I was really impressed by this new-wave Rioja from Remelluri. 2010 was the first vintage with Telmo Rodriguez back at the helm of the family winery, and this is a stylish effort. If only all Rioja could be made in this elegant, focused, pure style!

Remelluri Lindes de Remelluri Vinedos de Labastida 2010 Rioja, Spain
13.5% alcohol. Lovely fresh, direct pure black cherry and plum fruit with some blackcurrant freshness. There’s a hint of sweet creaminess, but the dominant theme is fresh, pure black fruits. Nicely textured but with great freshness and definition. Lacks the overly sweet, seductive qualities of some modern Riojas, but has better ageing potential for it. 93/100 (£16.99 Davis Bell McRaith; UK agent Alliance Wine)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Learning to love Nebbiolo: Langhe Nebb from Vajra and Massolino

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So I’ve been trying quite a few Nebbiolos of late, in a quest to learn to love it more. This has meant tasting a fair few young Barolos, and struggling a bit with their raw, primary tannins, which can be quite fearsome. This is where Langhe Nebbiolo proves useful. These wines are, as you’d expect, more approachable, and they still have plenty of Nebbiolo personality. Here are two that I’ve really enjoyed.

GD Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo 2012 Piedmont, Italy
14% alcohol. Lovely ripe sweet nose of pure raspberry and red cherries. The palate is fresh with pure sweet cherry and berry fruits with a bit of grippiness. There’s some tannic structure hidden under the sleek cherry fruit. This is a lovely supple wine. 91/100
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Massolino Langhe Nebbiolo 2011 Serralunga d’Alba, Piedmont, Italy
14% alcohol. Such elegant packaging. Cherry red colour with a nose of fresh raspberries and cherries, as well as savoury notes of dried herbs and a hint of rose petal. The palate has nice balance with sweet red fruits, herbs and a bit of grippy, savoury structure, as well as subtle tea leaf and herb notes. Focused, with lovely elegance, finishing firm and grippy. 92/100

UK agent for both these wines is Liberty

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com