Alvaro Palacios, the Decanter man of the year

Alvaro Palacios

Ever since 1984, UK wine magazine Decanter have bestowed an accolade on a figure from the the world of wine, crowning them man of the year. The first recipient was Serge Hochar. The most recent, and a very popular choice, was Alvaro Palacios, who at the age of 50 (he’s 51 on Monday) is still very much in his prime. Indeed, it is remarkable how much he has achieved at such a relatively young age.

Peter Sisseck, Alvaro Palacios, Rafael Palacios

Peter Sisseck, Alvaro Palacios, Rafael Palacios

To celebrate, Alvaro threw a dinner at the Beaumont. It was a relaxed, enjoyable affair, with some brilliant wines, as you might expect.

Alvaro came from a wine family, and is the seventh of nine children. He was working with Christian Moieux in Bordeaux when at the age of 25 he got a call from Rene Barbier to come and join him in Priorat. So he sold his motorbike, borrowed a car and moved there. Over the next few years he created Priorat’s village system and helped revive this remarkable region from obscurity. I’ve reviewed his wines before here.

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Then, in 1999 with his nephew Ricardo Perez, he headed to Bierzo to form Descendientes de J. Palacios.

In 2000, his father died and Alvaro returned to the family business, Palacios Remondo in Rioja, which he has rejuvenated.

He has been a leader in the new Spanish wine revolution. ‘The image and reality of Spanish wines has changed forever,’ said Decanter’s publisher Sarah Kemp, in her speech. She pointed out Alvaro’s dynamism and courage in pioneering, his respect for the past, and his work ethic as factors in his success. ‘He has let the great terroirs of Spain express themselves.’

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‘All the [Decanter] men of the year have been my heroes,’ Alvaro responded. ‘I still cannot believe that I have been awarded, among the hundreds of great producers around the world. I am just a link in the chain with all those producers who have had faith in Spain.’

Alvaro’s younger brother Rafael, who makes wines in Valdeorras, was also present at the dinner, as was celebrated Ribera del Duero producer Peter Sisseck.

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Palacios Remondo Plácet Valtomelloso 2012 Rioja
This is very attractive with white peach, subtle fennel notes and fine herbal notes in the background, but the core of the wine is sweet, rich fruit. It’s kept stylish and taut, though, with some nuttiness, too. A lovely white balancing richness and freshness very well. 93/100

Descendientes de J Palacios La Faraona 2010 Bierzo, Spain
This comes from a half-hectare plot at 750 m altitude, in a vineyard on a geological fault. Some of the vineyard has soft slate and clay, but this portion has very hard slate oriented horizontally, without the usual vertical fissures that allow the roots to penetrate. The result is very small clusters of grapes, and because it’s south east facing it gets the white light of the morning. The result is incredible. It’s pure, floral and youthful with dense yet fresh primary blackberry and black cherry fruit showing some lushness and ripeness, but also grippy structure. There’s a silkiness surrounding this structure, and although its approachable now, it really needs time. 95/100

Alvaro Palacios L’Hermita 2010 Priorat, Spain
Alvaro describes this vineyard as a ‘whim of nature’. It’s from 1.5 hectares planted in 1939, and is mostly Garnacha with a bit of Carinena. The vineyard faces north East. ‘This is such a luminous, hot place, the best wines are made from the shade areas,’ explains Alvaro. This is a brooding wine: taut, grippy and yet fine, with a hint of mint and lovely black cherry fruit. Attractive and supple with tar, spice,hints of liquorice and nice grippy structure. Give this plenty of time: it’s almost a sin drinking it now. 95/100

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Valdespino Moscatel Toneles, NV, Jerez
This was a real treat. From a very old solera, this is an antique Moscatel. Brown/black in colour this has a hugely aromatic nose of raisins, spice and tar. The palate is immensely concentrated with sweet viscous flavours of raisins, treacle, spice, old casks and citrus peel. It has an eternal finish and a little goes a long way. Very sweet but with nice acidity and a savoury twist. 97/100

 

So you don't like natural wines - help is at hand!

Dear (insert name)

I have heard that you don’t like natural wines.

I can understand that this must be quite distressing for you. But do not worry: I am a doctor (a plant PhD, not a medic, but who cares? This is the internet) and I am here to help.

You have spent a lot of time and money on your wine education. You have learned a great many objective facts about wine: its production, its history, its global spread and how it is supposed to taste. You have a finely honed palate and can differentiate among poor, ordinary, good and great wines. So I can understand how upsetting it is when some of your colleagues (who should know better) begin championing wines that fall outside this frame of reference. It just won’t do.

The first thing I need to tell you is that you matter. You are one of the top wine authorities/emerging stars of the wine world/top restaurant critics (select as appropriate), and people are intensely interested in what you have to say. They want to know what you had for breakfast, your favourite sports teams, your taste in music, your preferred tailor  and recent novels that you approve of. And of course which wine styles you consider to be legitimate or illegitimate.

Because you are truly important, people are especially interested in hearing about things that you don’t like. It’s different for me. There are quite a lot of things that I don’t like. They include butter in my sandwiches, The Archers, The Rolling Stones, greed, Manchester United, Dermot O’Leary, UKIP, The Daily Mail, queuing, most Chilean Pinot Noir and cheapness. But I’m not like you, and I don’t think my readers really care terribly much about my dislikes.

Now that I have reassured you about your significance, the next step is that I need to encourage you to tell as many people as possible about your dislike of natural wine. It is important that someone of your stature should do everything they can to help stop the spread of this terrible movement.

The idea that people should be free to make up their own mind about which wines they prefer to drink is a dangerous delusion, and could lead to lots of people drinking bad wine and thinking that they enjoy it. You know all about wine faults, and from what I hear from others, pretty much every natural wine you have had has been faulty (by your definition). Unfortunately, most consumers haven’t had the sort of wine education that you have, and there’s a very real threat that they might not realise that as they drink these wines, they are enjoying wines that are flawed.

The nightmare scenario? That people should bypass gatekeepers like you altogether, and begin to explore and enjoy wines without the sort of essential guidance that you offer. They will begin making their own minds up, and that could be disastrous. You have heard about the RAW and Real Wine Fairs that have been held in London over the last few years. The rumour is that these fairs have been rammed with normal consumers who have had a great time drinking natural wines. I suspect (and hope) that this is just propaganda from the organizers, and that the few people who made it to them couldn’t find anything even half drinkable.

So you need to keep telling your readers how bad natural wines are. Really scare them. Tell them that they are cloudy, feral, stinky concoctions, packed full of wine faults. Suggest that the people who make them are deluded hippies with long beards and no clue about wine. Liken them to rough farmhouse ciders.

I realise that this is a distressing time for you. There are people – smart people even – who like things that you don’t. Please surround yourself with like-minded colleagues who share your insecurities about the rise of natural wine. Poke fun at the natural wine movement and its supporters at every opportunity. And remember: confirmation bias is your friend. You are smart, and some of your smart friends agree with you, so you must be right.

I have a tactic for you. If people complain about your negativity towards natural wine, then act as if you are the one being persecuted. Complain that others are insisting you should like these wines. How dare they suggest that your palate isn’t sophisticated enough to enjoy them! Stop forcing these faulty wines on me! It is extremely unreasonable for others to suggest that if you don’t like natural wine, then you should just leave others to enjoy it without pointing out how wrong they are. You can’t stay silent!

Natural wine is just a fad. Give it a year and it will all have gone away, and things will be just as they were before – the nice cosy, compartmentalized, tidy wine world that you learned about in your studies.

Earth's End Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago

earths end pinot noir

This is a really good Central Otago Pinot Noir for a very good price. It’s an own-label wine form Marks & Spencer made by Duncan Forsyth at Mount Edward. It will need a bit of time for the oak to integrate fully, but at £16 a bottle this is punching above its weight.

Earth’s End Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Fresh red cherries with some floral notes, as well as a bit of spicy oak. The palate is smooth and pure with vibrant red cherry fruit but also a bit of spicy oak. Medium bodied, pure and interesting:give it  year for the wine to fully integrate. 91/100 (£16 Marks & Spencer)

Three interesting additions to the Wine Society's own label range

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The Wine Society is one of my current favourite retailers. Good buying, and honest pricing, with relatively low margins and no special offers. They have just added three wines to their own label range, and they are sourced from interesting producers, so I was intrigued to see how they tasted.

The Society’s Exhibition Douro 2011 Portugal
From Quinta do Vale Meao, foot trodden and aged in French oak. Fresh black cherry fruit nose with some stony notes. Sweetly fruited palate with supple black fruits and some spiciness, as well as nice structure and acidity. Supple, interesting and drinkable. 91/100 (£13.50 The Wine Society)

The Society’s Exhibition Merlot 2012 Napa Valley, California
From Frog’s Leap: 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French and American oak for 18 months. Fresh, supple, slightly sappy cherry fruit nose with nice blackberry and blackcurrant notes too. The juicy, fresh palate has a gravelly edge with subtle green notes and direct blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. So fresh and vital, this is a pure wine not lacking in ripeness but with a lovely leafy freshness to it. 90/100 (£14.95 The Wine Society)

The Society’s Exhibition Pinotage 2013 Stellenbosch, South Africa
From Kanonkop, fermented in open concrete lagares. Deep coloured, this has a fresh sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with some green characters and a hint of mint. The palate is supple with a green edge to the raspberry fruit. It’s sweet and fresh with a vivid personality, and a hint of grip. 89/100 (£10.50 The Wine Society)

Returning to running

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So, a month ago, I injured my knee skiing. I haven’t seen a doctor but I’m pretty sure, after some internet research, that it’s a medial ligament sprain, a very common injury for skiers. [Doctors must really hate idiots like me who self-diagnose, but I've enough experience of my GP that I know I won't get any proper diagnosis, which would require an appointment with a specialist and an MRI scan.] It’s one of those annoying injuries that you just don’t know how long it will take to clear up. It’s also not painful enough that it stops me walking the dogs every day. Ice and ibuprofen have helped, but it has taken ages to clear up properly, which is why I made the decision today to return to running.

I have been running in earnest for almost two years now. During this time I have run the Marathon du Medoc twice (here and here), which has been a nice focus. Fear always is a great motivator, and having this long run in the near future gets me out on a regular basis, because failure is not an option.

But I don’t want to become a running bore. I’m not interested in PBs (personal bests). I know I am not a good runner: as a schoolboy I hated cross country runs and hid at the back of the pack, only running when the games master threatened to send late runners around again. Nice. But now, as a rapidly ageing old dude, I figure that running long distances is a safe form of mid-life crisis.

The normal pattern for guys my age is to pack on the pounds and become a fatty. And the usual thing is to gradually lose muscle mass at the same time. That’s a path I’d rather not take, but I do so love food and wine. The thought of giving up wine, in particular, or even rationing it – or, perish the thought, having wine free days – scares me on a very deep level. If a fellow wine writer comes up to me and tells me that they have four wine-free nights a week, then I’m tempted to question whether they are in the right job.

That’s what I love about running. I may drink every day. I may exceed the government’s recommended alcohol unit intake by quite a distance. But I can run 42 km without any consequences other than a small degree of stiffness the next day. So it is a complete pain to be injured and unable to run. This is the first time this has happened to me, and it is really frustrating. If I can’t exercise, fatness beckons. And I lose the lovely post-exercise buzz. It’s hard to explain to a non-runner how good it feels after you’ve come back from a 15 km training run.

Today’s gym trip was a success. Although there’s still soreness in the outside of my knee, running on the treadmill (just 2.5 km) didn’t hurt any more, and it feels better for it now. Doing some other stuff also made me feel less anxious about getting fat. Cycling was painless. I’m very pleased, and I’ll start running outside (much better than treadmills) in a few days.

Champagne Raphaël & Vincent Bérêche Montagne 2004

bereche montagne

I had this remarkable Champagne at Mission E2 on Friday, with Pepe Raventos and Michael Sager-Wilde. They both had dinner plans and so I got to finish it, which was rather splendid, because it’s a really thought-provoking bottle from the fabulous Raphaël & Vincent Bérêche. They are growers, but they also make wine from special terroirs they don’t have holdings in, such as this wine. So the wines from their own vineyards are Bérêche et Fils, while the selected crus are labelled as Raphaël & Vincent Bérêche. Production is tiny.

Raphaël & Vincent Bérêche Montagne Premier Cru 2004 Champagne, France
This is Chardonnay from Montagne de Reims, from the premier cru Trépail vineyard, which is one of the few in the Montagne that is Chardonnay dominant. It’s extra brut, with a dosage of 4 g/l and it was disgorged in December 2013. Very taut and fresh, in a linear style, showing great balance with high acidity. Linear, lemony and pure with amazing presence. Such a beautiful wine, showing lovely clean taut fruit and a slightly salty mineral character. 94/100

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

(Not) meeting Robert Parker

This week Robert Parker was in town. The most famous wine critic of all: a true wine celebrity. And he was holding a press conference! This was quite a thing.

I was very excited. While I know some of the Wine Advocate team (I have spent quite a bit of time with both Luis and Neal), I had never met Robert Parker. And for many of us who started our wine habits in the 1990s, he was The Man.

I came to wine writing via an out of control wine hobby. So, gate crashing the world of wine writing, it has been cool for me to meet some of my wine heroes – the likes of Oz Clarke, James Halliday and Jancis Robinson. They’re the people who wrote the books and made the TV shows that I devoured as a wine newbie.

Was I at last to get the chance to meet Robert Parker?

In short, no. There was no invite!

Someone at the Wine Advocate head office had presumably gone through the press list and taken out certain names. My name got scratched through. As did Tim Atkin’s. And Adam Lechmere tells me he got invited then uninvited. Of course, I’m no big shot. With space constraints on the venue, could Tim and I have just failed to make the cut? It seems not. In what parallel universe does The Cambridge Wine Blogger  (Alexa rank 5.3 million, Klout score 53) come higher up on a press list than Tim or Adam?

This reminds me a bit of the infamous way that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson used to deal with the press. If you asked a difficult question or upset him in some way, you’d get banned. (See this wonderful example here.)

I know lots of people have been mean and unfair towards Parker and his publication. But while I have been somewhat critical of the practice of scoring wines and the whole wine critic model, I hope I’ve always been fair, and I’ve never been mean.

Meeting Pepe Raventós

pepe raventos

I popped into Mission E2 last night before dinner to meet up with Pepe Raventós. What a dude.

His family have been super-important in the development of Cava – until recently they owned giant producer Cordorniu. But in 2012 he decided to do something brave and quite drastic. He took his highly regarded family winery (Raventós i Blanc) out of the Cava DO, and has embarked on establishing a new appellation, Conca Del Riu Anoia.

The rules for this new appellation will be much stricter. It will be geographically delineated to a relatively small area around the Anoia River valley between the Anoia and Foix Rivers. Only native varieties will be allowed. Yields will be restricted, and the vineyards must be managed biodynamically (Demeter certified). There’ll be a longer minimum ageing period. So far Raventos and one other high quality producer (who can’t go public yet) are working on this, and their hope is to get the geographic indication approved, and then make it a DO. It’s about returning the focus of Cava to the vineyards and to the place.

Pepe is an interesting guy. He really gets wine. Since training as an enologist  in Madrid, he has worked with the likes of Didier Dagueneau in Pouilly Fumé, Olivier Lamy in Saint Aubin, Harald Hexamer in the Nahe and Phillippe Blanc in Alsace. That is quite a CV. He’s currently living in New York with his wife and four children: they live on the upper east side and send their kids to public school. From here, he’s regularly flying back to Spain, but living in New York helps him work the markets. His plan is to move the family back to Spain in the next couple of years.

With his understanding of interesting wine, and his wide experience, it will be interesting to see how Pepe progresses with this project of creating a Spanish sparkling wine appellation that’s a true peer of the best wines of Champagne.

An amazing fine wine lunch at Chez Bruce

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This was one of the most remarkable lunches I’ve experienced – and I’ve been to quite a few special lunches. The food, company and wines were all just perfect. The pace was ideal, too: there was no need to rush these special bottles: we started at 1215 and finished at 1730.

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Keith and Greg

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Jim and NeilOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Neleen and Nigel

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Nicolette and Keith

It was hosted by Keith Prothero, whose cellar we were depleting, and guest of honour was Nicolette Waterford, who was over from South Africa on business. Also present: Nigel Platts-Martin, Neleen Strauss, Greg Sherwood, Christelle Guibert, Neil Beckett and Jim Budd. It’s an ideal number for a lunch, because you get a decent pour from each bottle, and it’s possible all to take part in the same conversation over the table.

Chez Bruce was at it’s usual best, and sommelier Sara Bachiorri did a great job with the wines. The conversation was ALL off the record, which is a good thing for all concerned.

Wines like these deserve to be drunk in a setting like this. They shouldn’t just be tasted.

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Champagne Bollinger RD 1996 France (magnum)
This was the 2011 disgorgement. So tight, linear and fine with trademark 1996 acidity that, in this case, is well integrated. Lemony, linear and precise with such purity. This will probably be immortal, especially in magnum. 94/100

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Coche-Dury Meursault 2004 Burgundy, France
Village level, but exceptional. So pure, fine, elegant and linear with lemony fruit, distinct but subtle mineral/matchstick hints and a bit of spiciness. Everything just works together so perfectly, it’s a really lovely beguiling wine. 96/100

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Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2008 Burgundy, France
Creamy, slightly buttery nose with lovely pear and white peach fruit. Soft textured and concentrated, but there’s a bit of minerally freshness on the finish. 93/100

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Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2007 Burgundy, France
Lovely taut, lemony and mineral nose. Real finesse and purity. Detail and minerality on the palate with fine acidity and lovely precision. A very fine, linear wine. 95/100

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Armand Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru 2001 Burgundy, France
This is incredibly beautiful. Textured, elegant and pure with refined, seductive red cherry fruit and a bit of meatiness. Lovely finesse and purity, with some subtle leafy greenness in the background. Such a pure wine. 97/100

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Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Musigny Grand Cru 2001 Burgundy, France
Subtle, textured and warm with fine red cherry fruit and some plumminess. Silky with a bit of fine spiciness and elegant sweet fruit. Lovely elegance here. 95/100

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Domaine Dujac Clos St Denis Grand Cru 2001 Burgundy, France
A wine that combines power with finesse. Taut with lovely cherry and raspberry fruit, showing nice structure and density. Slightly stern and intellectual: a tutorial rather than a date. 95/100

Château La Mission Haut Brion 1978 Graves, Bordeaux, FranceElegant, sweet and pure, with blackcurrant bud, spice and some subtle herbal notes. Mouthfilling, silky and with a fine-grained structure, this is a mature wine with a fine, sweet personality. Lovely finesse here. 96/100

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Château Haut Brion 1982 Graves, Bordeaux, France
Warm, sweet and ripe with smooth cherries, plums and blackberries. Quite smooth and yet there’s some intensity here, as well as some grip. A very nice, mature wine, although it wasn’t quite as compelling as we were expecting it to be. 94/100

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Château Mouton Rothschild 1986 Bordeaux, France
This was served blind. Aromatic, pure, fine red cherry fruit core, with lovely freshness and precision. It’s quite elegant, and it tastes much younger than it actually is. Ageing beautifully. I had it down as right bank rather than left, which tells you a bit about the personality of this amazing wine. 96/100

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Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay 1942 Rioja, Spain
This was served blind. It’s mature, malty, sweet and bold with a warmth to the sweet fruit, yet it’s elegant and quite beautiful. We had no idea of its age: for an 73 year old wine, this is astonishing. So complete, elegant and assured, with all the flavours beautifully integrated, and still with a sweet core of fruit. 95/100

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Château d’Yquem 1986 Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
I just love this wine. Stylish, silky, pure and sweet with viscous, creamy texture and complex pear, peach and apricot fruit with some savoury waxy notes. Complex and beautiful. 96/100

Domaine des Aubuisières Le Marigny Selection de Grains Nobiles Vouvray Moelleux 1989 Loire, France
A beautiful Vouvray that will probably outlive me. Complex lemon, apricot and marmalade notes with powerful acidity and incredible vitality. Sweet but not too sweet. Fabulous. 95/100

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Crab tartlet with thinly sliced scallop salad, bisque vinaigrette and chives

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Rare roast venison loin with rocket, truffle, coolea and hazelnuts

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Roast veal and sweetbread with lyonnaise fondant potato and wild mushrooms

The perfect wine critic, and assigning confidence to scores

brunellotasting

Yesterday I tasted 62 different Brunellos from the 2010 vintage. I wrote short tasting notes, and gave each wine a score.

But it’s quite a task tasting 62 wines like this together in a short space of time. Do I think I got all the wines right? And how much confidence do I have in my scores? These are important questions for wine writers, because critics do this sort of thing all the time. Tasting notes and scores like these are their currency. It’s what they are selling. If you are an important enough critic, people will use these scores to sell bottles. Collectors will use them as the basis of dropping serious $$$ on wines that they haven’t tasted.

So, to answer my questions. No, I think I will have overrated some wines and underrated others. But tastings like this give me a chance to get a broad perspective. I’d be much more confident of my verdicts if I’d spent more time with each wine – say, opening two or three of them and spending the evening with them, or sitting down with flights of five or six at a time, and spending much longer critiquing each. So, as with many things in life, there’s a trade off between volume and quality. Interestingly, I’m much more confident of some of these instant verdicts than others.

This raises an interesting broader question: what would the perfect wine critic look like?
In many areas of professional endeavour we are used to the idea that there are objective measures of performance, and that those who perform to higher standards get rewarded and recognized over those who exhibit less competence. Is this also true of wine tasting?

There are two elements to the performance of a wine critic, which can be separated out, and in my opinion only one of these is measurable.

The first is in terms of raw tasting ability, and this would be fairly straightforward to measure by sensory scientists, although I can think of precisely zero critics who would allow their palates to be assessed like this. How well do a critic’s tasting faculties work? Are they sensitive or insensitive to smells and tastes? Faced with a large set of wines including duplicates, will they pick the duplicates out? Faced with repeated sets of wines, will they be consistent in their scoring? And let’s bring memory into this: how good are they at recognizing wines when they are tasting double blind?

It’s interesting that some of the leading critics have allowed stories to circulate that suggest that they, among all critics, are particularly gifted. They infer that nature has bestowed on them rare and unusual powers in the realms of taste and smell. But this can be measured.

The second element can’t be measured, but is perhaps even more important, and it’s because of this there can be no such thing as a perfect critic. It’s the exercising of the critical faculty: deciding which wines are better than others. It’s ‘taste’ as in aesthetic appraisal. The idea that there is one correct way to read or assess a wine, and that as critics get better at their job they converge on this correct assessment, is false. There’s a level at which wines can be thought of as good or bad, but this is a very basic level of assessment. Beyond this, critics make style choices, and even highly competent critics are likely to disagree on many wines. There’s room for a plurality of opinions, and if we are to use critics we need to choose which ones align more closely to our own tastes.