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.