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.