Thursday, 14 November 2013

What the wine critics don’t tell you (part 1)

"I have a severely depleted nose and palate, ruined by the excesses of fast food, recreational drugs, lager, fags and oral sex while at school and university, followed by 10+ years in the City as a Banker where I regularly frequented establishments characterized by moral laxity (known as ECMLs in City parlance)". (Humphrey Harvester, fictitious wine critic).

Taste is very subjective. Critics’ style preferences have the biggest influence on scores
It always amuses me when critics disclose with great alacrity and seriousness their ‘completely independent reviews and opinions’ (from merchants or anyone else on the ‘sell side’), as though this form of ‘independence’ is the bedrock of their wisdom and the quality of their tasting notes and scores. What about disclosing their style preferences as well? 

You can never be truly independent of your personal style preferences, can you? Surely these are the most important factors a critic should disclose because they will colour every single tasting note and score but the critic never discloses them. Just look at professional tasters’ assessments – they very often differ on their opinions and scores.

Subjective versus objective
I recognize that good tasters can isolate some of their subjective style preferences to facilitate objective wine assessments and that they can generally agree on broad categorizations of wine by quality. Most experienced wine drinkers could spot the large difference in quality between, say, a simple NZ sauvignon blanc v’s Dagueneau’s Silex from Pouilly-Fumé, or a Côtes du Rhône v’s Vincent Avril’s Clos des Papes from Chateauneuf-Du-Pape. But most wines are in the middle range of quality, not at the outer edges like my examples, and agreeing on assessments in this middle range becomes much harder.

In this middle ground, my own experiences (as a 46 year old I have drunk my fair share of fine wines and ‘belly wash’ over the past 25 years of working, living and travelling in the UK, France, Asia, Africa and the Americas) and voracious reading of wine critics and commentators have convinced me that a taster’s subjective style preferences easily trump his or her objective assessments of quality when it comes to scores. Assessments of quality (even some faults) and styles are so subjective and influenced by personal experiences, perceptions, idiosyncrasies and style preferences that these make a very big difference to scores.

For example, what some tasters would call a fault (e.g. brett, the odour which smells like a barnyard in some red wines), others would call a positive. On style preferences, some may see oak, extraction, sweet tannins and fruit as negative attributes while others may see these as positives. Also, people can have differences in sensitivity to odours and flavours (e.g. 30% of the population can’t detect rotundone which creates the peppery aroma in Syrah). If you can’t smell some of the more subtle aromas, you may mark the wine lower. In this middle ground, a taster’s opinion on quality is so subjective and influenced by how he or she perceives a so-called fault or certain characteristics.

Just look at the following examples of descriptors and see how 2 different tasters, each with a different style preference, could use polar opposite adjectives to describe the same wine. One taster’s ‘rich and concentrated’ wine could mean an ‘over-extracted, unbalanced jammy fruit bomb’ for another. Who is right or wrong? Well, that is just a matter of opinion.

Style preference: big, fruity, oaked, alcoholic wines
Style preference: Elegant, mineral, subtle wines

Positive descriptors
Negative descriptors
Concentrated, rich, saturated
Over-extracted, jammy fruit bomb, unbalanced
Toasty, espresso
Over-oaked, bitter
Unnatural, manipulated
Under ripe
Old style, subtle
Over ripe, lacking structure
Powerful, viscous
Intriguing, flawed

Negative descriptors
Positive descriptors
Elegant, subtle fruit
Light weight
Mineral, silky tannins
Earthy, gamey
Oxidative or astringent or light weight or quirky

I am not saying that tasting is completely subjective, and I accept that there is some expertise involved in identifying various aromas and flavours which the professional wine critic has developed during the course of his or her career.

However, no matter how hard they try, there is a level beyond ‘being objective’ where professionals will score certain wines down when others rate the same wines up because of personal experiences, perceptions, idiosyncrasies and style preferences. The taste of wine isn’t simply a question of what is in the glass.

Humphrey Harvester, the fictitious wine critic
Let me indulge myself for a minute. I like the idea of a fictitious critic (let’s call him Humphrey Harvester) unpacking his heart and writing an honest introduction of himself on his site. Serious, legal disclaimer: this is a completely made-up character (although you see a number of look-alikes in and around Chelsea, Daylesford Organic farm shop in the Cotswolds, Courchevel 1850 and Rock, North Cornwall) and any similarity to anyone is completely coincidental, blah, blah, blah.

Here is the introduction on his web site (the web site doesn’t exist – I checked):

“I am completely unattached and have no interest in any vineyard, producer, distributor, retailer or any other wine business. I therefore offer up completely independent reviews and opinions.

However I have a severely depleted nose and palate, ruined by the excesses of fast food, recreational drugs, lager, fags and oral sex while at school and university, followed by 10+ years in the City as a Banker where I regularly frequented establishments characterized by moral laxity (known as ECMLs in City parlance).

As a result, I have the olfactory receptors of an amoeba. My nose and palate are not tuned to the acidity, delicacy and nuances of style, fruit, flavor and aroma of old style, authentically made wines. I like vindaloo-style wines – you know, the sorts of wines which taste the same whatever the producer and country in the world, whatever the time of day or night: big, hot, rich, thick, succulent, saturated in sweet ripe fruit, dominated by blackberry paste, braised plum, crushed fig, vanilla and toast.  The sort of wines which bring me out in a warm, comforting flush (like sitting in front of a crackling fire at our house in the Alps) so high is the alcohol level.

As a result, these are the types of wines I always score highly, probably by 5-10 points more than austere, old world wines with that nebulous characteristic of terroir or sense of place. And I can’t possibly score one of those insipid, natural wines (which taste of Chateau de Coq-Rot) higher than 80 points.

I also have the liver and constitution of a bison, as well as a very understanding wife and 7 dysfunctional children (from three different marriages) who don’t mind me spending months away from home whilst tasting and eating at the world’s great vineyards and restaurants”.

I felt I should disclose these personal style preferences because they have a large bearing on how I describe and score wines.

Like Humphrey, why do critics never mention these types of critical attributes and arrangements? I think this would give the reader a far better insight into the critic and the usefulness of their scores, rather than a bland “I am independent”.

Disclosure of preferences would help
I know I am being facetious but there is a serious point here though; as far as tasting notes are concerned, critics could reveal their preferences: “I like big wines with gobs of fruit, vanilla and espresso notes” or “I have a predilection for austere wines which a light in alcohol and fruit but express minerality and complexity” or “I like all styles but it really depends on what I am eating and who I am with because I score context as much as what as is in the glass”.  It is very difficult to claim that ‘this palate is good’ and ‘that palate is bad’ because taste is so subjective but you could describe what types of wines you like which would give an indication of what type of palate you have.

For the consumer, this would be very useful to know in a critic’s preamble because they could then select critics to follow, in the same way they should select a wine merchant – i.e. one who mirrors their own preferences.

For some critics, they wouldn’t want to disclose this of course because it would box them in and force them to admit that tasting is so affected by personal preferences. Critics want you to believe that taste is a product of what is in the glass, that they can review any wine impartially and scientifically, detect a litany of different fruits, tobaccos, compotes and teas, and then distil it down to a definitive tasting note, score and ageing profile. But tasting is predominantly an art not a science and its beauty is in the mouth of the beholder.

Disclosure of personal preferences would create another layer of complexity for some websites branded eponymously (e.g. or where they employ multiple reviewers, presumably all with different preferences and therefore opinions and scores. To get the most out of a critic, don’t just choose the website; you need to choose the right critic who matches your own preferences.

Jamie Goode has written an excellent article on the art and science of tasting wines called “Wine tasting: subjective or objective” which I would recommend people read.

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