Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Scoring standards: Is more intense always better?
Robert Parker certainly thinks so. He won't go above 95 points without using "intense," "powerful" or some synonym.
One might expect that at the Concours Mondial, the European wine competition that is perhaps the best-run in the world, the standards would be different. One would be wrong.
The Concours has the best rating system of any competition I've seen. They use a complex statistical system to track individual tasters, adjusting the scores relative to the group and also if ratings rise or drop relative to other tasters at different times in the day (i.e., you get tired and cranky, or get up on the right side of the bed.)
(Here's the list of this year's Best in Class winners, including a shocker: Best Red Wine is from Catalonia.)
While international in its choice of judges, the Concours is Europe-dominated, which makes sense as the consumers who pay attention to its gold medals are in European markets. (Europeans are always astounded when I explain the open hostility many Americans have for the continent; that European support for Obama in 2008 was a negative for him, for example. If I write a post like this and don't get at least one comment to the effect of, "Who gives a damn what a bunch of European wine experts think," it means I just don't have enough readers.)
So one would think that the categories would reflect the so-called European palate: Balance, minerality, acidity, that sort of thing.
The standards are based on some developed by the O.I.V. (International Organization of Wine and Vine), and are as flawed as you'd expect something that emerges from a huge committee with five official languages to be.
Limpidity: 5. I don't even know what "limpidity" means, but it doesn't matter because the director encouraged us to give the maximum score to every wine in this category and that's what I did.
Sight: 5. How that's different from "limpidity" I don't know, but, ditto.
Genuineness: 6. This is impossible because we don't know what the wines are until we're finished for the day. More on this below.
Quality: 16. Appropriate for it to be most important.
Intensity: 8. Much more on this below.
Genuineness: 6. Ditto
Persistence: 8. I first thought that meant "length," but the French head of my jury encouraged me to use it for all aspects of the finish, which makes sense; a bitter finish has to be docked somewhere even it goes on a long time.
Overall Judgment: 11. Kind of a catchall, but it does reflect the experience of wine; often a wine is more or less than the sum of its aspects.
When rating a wine, the first thing I did was quickly give the highest visual ratings; I was only going to dock a wine here if it was flawed, and we didn't get any.
The second thing I did was smell it and give it a score for aromatic intensity.
Then I tasted it, and started filling in the other boxes, beginning with taste intensity. Initially I completely rated the aroma before doing anything else, but eventually I learned that the taste could affect my opinion of the aroma. A funky-smelling wine that tastes bright and fruity has an interesting aroma; a funky-smelling wine that tastes like ass has a bad aroma.
Anyway, taste intensity, like aromatic intensity, is the easiest decision. A wine can be intensely bad, and in fact I gave one flawed wine the highest scores in both "intensity" categories.
But I remembered a time last year when I went to Total Wine in Tampa looking for a white wine to bring to dinner. My friend was making grouper in parchment, a delicate dish. The pourer was pushing a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I acknowledged was potent, but it was more than I wanted. I wanted a wine that wouldn't overpower the dish, and ended with a white from the Loire. It was well-balanced, subtle and went great with the fish.
Had that Loire white been in competition, I would have given it, at best, an adequate score in both aromatic and taste intensity, and that loss of 4 points would probably have prevented a Grand Gold Medal. And yet, its intensity was actually perfect for its style.
Using "intensity" as a flavor category would seem to favor exactly the sort of heavily oaked, super ripe New World reds that Concours judges generally deplore. I don't get it.
The Concours scale and its O.I.V. precursor are based on a classical system of wine evaluation, developed at a time when many wines were underripe. And maybe, in the backs of their minds, these are the standards that the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator are using.
But those days are mostly over, and I suggest the time has come for new standards. No outsider can tell Parker or the Spectator what to do (don't blame me, I tried). But the Concours Mondial could take the lead in telling the world that balance matters more than intensity.
One problem is "genuineness," which should mean varietal or regional typicity. The Concours chooses not to tell you what you're tasting for psychological reasons; if you know you're tasting Turkish whites you might not be as generous as if you think they might be Italian. But it hasn't eliminated "genuineness" as a category, which often had me wildly guessing relative to other wines in the flight. It's uncomfortable, but I agree that I don't want to eliminate typicity as a category because in the real world, you want a Sangiovese that tastes like Sangiovese, not Merlot.
Here's my proposal for new judging categories:
Sight. 4 points. So few wines are visually flawed these days -- we got none out of 150 -- that there's no point in differentiating them here anymore. Moreover, I don't care much if a wine is visually flawed. If that's indicative of greater problems, they will show up in other categories; if not, I'll drink it and say, "it might be cloudy (poor limpidity), but it smells and tastes great."
Complexity 5. Sometimes a one-note wine is perfectly adequate, but complex ones are better.
Genuineness 5. Would count more if it were easier to judge.
Quality 20. I'm giving aroma a little less than a third of the total, the same as the Concours uses now. I can drink a tasty wine with a below-average aroma; not so the other way.
Genuineness 5. Same as above.
Balance 10. Maybe this was supposed to be part of "quality," but it's worth breaking out on its own.
Acidity 5. One could argue that acidity is part of balance. From an American perspective, acidity is the single most important component, because it's California's greatest challenge. Yes, you can have too much, but usually we have too little. Wines should be rewarded for having the acidity right, and specifically penalized when they don't.
Complexity 8. I don't want to over-penalize a one-note wine's flavor for "quality." Removing complexity from "quality" allows a zero in this category without throwing the wine out of the medals.
Finish 8. That's about right. Finish is important but isn't everything.
Overall impression 10. This category is all that matters to most critics -- one overall impression, and is something I blogged about earlier this week.
Of course, there's no way anybody at the Concours will pay any attention to this. Their scale was adapted from some official French thing; mine, I made up while sitting in a cafe.
But mine is better. Check it out -- an overripe, overoaked wine would be out of the medals for failing on "balance" and "acidity." Run the same wine through the Concours scale and you might have to give it a gold.
Don't believe me? I had just such a red wine -- turned out to be a Greek Wine of Drama (love that name). It was ripe, oaky and much sweeter than I wanted it to be. But there was nowhere in the official categories for me to penalize it, other than in the "overall impression." I may have given it enough for a gold though I wouldn't drink it myself.
I asked Thomas Costenoble, the director of the competition, about this and he said, "You cannot penalize wine because it doesn't fit your personal taste."
Well, I didn't. I followed the rules. But as the climate changes and wines continue to change, the rules need to change with them.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 8:25 AM