With holiday season now well upon us, I thought it might be good to look at the whole “wine reviewer/wine score” issue. Many people tend to buy more wine during the holidays for parties and dinners and often rely on wine scores/reviewers/magazines as a way to make their purchases. But is this a good idea?
Well, like many things in life, it depends!
First, a few words on wine reviewers. There are really two that dominate the business in North America — The Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. The first is a glossy publication that helped revolutionize wine’s popularity a few decades ago, using articles, great photography and 100 point rating scales. It also has lots of lovely, expensive advertisements, which led some to voice concerns that the ads were impacting the wine scores.
The second major reviewer is Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Mr. Parker started his magazine as an “independent publication” taking no ads, and that continues to this day. He also revolutionized the 100 point scale, which ended up causing some winemakers to try and deliberatly make 100 point wines (more on that below). He has also become incredibly influential — a great review/score can virtually guarantee the success of a winery, and a poor one…well, you can guess. Those who like him rely completely on his reviews and those of the people he hires. Those who don’t call him “Colonel Bob” and decry his impact on the industry (check out the movie Mondo Vino for some of that).
Interestingly, in BC and Canada, we have a couple of wine publications, including Wine Access and Wine Tidings. For me, they are characterized by one main thing — there are few, if any, bad wine reviews. All appears to be good with BC/Canadian wines (don’t get me started on that one).
So what about wine scores? Almost everyone now uses the 100 point scale, with different components (look, smell, taste, potential) all factoring into the final score. As mentioned above, this has resulted in everything from trophy wines apparently made to get high scores to “90 point snobbery”, whereby some people will only buy wines that get 90 points or above.
So how do you wade through all this to find the best wine for your dollar?
Well, the thing about wine ratings to remember is that everybody’s tastes are different and — in particular — people like some styles of wines more than others. The latter is especially important, because that can’t help but impact how you rate a wine i.e. a style you like is more likely to get a higher score than one you don’t.
Because of this, I pay as much attention to the review as I do to the score. Because I like wines with more fruit in them, I tend to stay away from descriptions that include words like “herbaceous, cedar, coffee, mocha”. Even in 90 point wines, the result — for me — is not very favourable.
This is especially the case when looking at the kind of grapes used and where the wine is from. I know, for example, that Bordeaux — many people’s favourite expensive wine — leans towards herbaceous, cedar flavours that tend to mask the black currant and cherry fruit in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc-based wines. But those same grapes in Australian, Californian and — to a certain extent — BC wines have the reverse flavour profile. So I tend to stick to those if the reviews emphasize those flavours.
Same thing with Grenache-based wines. In the Cotes du Rhone, the result is dried cherries and an interesting mixture of herbs called “garrigue” that is not woody at all. But in Spain, the use of oak barrels usually ads a lot of woody/herbaceous flavours which I don’t like.
At the end of the day, I come back to my mantra — its all about style, and knowing what you like. This can be especially important during the holidays if you are going to spend extra money on wine (either quantity or per bottle). Look for the flavour profile you like, and then spend the extra money if you want. Do the opposite, and you can still brag about your 90+ point wine…but you may not enjoy drinking it.