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11.10.2011

When I Look at a Wine, I See...

IMG_9719.jpgMy buddy Joe Roberts, who runs the blog OneWineDude.Com had a nice posting the other day that pointed out one of the great idiocies of what I might call "academic" wine criticism. Entitled "Are Wine Critics 'Wasting' Points on a Wine's Color?" his article explained how most "official" wine scoring methodologies (both those espoused by critics, as well as those taught in the more rigorous wine education curricula around town) include a certain number of points for the "color" of a wine.

While I've never been a fan of such strictly metered wine appraisal (my own scoring system attempts, perhaps feebly, to be fuzzy and approximate), I must admit, even in dismissal, I've never given much thought to the normal breakdown of scoring that some critics use.

Here's Robert Parker's explanation of how his 100-point scoring methodology breaks down:

"In terms of awarding points, my scoring system gives every wine a base of 50 points. The wine's general color and appearance merit up to 5 points. Since most wines today are well made, thanks to modern technology and the increased use of professional oenologists, they tend to receive at least 4, often 5 points. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points, depending on the intensity level and dimension of the aroma and bouquet as well as the cleanliness of the wine. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points, and again, intensity of flavor, balance, cleanliness, and depth and length on the palate are all important considerations when giving out points. Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement--aging--merits up to 10 points."

So, in theory, having a less than desirable color (or appearance) can mean the difference between a 95 point wine and a 100-point wine. It's hard to imagine downgrading a wine that tastes like a 100-point wine because of a thin, washed out color (as many very old, but amazing wines have), or having a wine that tastes like 95-points upgraded to 100 on the basis of a brilliantly purple, satiny appearance.

Other scoring methodologies give even more weight to color. But isn't that a little ridiculous? While it's all fine and dandy to suggest, albeit somewhat romantically, that wine represents a whole aesthetic experience that engages smell, taste, touch, and sight, there's a fairly strong argument to be made that a wine's color has almost nothing to do with its quality. Just ask anyone who's had a truly remarkable Burgundy that looked for all its pale pinkness like someone soaked a few hibiscus leaves in hot water for a minute or two. Color tells us something about a wine, to be sure, but not whether it is going to be any good.

Of course, wine's appearance is not just about color. There's also its density, and its viscosity, and those oh-so-famous legs that inexperienced wine lovers tend to talk about when they want to sound more knowledgeable than they are. Like color, these characteristics convey information, but not enough to make a true judgment of a wines quality.

Whenever someone asks me about the legs of a wine, I'm now in the habit of quoting my friend Karen MacNeil, who provided the best description of them that I have ever heard.

"As with women," she said, "the shape of the legs tell you nothing about the true quality of the wine."

Don't get me wrong. I love looking at wines. My heart beats a little faster when I see a young wine that is cloudy with a fine haze of suspended particles, which typically means that it is unfiltered. This often means that I might be in for a treat, as I enjoy the textures that such wines possess, or on rare occasions, that I might be in for a microbiological nightmare of funk (which is, of course, what winemakers are filtering out, when they do it).

I adore seeing a wine pour out of a bottle to settle bright amber-orange, like a newly steeped ice tea, which often means that I'll be tasting a white wine that has been soaked on its skins for weeks or months, yielding crazy-interesting aromas and a wonderful tannic quality in the mouth. Either that or I'm going to have a killer old white wine, like the 12-year-old Gavelas Assyrtiko that you see me holding up there on the right.

And don't let me see you pour a dusty old bottle of burgundy into a glass, with a wine so pale that it couldn't pass for even a modern rosé. I'm liable to knock you over in my race to the cup.

When I look at wine I see lots of things that I love, but none of them tell me with any assurance whether the wine is ultimately any good, nor do they affect my judgement of the wine's quality once I've breathed it in, sloshed it around, and glugged it down. Hell, one might as well give points for the design of the label.

Wait a minute. Now there's an idea....

Comments (6)

1WineDude wrote:
11.11.11 at 4:32 AM

Thanks for the mention and glad you enjoyed it! Loved the quote from Karen by the way! One of the more interesting follow-ons from that article, I think, was the discussion afterward - people genuinely seem to agree with what you're saying here: color is an indicated, and source of aesthetic pleasure, but could hardly be considered of high importance to them beyond that. I.e., while we might hold a standard in our minds about, say, the quince & white flower aromas of a great Mosel Riesling, we'll drink it even if it's a cloudy mess, so long as it smells and tastes like Mosel Riesling!

I agree totally with your assessment of RMP's point distribution - while I doubt that he actually treats it that exactly, it saddens me to think that a wine's color could potentially make the difference between an 88 point wine and a 93 point wine, for example: and we all know the potential (very large) sales implications for the brands whose wines carry those two scores.

Cheers!

Bob wrote:
11.11.11 at 5:04 AM

Re: Here's Robert Parker's explanation of how his 100-point scoring methodology breaks down: "In terms of awarding points, my scoring system gives every wine a base of 50 points. The wine's general color and appearance merit up to 5 points. Since most wines today are well made, thanks to modern technology and the increased use of professional oenologists, they tend to receive at least 4, often 5 points. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points, depending on the intensity level and dimension of the aroma and bouquet as well as the cleanliness of the wine. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points, and again, intensity of flavor, balance, cleanliness, and depth and length on the palate are all important considerations when giving out points. Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement--aging--merits up to 10 points."

Two comments: (1) as this posting indicates, if these instructions were followed the end result wouldn't tell you much about the wine's quality; and (2) I suspect Parker and his people don't follow this in any event. It just makes it sound as if what they do is an objective analysis.

Todd wrote:
11.11.11 at 9:55 AM

You know what...that idea is not a crazy one.
Given the questions surrounding percentage of points, given for appearance, by both critics and judges. Cross that with how much of wine purchasing and the subsequent perceptions of product, are based on packaging.
You might have a new world hybrid scoring model...once you figure out how to carve out some more points for sustainable/natural/organic/BioD.
;)

Andrea wrote:
11.11.11 at 10:25 AM

Thank you for a fascinating blog about a subject that I have not thought about too much ... until now. I've never judged a wine by its color--wouldn't even occur to me to do so. And the legs quote is pure genius!

doug wilder wrote:
11.11.11 at 2:25 PM

I responded to Joe's post mentioning that like Parker, I assign up to five points for color. I agree with him that because of technically well-made wines, it is uncommon for color to dip below a four, or five. Somebody who knows what they are looking at (I picked a Joseph Swan Pinot Noir for my example), is not going to dismiss the lack of color saturation but rather note it as correct, just as I expect a Cabernet to display dark purple core, moving to clear ruby at the edge..

What I use the color assessment for is when a white wine has an odd hue to the color (FDC Yellow), or a red wine is uncharacteristically dull. These signs can indicate that there are further issues on the nose and palate that will become apparent soon enough, and therefore affect the overall impression.

I agree with Joe that allowing up to 15 points for color is excessive. Maybe a revision to 2 points is indicated? I don't know. But a wine that shows badly in the color (unless correct for that particular wine) is not likely going to be the difference between a 95 (or 85) and 100 points. It is like a car with bald tires and thin upholstery, you should expect there is a hole in the exhaust too.

Brian Irion wrote:
11.21.11 at 4:49 PM

Hello Alder, I love love that my local wine store in Illinois posts your blog. The world is small indeed, united by the vine. Keep tasting, writing, sharing, educating. Happ[y Thanksgiving. Brian

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