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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....

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.