RATING WINE IS NOT A PERFECT SCIENCE
Those who venture that the best wine is always the one in your glass, or that the best palate and the only one that counts is always your own, are either naïve or blinkered – or perhaps mediocre producers trying to talk up their plonk. There’s the good, the bad and the ugly… Some wines are better than others, and when it comes to judging wines on behalf of others, some people are better at it than others. Plain and simple. It’s not only the critics, collectors and wine-loving public who engage in comparisons. Generally speaking, the industry is also supportive. Winemakers differentiate between various vineyards and select from different tanks and barrels in making quality and style judgements even before the wines are finished and put on sale. And it’s not just a marketing whim or gut feel that distinguishes the standard bearers from second- and third-tier ranges – sometimes the standard can vary so much that a
vintner may choose not to bottle a reserve wine in some years.
Of course, tasting and rating wine is not a perfect science; gauging the quality of a wine is subjective to a point and opining on style or interest value even more so. Which is why there are arbiters who regularly refrain from proclaiming a single wine as the best in its class and choose to award several or many wines with the same number of points and stars or the same colour medal even though the wines vary according to specific characteristics. But, that there is a place for talent scouts and experienced guides, there is no doubt – if only to give suggestions, although in many instances so as to save their audience time and money while perhaps also educating. Well-trained palates who judge wines regularly are able to do a proper assessment. Good, experienced tasters can be more objective in their judgements,
guarding against personal preferences and prejudices, mentally recalling various benchmarks against which to calibrate with
an impressive degree of consistency.
The challenge for wine lovers wanting reliable advice is to seek out independent critics who are honest and trustworthy. Because of our high expectations when it comes to wine critics, many favour the more democratic route and rely on tasting panels rather than individual tasters and on ratings that are conducted ‘blind’ rather than ‘sighted’. ‘Blind’ tastings are widely considered to be more impartial and the best wine competitions involve teams of judges charged with first tasting independently and then deliberating amongst each other before finally arriving at a conclusion by consensus. That said, however, there are pro’s and con’s to both approaches… Typically, during a ‘blind’ tasting, professional wine tasters are told up front what category of wine is before them on the tasting bench and asked to describe and score only what they can see, smell and taste. Whereas ‘sighted’ tastings enable critics to assess a wine with the benefit of hindsight – taking into account the specific areas of origin, the nature of the vineyards and the vintages, pedigrees and track records. It’s all quite logical really…
Editor of the Top Wine SA website and blog, Mike Froud is manager of the SA Wine & Cellar Classifications, author of the book My WineRoute South Africa, editor of South Africa’s Pinotage Wine Guide and managing editor of the Icons book showcasing the results of the Trophy Wine Show.