Rating Wines: Do Shortcuts Help?

French Wine Explorers | Monday, Aug 1st 2011


Did you ever wonder about those retail store vintage notes, and point scores posted near the bottles? How helpful are these shortcuts? To answer this, let’s go back to basics. (More on our post on “Points are for Ping Pong…”)What is meant by a good vintage, and what do point scores mean?

              Grapes are an agricultural product, and a fine vintage means that the weather has been just right, throughout the growing season. The first stages are the budding and flowering, which take place in April and June, respectively. In this stage, the plants are just beginning their annual cycle. The great enemy is severe early spring weather, frost or hail. Berries may fail to develop after the flowering. And so huge collective sighs of relief are heard when the flowering stage goes well.

             Growers then hope that the maturing of grapes will go well. This is the long stage over the summer months, when the small green berries develop into grapes, and then the grapes mature slowly, changing color, accumulating sugars and structure. At this stage, warm days, cool evenings and some rain are needed. If there is a drought, the grapes will risk shriveling. If not, the wines will be rich and concentrated, lacking finesse and acidity, not aging well. Harvest time is crucial. Some rain is desirable, but too much rain would dilute the grapes, and ruin the wine.

            So for a fine vintage, you need the budding and flowering to go well, a long temperate summer with just enough heat and cool night weather, and some rain towards the end of the season, but not too much. Winemakers can correct some of nature’s mistakes, with cooling and temperature controls during the fermentation process. But the weather itself does set parameters. I doubt that skillful manipulation after the harvest can really do much with a mediocre vintage.Wine Tours French Wine Explorers

            A good vintage year affects all wines within the region, from grand cru to village wines. So it is helpful to realize that an inexpensive wine from a fine vintage may be as good as a more expensive wine from a mediocre vintage – and at half the price! So vintage years are helpful. 

            Now as to point scores, let’s say that you are in a wine store, trying to choose between two wines for dinner. “A blockbuster, gobs of fruit, 94” reads one, for $24. “Good effort from this property, 87” reads another, for $18.  Which do you choose?

If price is important, you might buy the $18 wine. Or you buy the $24 wine, due to its higher point score. In neither event have you judged the wine on its merits, instead taking someone else’s subjective evaluation to which a numerical score has been assigned.

 I say that is the wrong way to purchase wine. Point scores cannot tell you when the wine is ready to drink, or what foods the wine complements. Also, scores of different types of wine are not comparable. Crucially, they are based on someone else’s preferences and taste – not your own.

Instead, talk with your retailer. Ask about vintages, and pick a good one. Then tell him what you are having for dinner, and ask which wines are ready to drink, and would go well with the planned dinner. You’ll expand your wine knowledge, and have a much finer dining experience.

Bill Shepard, Wine Editor

Related Posts:

Taste is for Wine, Points are for Ping Pong

How to Read a French Wine Label

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