By Oliver Styles | Posted Monday, 05-Mar-2018
Even vintage variation can’t sway critics from giving surprisingly consistent scores for big-name wines.
If you find yourself regularly watching downhill skiing on the television you will, after a few races, understand that you are only watching it for two reasons. Firstly, like most sports, you want to see your country – or your hero – win. Secondly, and quite disturbingly, will come the inescapable realisation that you’re waiting for someone to crash.
Watching jumpsuit-clad men and women hurtle down a slope registering times that are only tenths and hundredths of a second apart, with no major errors on the way down, is athletically marvellous but, unfortunately, reasonably dull. Watching one or more of them lose an edge on a turn, or get their balance wrong on a jump, is exciting. It’s exciting for the wrong reasons – like I imagine watching a gladiator fight would be exciting.
And so to the world’s truly great wines where we similarly find an endless procession of scores whose differences match those of the timings of a downhill podium. Tenths of a second; a 100 point here, a 95-plus there, and a 97-99 squeezed in the middle, holding the bouquet, crying bitterly on the inside.
The reviews of these wines are so overwhelmingly positive, year-in, year-out, that it’s got to the stage where I’d like to think we’re waiting for Haut-Brionor Margaux to release a clanger. I’m half in anticipation of that downhill crash. Imagine the worldwide whirlwind of a review that saw a first growth Bordeaux get something like 82 points. I wouldn’t be surprised if, sometime soon, some reviewer does it just to get their profile a notch higher.
It does happen, of course. The 2013 vintage produced an initial 87-89 points for Château Lafite and the words “at this price point, a major underachiever” from Robert Parker. This has since been revised up to 90. Mind you, the other 2013 First Growths haven’t broken past 92, so it’s in good company. If you adjusted for a poor vintage, the wines are still, effectively, 95-plus.
Since 2013, however, not one First Growth in the Wine Advocate has dropped below 95 points. With a touch of jostling they keep clocking the same, world-beating downhill runs. And it’s not just the Wine Advocate. You have to work hard to find a First Growth or the likes of a Petrus or an Yquem come in at under 95 points or the equivalent (it’s a little harder to extrapolate from a 20-point system but it generally works out) anywhere else. And let’s be honest, the difference between 95 and 100 points is in the amygdala of the beholder. It tips the reviewer quickly from attempted objectivity of wine reviewing back into the realms of the subjective. Neither you nor I have exactly the same palate as James Suckling or Jancis Robinson MW or Neal Martin or James Molesworth, and so on. But no matter who you go with, you’re unlikely to be upset.
With this in mind I compiled the best possible list of Bordeaux I could. Call it the “untouchables”:
If critics haven’t got anything nice to say about the above then by all means they should say it. Give me your score and your tasting note. In 2012, Lafite’s 91 versus the other four’s 96+ scores is noteworthy if you read the Wine Advocate, for instance. But in the meantime, if everything is all tickety-boo up top and we’re not dealing with a “difficult” vintage (I say this with 2017 En Primeur just round the corner), here’s my thought: don’t bother. There’s really no need.
Give one or two of them a star or a double tick if you must but I’ll take it as a given that those wines are great. If I ever get round to the headache of a purchase decision within that rarified group, rest assured, I’m probably not going to let a 98-100 vs. a 95-plus sway me. I’ll be going on blind brand attachment. Attachment of the sort that makes people avoid Mouton because, to them, it’s still a Second Growth, or Le Pin because it’s a bit too Nouveau Riche, darling. Attachment of the sort that makes you practice your nonchalance when opening a bottle of Lafite. Attachment of the sort you might call belching snobbery.
My real issue is that, given the pedigree of these wines (which, incidentally, ensures they are given the benefit of the doubt); given their repeated excellence, even in “off” vintages; given our love of tasting notes and record keeping; given that most wine lovers deride speculation; given the role of the critic – the continued publishing of anything above 95 points is basically advertising for brands that don’t need it. It is neither constructive nor criticism. It’s just a giant blue-chip circle jerk. What good does it serve us to be repeatedly told great wines are great? It’s got to the point where I’m watching for that crash. Everything else is, well, boredom.