by Tim Atkin

I’m not 100 points on that

What’s the definition of a 100-point wine? Depending on who’s handing out the numbers, a cynic might say it’s something you can’t afford and don’t want to drink anyway, but the question deserves a more considered answer. Scores are an increasingly big deal in the wine world, relied upon by merchants, auction houses and investors as a short hand for buying and selling wine. They are even used by real consumers from time to time.

We all have our own views of perfection – Roger Federer’s backhand, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice and Citizen Kane are all flawless to me – and wine is no different. By definition, a 100-point wine is exceptional to someone. It’s rare that I get to taste bottles that have been given 100 points by other critics, at least with a few years of age, when prices tend to have climbed beyond my budget, but I sampled three such icons blind at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival recently. More importantly, I didn’t know that they’d been anointed with the ultimate rating, so there was no journalistic agenda on my part.

The wines in question were the 2010 Grosset Gaia from the Clare Valley (given 20/20 by a UK critic), the 2006 Luce Brunello di Montalcino (100 points from an American critic) and 2009 Château Cos d’Estournel, St Estèphe (ditto from another, even more celebrated American critic). The identities of the wine writers don’t really matter here. What counts is that three people whose palates influence buying and selling decisions considered these wines among the greatest they have ever tasted.

What did I give them in a blind tasting? My points were 93 for the Grosset, 87 for the Luce and 88 for the Cos. There were 40 other people in the room and, as you’d expect, there was considerable divergence of opinion. My score for the Grosset was one of the higher ones, while plenty of people enjoyed the Luce and the Cos, both of which I found over-ripe and over-oaked.

I’ve tasted the latter two wines before: Luce at Benvenuto Brunello in February 2012 (the last time Luce was shown blind to the press at the event in Montalcino) when I gave it 87 points and the Cos twice (once from barrel, when I scored it 95, albeit with a note that alluded to its “controversial” style and a second time in Hong Kong, when I gave it 91). Two years on, the wine is getting worse, not better.

My scores are by the by in one sense. The significant thing is that in a roomful of wine writers, winemakers, retailers, wholesalers, importers and consumers, not one person gave any of these three wines 100 points. Even the tasters who liked one or more of the wines didn’t consider them perfect. This is not intended as a criticism of the journalists in question – wine is subjective and, as we know, bottles show better or less well on given days – but it does point to something that is becoming worryingly commonplace: namely, score inflation.

This is not the place to discuss the merits or drawbacks of the 100 or 20-point systems. All I will say is that it’s always seemed a little silly to me that a wine that is barely drinkable can still score 80 points. After all, to get a First Class honours degree at a UK university, you “only” need to get average marks of over 70%. But the convention, to which most wine writers including me subscribe, either tacitly or explicitly, is that 85-89 is the equivalent of a bronze medal, 90-94 a silver and anything above that a gold. The American system has become the international system or, if you like, the gold standard.

The more widely used and accepted the 100-point scale, the more the tempting it is to critics to ramp up their scores. Unsurprisingly, the writers who give the highest points are the ones who are quoted by wineries and retailers. The fastest way to make a name for yourself is to hand out a slew of 98, 99 and eve 100 point reviews. The problem (if that’s what it is) is particularly acute in Australia and the United States, where some pretty ordinary wines regularly score 95 points or more, but it’s happening everywhere. 95 points is the new 90 points.

Is it a conscious decision by some wine writers to give over-inflated scores? In some cases I believe that it is. Their peers may laugh at them, but why should they care? The people who make and sell wine will be eternally grateful, especially in the current economic climate, when expensive wine is difficult to shift. Consumers want guidance, which is why high scores sell bottles. It’s only a guess, but I think we are going to see a lot more 100 pointers in the future. Whether the wines truly deserve it is another matter.

Originally published in Harpers

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