It is very helpful to rely upon the ‘paid for’ and ‘free’ critic’s advice and written evaluations when purchasing wine. Shelf talkers tout the expert’s scores to influence what bottle(s) of wine you will ultimately purchase. Should you believe them?
For the well-known wine raters, I have been watching their scoring and reading their reviews long enough that I have formed an opinion as to ‘how’ they score wine. I know who always rates higher than the others or which reviewer(s) likes fruit forward, highly extracted and high alcohol wines. Why does that matter? Because while I can tell you the flavor profile of a varietal from various places around the world and I can look to see what the vintage and nature gave us that year, it’s helpful to read the opinion of someone that has tasted that bottle. I can then decide if it will be what I am searching for.
Sometimes these reviews will contain an unknown nugget of information. For example, ‘while this is a Cotes du Rhone wine, it is crafted from 100% Syrah grapes.’ That’s important information as most Cotes du Rhone are made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre (referred to as a GSM) and maybe Cinsault. Chateau de Sainte-Cosme winery is in Gigondas, which by law, to label the wine ‘Gigondas’ it must be a GSM blend with possibly some Cinsault. So, if I had merely relied upon the Cotes du Rhone designation expecting a GSM gem, it would not meet my expectations. Clear as mud, huh?
If the expert’s review gives a range, like 89-91 points, I am confident the wine was tasted from the barrel and prior to bottling. Why does that matter? Since the wine is still in the barrel, it is possible the final wine could taste somewhat different due to blending and/or filtering or completion of malolactic fermentation for example. The evaluation before bottling might not match the final product. In that instance, it’s good to see if other critics rated the wine after bottling to get a more up-to-date snapshot.
A store like K&L Wine Merchants lists their offerings on their website which has a picture of the bottle, a list of the wine critic’s scores and commentary, general information about the grape, the country, and a description of the subregion/appellation. In addition, if the staff was able to taste the wine, a review written by the staff member will also appear as well as the date tasted. I find that all so very helpful and lean a bit toward purchasing when all the critic’s scores seem to align. I take that nudge based upon my experience with judging at wine competitions. On any panel you can have a wide range of medals considered as we evaluate each wine independently and then come together to discuss and to agree on a final award. However, for the wines that are exceptional, the entire panel always seems to be in agreement before ever coming together for discussion.
Does the lack of a rating mean the wine is not good? For a publication such as Wine Spectator, they indicate they review approximately 16,000 wines on an annual basis and those wines are important wines, readily available and distributed in major markets. So, lack of a score does not mean a wine is not good. Similarly, the lack of a medal from a wine competition also does not suggest it’s not good as wineries choose how they spend their marketing dollars and competitions do cost money to enter.
How about reviews on Apps such as Vinvino? The creators of this site tout that their community of millions of wine lovers really know their stuff and are passionate about sharing that knowledge. However, we do not know what their experience level is or their qualifications for judging wine. As a worst-case scenario, the rater could really dislike French wines and be an All-American wine fruit bomb wine drinker. And, remember, Vinvino sells wine based on these ratings.
Critic’s scores and evaluations can be very useful tools when you cannot taste a European wine or travel to Paso Robles or Lodi to visit a winery to taste before you buy. Equally useful are Vintage Charts published annually which will give you a quick look to determine if the vintage was a blow out success or had some serious viticultural challenges. Again, just an additional piece of information as good wine can be made in not so good vintages.
Finally, remember that the scores were assigned and evaluations penned at a frozen point in time. The challenge is that you are not purchasing Pepsi Cola or Coors beer, for example, that is ‘finished’ when bottled or canned. Wine is a living, breathing beverage that develops and changes over time. That plum, for example, that tasted so fresh to Robert Parker shortly after bottling is impacted first by the aerobic conditions in the barrel and then by the reductive time in the bottle. The various components of tannin, both from the cluster and skin as well as the barrel, phenolics, and fruit all integrate over time and hopefully for the better. However, most wine is meant to be drunk young and fruit generally begins to lose its luster after about 6 months. So, when reading that evaluation from November of 2017, expect that the wine you will meet in the glass may be very different.
A wine’s score(s) and evaluation(s) are great tools to help you find new treasures to enjoy but are not absolute. Wine is more often drunk beyond its time than too early.