For a while now I’ve been slightly annoyed by the conventional 20- or 100-point scales used frequently in the wine media to rank or rate a wine. Yes, I can understand that with a commodity as complex and hugely varied as wine, it can assist consumers to have some form of numeric ranking to simplify the choice over which bottle to buy. However, a single number simply cannot take into account factors such as the wine style, the occasion you might serve it at, value for money and the reviewer’s very personal tastes.
Additional knowledge is thus required, which brings us back to having too much information about the wine and it not being of particular use to the consumer, without a significant investment in wine education. It seems difficult to find the right balance of clarity and usefulness.
Another bug-bear with these wine scales is that the full range of the scoring metric is never used. With these traditional systems, you will never see a wine rated at 45/100 or 13/20. I recall reading an explanation of Decanter magazine’s 20-point scoring system. Essentially a wine with a score below 15 is considered undrinkable or faulty. In the modern era, very few such wines exist even accounting for the huge numbers of wines that must pass through reviewers’ tasting glasses. Even if a poorly-made or faulty wine were to be reviewed, with this system there would be no point scoring it a 9/20 or a 12/20. Seemingly any score below 15 can be written off.
I recently came across Charles Saunders’ Q-score on his Quaffable blog. Charles takes a different approach, where a wine receives three scores, each out of three points. The three criteria are: flavour – an indicator of concentration on the nose and palate; complexity – essentially the texture and structure of the wine on the palate; and event – a measure of whether the wine is suited for everyday drinking, spoiling yourself a little, or a really special occasion.
I like this approach in principle. It is simple; there are easy-to-identify criteria; and none of the available scoring scale is wasted. If I were to construct my own scoring system, I might do things a little bit differently – include more room for ‘balance’ perhaps and decrease the emphasis on ‘intensity’, as I feel a wine doesn’t need to be intense to be an excellent wine. Indeed, too much concentration can be a bad thing if it is unbalanced by the structure and body of the wine. However, this is just nitpicking over details.
One thing that this scoring system lacks though, which is accounted for in the 20- or 100-point systems, is that there’s no room for a wine you don’t like. Charles may say, quite rightly, that he doesn’t score ‘bad wines’, and this leads me to the question I posed as the title of this post: Should wine writers write about wines we don’t like? It’s a tricky one, perhaps with two legitimate answers. On the one hand, wine is a very personal thing – what one person finds delicious and inimitable, another may find unpalatable. I had this experience recently at a blind tasting practice session for our Varsity match. A Vin de Pays syrah from near the Northern Rhône I found literally unpalatable – the wine was very sour, thin with an intensely bitter aftertaste. I had to spit the wine instantly. Yet, others thought it was a typical example of a Crozes-Hermitage-esque syrah. A review of this wine might be quite disparaging from my point of view, but complimentary from another taster’s. Thus, is it fair that I score this wine?
The other approach I see is that if a wine genuinely is bad, don’t we have a responsibility to let potential buyers know? If we only wrote about wines we liked, the available wine knowledge would be broken up into three categories: wines that are liked by reviewers, wines that are not liked and thus not written about, and wines that simply haven’t been reviewed at all. With the lack of information about ‘bad’ wines, the last two categories would be indistinguishable from one another.
I fall into the second opinion, albeit with one caveat. I feel that we should rate wines that are bad, faulty, or simply not enjoyable. However, when it comes to a matter of not enjoying a wine, a wine writer should make very clear that this is their informed opinion, and that others may have a different response to the wine. While a wine’s quality as assessed by a trained palate cannot be disputed, its appeal to other palates certainly can be. I try to be as clear on this with my reviews as possible.