This topic has been controversial since the tasting in Judgement of Paris back in 1976 (see movie Bottleshock). A related topic would be the controversy surrounding the “Parkerization” of wine. Read about this issue here: Wikipedia Link. There have been books and movies on both topics. The discussion is certainly fun, but way more controversial in real-life than it should be.
As a wine enthusiast who usually tastes blind (having a trained/experienced palate), I don’t understand the continuing controversy on this topic. The studies done have all been ridiculously skewed. The controversy seems to rise mostly because the average person simply cannot believe some wine snob in a suit can taste a wine blind and tell you the varietal, location, vintage, vineyard name, etc. I can tell you personally, it is very real, but takes decades of training, experience and practice. Training and experience matter in any profession and yes – wine IS a profession (see Sommelier here: Wikipedia Link). Does that mean this same guy could guess at the wine I would enjoy without him evaluating my taste in wine? Definitely NO! So, why do consumers put so much credence in scores by wine writers? Well, what other measure does the average consumer have to select a wine from thousands available (there are other options)? I buy and consume large quantities of wine and enjoy it very much! Many of us think of great food and wine as a fabulous lifestyle (no denial here). All this wine I drink, training I have had… do you think my idea of a good wine qualifies me to recommend a wine to someone I don’t know? The average consumer sifting through 100’s of wine scores is just wasting time. Perhaps, if you spent the time to learn a particular wine critic’s palate… but how many would take the time?
… But, the Studies!
If you read the articles linked to this commentary above, a big piece of the discussion is price. Are expensive wines necessarily better wines? The unqualified answer is positively NO! Can you impress a guest at a fine dining restaurant by ordering an expensive bottle of wine? Likely yes, and there in lies the rub. Price is often confused with quality in many product categories, but whether you personally would enjoy any given wine has nothing to do with its cost. I have written much on the topic of how to evaluate your own palate in past articles for anyone who has an interest. Just remember an important piece to this discussion, the average consumer is likely to enjoy many average priced wines and could likely not tell the difference. I can tell you definitely, my taste in wine is very, very different from most of my friends. Just because I have wine training and experience, does that mean you should like what I like? Think about it…
Can the Topic be a Serious Discussion?
What really matters in evaluating a wine for the general public is: is it faulted? is it balanced? is it made for cellaring? will it pair well with foods? etc. A few other general measures: is it fruity/savory? is it acidic? is it sweet? is it drying in the mouth? So, why don’t critics talk about these characteristics more generally, instead of sharing a score with a flowery completely worthless description attached? It won’t sell Wine Enthusiast ™ magazines! Personally, I am so tired of pro critics scores and notes! So, spend what you can afford, drink what you like and enjoy the wine with your favorite foods! Here is to hoping the media does not trap you with all this nonsense!
I recently had the good fortune to taste a flight of 1986 Gran Cru Bordeaux. They were:
2nd Label – Margaux Pavillion Rouge
Chateau Cos d’Estournel
Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron
Chateau Du-Cru Beaucaillou
I don’t often get a chance to taste labels like these in aged vintages, but I have drunk many wines in the last 20 years from producers in the French AOC regions of Margaux, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Pauillac. These Left Bank Bordeaux areas are the home of some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the world. Margaux is by far my favorite Left Bank region and St. Estephe next. Not that the others are not very good, just that these two regions match my palate better. I have been tasting Bordeaux Left Bank vintages back to the late 90’s. This was my first tasting from the 1980’s vintages.
These wines were all original purchase origin and were stored in near perfect conditions. There was hardly an oxidized brown tint at the edge of the glass with all these wines. The wines tasted amazingly fresh! None were fruit forward (if they were at release), but had good acidity and a few still had residual tannin. Perfectly balanced, these wines were expertly made… but in a completely different style than 2000 era Bordeaux wines. All tasted as if the fruit had been harvested early. There were vegetal and savory flavors reflecting a completely different winemaking and vineyard management style than today. Whether you enjoy wines with this much age on them is dependent upon your palate. All of these wines would have been fabulous accompanying a Black Truffle Risotto, although much of the nuance would have been lost. In the bigger picture, my palate has found Bordeaux Rouge Gran Crus from before 2000 tasted best at roughly 20 years of bottle age (depending on producer). After 2000, that started to change… In my experience, that has now become 10-15 years of bottle age.
Margaux AOC Region
I have tasted and enjoyed many different Margaux producers in quantity over the last 20 years: Brane Cantenac, Cantenac Brown, Giscours, Lascombes, Rauzan Segla, Prieure Lichine and my favorite Malescot St. Exupery. All of these with 5-10 years of bottle age tend to be fruit forward, structured, balanced and all often have a great… what I call “Margaux mouth-feel”. This is sometimes silky, but always softer, round and mouth-filling. This was missing from the older Margaux tasted here. In fact today, most Bordeaux premium wines are made to taste fruit-forward and vegetal flavors can be viewed as a fault. Especially for New World palates, I would suggest Margaux producers. These wines often are not as “muscular” as the other Left Bank regions.
Wine Styles… They Were a’Changin’
Bob Dylan aside, it was obvious something happened in the 90’s to the winemaking philosophy of Bordeaux producers. Most, would attribute this to chasing the Robert Parker 100 point score… and all that implied. Some would suggest back to the ’82 vintage, when Parker’s influence began… but I was not a wine drinker back then and can’t bear witness to that thinking. These comments attributed to the BBC in the late 80’s refer to this, “The globalist domination of the oenological press by Parker’s ideas has led to changes in viticulture and winemaking practices, such as reducing yield, harvesting grapes as late as possible for maximum ripeness, not filtering wine, and using new techniques—such as microoxygenation—to soften tannins. These widespread changes in technique have been called “Parkerization”… have led to a fear of homogenization of wine styles around the world as Parker’s tastes are irrevocably changing the way some French wines are made…”.
The changes in Bordeaux wine styles that began again in the 2000’s were most definitely impacted by attempting to appeal to the U.S. palate and open the U.S. market to more French exports. These changes I can attest to. I have witnessed that difference from 2000 to 2015. Personally, I feel the pendulum has swung a little too far towards softer, fruitier wines in France (and the U.S.) – as a generalization. As a wine consumer, your palate matters and whether you prefer these type of wines should be what drives your purchases, not wine critics.
Tasting these wines was a tremendous opportunity. I don’t often have the chance to evaluate wine styles over 30+ years in any wine region. Tasting these 35 year old wines side-by-side was a real pleasure and thanks go to Mr. Mandel, a fellow wine collector here in Phoenix. His generous hospitality made this a truly special experience.
Trained, certified Advanced Sommelier. AZ Art Institute Wine/Chef program focusing on wine pairing and beverage/culinary program development. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Previously, consulting to the restaurant trade. Offering cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin, or my tasting notes at https://rb.gy/r4xpom.
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