Why we should probably just ignore wine scores and focus on drinking the stuff

Wine scores. Both loved and loathed by everyone in the wine profession, they have become a necessary evil as consumers seek out scores as guidance when deciding on what to drink.

After several years of trying to develop my own way of accurately scoring the wines I consume, I’ve come to the conclusion I am as flummoxed by the process as I ever have been. And therein lies my problem. If I can’t get it right, how can the casual wine enthusiast?

It seems many people in the wine world are embroiled in a debate about the way people review and rate wines. And it also seems people spend more time obsessing about wine scores than actually drinking the stuff.

Me, I find it all a bit too confusing than it’s worth. Some people advocate the 100-point system because it provides precision or – shudder – ‘granularity’. Others, meanwhile, prefer the 20-point system, which does the same with decimals, and then there are those who say ratings are really just pointless (I am aware of the pun).

Where wine scores have gone wrong is when they shift from being an innocent way of grading a wine to what can only be described as a critic’s grandiose display of machismo.

This was a great value Bourgogne for the money but if I had to give you a score I’d be at a loss to tell you.

Look no further than American critic James Suckling and the videos where he is seen shouting out scores as he whips through a series of wines, offering up numbers so quickly it makes me wonder if he’s simply pulling them out of the air.

“I’m 98-plus on that!” he said about one wine, then boldly exclaimed, “100 points. Perfect wine,” about another.

A perfect wine? Really?

If Dirk Niepoort, winemaker at Niepoort in Portugal, has anything to say about the topic, he thinks the notion of a perfect wine can be a bad thing. Why? Because it will cause prices to skyrocket and make the wines unattainable for many customers.

My gut tells me the process of rating a wine out of 100 is more arbitrary than its proponents want us to believe. Do I need to know something is an 88 as opposed to an 87? Of course not.

I can also assure you, if you asked me to tell you if the Montagne-St-Emilion I bought from The Winemaker was an 84 or an 87, I would fail.

When it comes down to it, the best way to recommend wine is to talk about it and share what is being experienced rather than apply a score to it that comes with little explanation. If only everyone else would agree.

What I’ve been drinking lately:

A South African Bordeaux-style blend…

In a tenuous link to wine scores and reviews, I came up against this quandary the other day when I had been asked to review a bottle of wine for Wines of South Africa through Twitter.

The bottle in question was a Vilafonté Series M 2009, a red Bordeaux-style blend containing a surprising 46% malbec.

Here were my [edited yet still incredibly stuffy] tweets about the wine:

“Vilafonté Series M 2009. Deep ruby, vanilla on the nose, baked dark fruits, spice.

“In mouth, more vanilla, dark fruits, higher alcohol, medium acidity, nice gripping tannins.

“I’m getting tobacco/cigar box, some leather. A touch more oak than I would prefer. Love the cepages.”

Nowhere in there could I come up with a score for this wine. Was it an 86? A 90? Maybe a 95? I have no idea.

It was a great wine, but I also thought it was too oaky and, if anyone has read my work on 12×75, you’ll know I’m not the biggest fan of over-oaked wines.

You can find this wine and previous vintages at Winedirect for £27.49.

And some great English rosé…

This past weekend I decided to make the most of the sunshine and do something I just don’t do often enough: drink more rosé.

The bottle in question was Hush Heath’s Nannette’s English Rosé 2010, a bottle that came from the Wine Pantry in Borough Market as a gift from my friend Geoff.

Made from the three most commonly used grapes in Champagne – pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – it is the same wine used in the firm’s English sparkling rosé, but the still version comes from the ‘taille’ from the pressing.

When making sparkling wine in the Champagne style, a ‘cuvee’ comes from the first 2,050 litres of wine pressed from 4,000 kg of grapes, while the ‘taille’ is the final 500 litres.

This is a refreshing, subtle and dry rosé with a dose of strawberries and fruit as well as a mineral element to make it a refreshing choice on a hot day. Buy it at the Wine Pantry for £16.

Oh Mateus, it’s not enough for me: A tale of two new bottles

A FEW YEARS AGO I was searching for a thank-you gift for a friend of mine who did me a favour.

Me being me, I couldn’t give him a bottle of whisky and be done with it; I had to buy him a gag gift as well just to make him squirm for a little while.

Being a wine geek, he has deeply entrenched views on those cheap, branded wines sold in supermarkets to the masses. The mere mention of Piat d’Or is enough to send him into a rant about what those wines say about the people who buy them. Top tip: If he ever invites you over for dinner, you had better not bring him Piat d’Or.

So there I was in the local off licence looking for something to give my friend a coronary, surrounded by bottles of Blossom Hill, Gallo Turning Leaf, Barefoot, Echo Falls; basically I was in the middle of a motley crew of lowest-common-denominator grape-flavoured alcoholic beverages.

And then that bulbous brown bottle caught my eye.

Mateus Rosé. Hideous in appearance, revolting in flavour. Ah, Mateus, how could I have gone so long in life having forgotten you?

As expected, when I presented the bottle to my friend, feigning pride and gushing about how I wanted to show my appreciation, the look of shock and confusion on his face was obvious, even if he was trying to stifle it.

Drinking it later – after his pulse had settled – we could only muster a few sips before our gag reflexes kicked in. Nothing could save this horrible wine, we thought, and dumped it down the drain.

Luckily Mateus themselves saw room for improvement so they pulled out all the stops here, giving it…an improved bottle design and a screw cap.


So what has happened? The firm has decided that it will now be available *only* with a screw cap in the UK (good for those moments when you find yourself in the middle of London Fields without a corkscrew or, if you’re the sort, brown-bagging it at 8:30am on Upper Street).

And now there is also a pink hue to the bottle instead of the traditional brown, a colour reminiscent of the 1970s and Sunday roasts accompanied with ghastly pink wine. Oh, and the motif on the label has been modernised as well – not that anyone ever knew or noticed what was.

This amazing curious news reminded me of Bollinger’s announcement last week that it had changed the shape of its 750ml bottle across almost its entire range to one with a narrower neck and a wider base. This was to make it behave more like a magnum and, therefore, give better cellaring potential for the contents. That, my friends, is the sort of thing I want to hear.

The upside of Bollinger’s decision to use a design that dates from 1846 is to slow down the oxygen exchange in the bottle is that not only does good things to an already great wine (yes that’s my bias coming out), but it is dead sexy as well. As though I didn’t already need a reason to buy it.