Hell is a place where no wines get awarded prizes and no experts gives them points. Or at least this is what the people who give prizes and points would like us to believe. But why is wine singled out as one of the few consumables subject to such a barrage of rating agencies? What about potato crisps, dark chocolate, coffee beans, vodka, foie gras or bourbon? Agreed, there are scores awarded to cigars but no proper cigar contest is held, nor any cigar gurus marking them, and the only actual cigar competition is for rolling the things rather than ranking their smoking qualities.
Decanter Awards, International Wine Challenge, Tanzer, Verema, Challenge International du Vin, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Parker, Concurso de Vinos Favoritos de la Mujer, Selections Mondiales des Vins, Robinson, IWSC, Wine Olympics, Great Chardonnay Showdown, Peñin, International Wine Contest, and the Berlin Wine Trophy are a few of the events or individuals ranking wines according to their quality, with the stated purpose of helping consumers choose between, for example, the 25,000 varieties currently on sale in the USA.
Nearly all of these wine prize-givers and points-scorers have emerged over the last half century. Prior to that you could count the number of widely-read European wine critics on the fingers of two hands, and of the half dozen wine competitions held at the time, at least one of them required competitors to provide six cases of each wine. Currently an entry fee is more usual, such as the International Wine Challenge’s 87 pounds sterling.
In the very old days every world capital had its ‘Great Exhibition’, at which there was invariably a wine contest. A gold medal was really something back then, and would be faithfully duplicated on the label of the winning wine for as long as a century afterwards.
Now we have gone from scarcity to over-abundance, with the resulting lessening of the significance of prizes and scores. Every wine judging event, whether at the vast Decanter Awards or the bi-monthly Wine Advocate ratings, depend on blind tastings. Obviously a committee effort is better than an individual opinion such as those of the grand-guru of them all, Robert Parker, but unless you have exactly the same taste in wines from all areas as the grape counters, it is all contentious. Whether it be Tanzer, Jancis Robinson, or José Peñin, many tasters will if put in a corner admit that blind tastings can give unreliable results. On the very few occasions when judging panels have been persuaded to repeat the identical experience the following day, the outcome would lead you to believe they had tasted completely different wines.
New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, opposes tasting notes and hates blind tastings, to the extent that he is considering eliminating them from the paper’s reviews. But whether a tasting panel, or a lone wolf like Parker, wine guru-land is in disarray when it comes to the modus operandi. What all the experts and publications have in common is a lack of standardisation that makes it hard to connect different reviewers’ opinions.
The most contentious point of all is that almost none of the multiple systems used for rating wines take into account the price/value aspect. Any fool can give a Chateau Lafite a top score but only one drinker in a thousand can afford to buy it. The merit, surely, lies in selecting out of the 50,000 red wines that cost under €10, the ones that represent outstanding value for money, although some critics have started dividing cheaper wines into price categories.
None of these gurus is infallible, and to confuse matters Parker recently sold his business to the ‘ex’-owner of Singapore’s largest drinks distributor (yes, really), so what price impartiality in future Wine Advocate scorings? Although Parker claims to be able to absorb in only four or five seconds everything he needs to know about a particular wine, he plainly has his off-days, like the one when he was unable to identify any of the wines at a tasting of 2005 Bordeaux he had previously referred to as his favourite vintage. He also boobed when he awarded 90 points to a Galician cooking wine sold in Tetrabrik for 1.50 euros.
So the moral is obvious: if you need help choosing wines, then a high score or an international award may be better than nothing, and when you come across a wine you do not know that has won a prestigious contest, you are unlikely to be disappointed. In our own backyard, a Ronda wine, Cortijo de los Aguilares’ Pinot Noir, has twice won the top prize in the most esteemed competition in Switzerland that, in a blind tasting puts, 2,000 pinot noir wines in front of a panel of 20 international judges.