Dan Berger

Recapturing varietal character

The signs are showing up, in subtle ways that the influence of the number mongers, those who rank wine vaguely and in their own image, is waning.

Once a score of 100 for a wine was seen as an absolute guarantee that people would flock to buy it, almost regardless of price. Then about a decade ago, we began to see the first signs that a degree of doubt had entered the fray: people were not as knee-jerk in their reaction to high scores. Sales of higher-priced wines began to decline, and the “value-oriented” $25 price point was seen as an alternative to the once-revered icons.

Higher prices became a deterrent, even to the wealthy.

In fact it started with them. I heard often from major collectors who said that they did not like paying $75 for wines they perceived as being a lot lesser in quality than their scores indicated. And $100 was out of the question for many, who used the word rip-off and its synonyms often. (Most of these were people with plenty of expendable income.)

The ludicrousness of scoring wines with numbers that topped out at 100 became clear in 2004 and 2005 when Robert Parker gave out so many 100-point scores to red Bordeaux you’d have thought a few of them were typographical errors.

It became even more obvious about five years later when several wine columnists decried what was being called “score creep,” the upward march of scores for fairly ordinary wines to the 90-and-above range.

This past Oct. 4, English wine writer Jamie Goode wrote an accurate (in my opinion) blog post called Score Inflation is Everywhere and it's Killing Wine Criticism.

Included in Goode’s diatribe was this:

“When Robert Parker began dishing out 100-point scores, he definitely used a wider range than is currently practised by the Wine Advocate. Back in the early 90s, the 89/90 boundary (line) used to be a big deal. And as a novice wine lover, 86 used to be a happy hunting ground for me.

“Now, 90 is a very normal score, and 86 is a fail. No one wants to see an 89.”

What this has led us to is a lot of score clumping above 90 points, and the majority of these wines are soft, described as “tasty” and “hedonistic,” and other words that had never before been used to describe wines that were historically built for the wine cellar, to improve over time.

Novice wine consumers may have been lulled into a false sense of greatness by these faux 100s, but in my experience, many of these wines were so simplistic as to be boring after two or three sips, let alone a glass.

Several wine lovers I know have said they are now drinking their iconic Cabs from the early 2000s, one of them suggesting that holding them was “a fool’s game,” and that in many cases, it might be better to sell such wines or trade them for something more reliable that shows greater potential.

Which is a rather long lead-in to the annual Platinum wine judging conducted for Wine Press Northwest by Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman each year in October. Only wines that previously received at least a gold medal, perhaps multiple golds, are eligible for this event, and the results often are eye-opening.

In a typical year, many of the same old players as well as popular grape varieties show up in the highest results, such as platinum medals. And this year was no different, although one striking aspect of the event is the diversity that was evident in the final results.

When the top awards go to a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chardonnay, no one is surprised. But the judges this year were particularly pleased with the diversity that has been evident in winery tasting rooms for the last decade.

It once was de rigueur for a winery to produce tiny amounts of wines from obscure varietals, mainly to sell to their wine club members and for tasting room visitors.

The fact that these wines now are being made in large enough quantities to sell in the broad market encourages wineries to also submit them to wine competitions. Which is only more proof that millennial buyers are eager to try new and different flavors.

This is a huge departure from the “sameness is akin to greatness” mentality that has driven many of the iconic wines that once dominated glossy wine magazines.

In this year’s Platinum judging, some of the highest awards went to wines made from grape varieties that just a decade ago would have been considered outsiders.

Among the best wines were Grüner Veltliner, a rosé, two Mouvredres, a Cinsaut, a Petite Sirah, and a red blend – all from 10 different AVAs!

The judges did recognize Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots for their quality, but the real message of this event, to me, was how diversity seems to have captured the hearts of even professional wine judges.

One important reason that this competition Marks a significant change is that it was evident that the judges not only liked the wines, but agreed with the prior judges who had originally blessed these wines with gold medals. That’s the varietal distinctiveness, that once had been missing in the quest for scores, was now an essential component and how these wines should be viewed.

Just look at Grüner Veltliner. To what should it be compared? It is not like anything else. And the judges saw this as a welcome change from past years when Chardonnay might have been so captivating that it led the league in batting average.

It is heartwarming to see an Austrian grape deliver such character. Great credit to the judges for finding it.

This story was originally published December 18, 2017 12:00 PM.

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