When is wine judgement more than just opinion?

When faced with an unfamiliar or new style of wine, what is the fairest way for a wine professional to respond? Robert Joseph gets into an argument.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

In front of me I have an empty water jug and a bottle of Pinot Noir. My friend tells me the jug can hold around two-and-a-half litres. I think it’s bigger.

We settle the argument pretty quickly with the help of a one litre bottle of tap water. The jug is smaller than I thought. He was right. I was wrong.

It’s easy to measure liquid when you have the benefit of a precise measuring tool.

Now it’s the turn of the Pinot. It’s a 2016, and the first effort by its producers, the Etcetera winery in Moldova. Everything about this wine is challenging to anyone with a traditional idea of Pinot, including people like me whose wine career really began with five years living in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune. Instead of a classic label declaring its name and vintage, this effort has the words ‘Naughty Boys’ scrawled across it – red on black, like graffiti on a wall. The €80.00 price tag is brave too; for that much money, Berry Bros & Rudd would sell me a 2012 Volnay from Michel Lafarge, one of my favourite producers in the region.

Then I pull the cork. This is nothing like Burgundy. It’s huge. There’s no other word for it. Packed with dark cherry and plum and a pepper and oak, its label declares it has an alcoholic strength of 16%. To describe this wine as ‘Parkerised’ is too simplistic; it is so blockbusterish, it might be too opulent even for Parker. 

So what do we think of it, my friend and I? It’s not my kind of Pinot. It’s like every 14.5% Sonoma example I’ve ever criticised as a travesty of this grape. But my friend disagrees. He challenges me to walk away and to come back and look at it from a different perspective. To evict Michel Lafarge’s Pinot from my head and to explain what’s wrong with it.

Well, I think it’s too big.

“What do you mean by that?” he asks. “Define ‘too big’. Is a 15% Sierra Foothills Zinfandel or a 20% port too big?”

“But they’re not Pinot Noir,” I point out.

“Yes, but is the alcohol in this wine any more out of balance than it is in those?”

I taste it again. And I have to admit that, no, there’s nothing spirit-y about it. But it still doesn’t taste like Pinot Noir.

“Does a Blanc de Noirs from Bouzy taste like Pinot Noir?” comes the next question.

“No, but that’s Champagne.”

“Yes, but it’s still a wine made exclusively from Pinot Noir grapes. Are you sure Naughty Boys doesn’t taste like Pinot?” The questions are relentless.

I take another deep sniff and another taste. And I think. Okay, if I’d been given it blind, I wouldn’t have identified it, but the more I look at it, the more I have to concede that it’s more like Pinot Noir than anything else. But it’s still wrong.

“Was Picasso wrong? What about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? And Ferran Adria’s cooking at El Bulli?” says my friend. “Was Peter Brook ‘wrong’ in 1970 when he staged Midsummer Night’s Dream in modern dress on a bare white stage with no props? Or James Joyce with Ulysses? Why do those artists get to explore new and different ways to approach their craft?”

But wine’s not like a painting or a play. It’s a natural reflection of a piece of terroir.

“There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a bottle of wine.” My friend will not give up. “It’s a human artefact, like a chair or a loaf of bread. Someone has had to decide on the variety of vine, where and how to plant it and how to tend it. That’s gardening: a human skill, honed over millennia. What is done with those grapes is like cooking. Why do you love Michel Lafarge’s wines? Because you like his style of cooking.”

But ‘cooking’ makes it sound tricked-up. Full of additional ingredients and culinary sleight of hand.

“Well, I’d say that would work well enough as a description of Champagne or Port,” my friend continues. “And you could hardly say that there’s anything simple about the way Tokay is produced. Even some of your favourite Burgundies benefit from a bit of vanilla oak. What’s the difference between that and a good Retsina? The type of tree and the strength of the dose.”

Okay, but can we get back to the Naughty Boys wine on the table? Maybe I’ll accept that it’s a very well made example of a big, super-ripe red wine. It’s still wrong as a Pinot Noir.

“That’s not what the judges at the 2019 Global Pinot Noir Masters thought They –mostly Masters of Wine – gave your 16% Moldovan wine a gold medal, in the over-£50 category. Were they all ‘wrong’?” he asks. “Or were they simply brave and open-minded enough to accept that very different versions of classic grapes deserve recognition? Like the people who argued for Didier Dagueneau when he dared to ferment his Pouilly-Fumé in oak?”

He makes an interesting point about the MW tasters, who have learned a specific way to taste.

How did those rules help them when they first encountered an orange wine? Even a decade ago, skin-contact whites weren’t on the agenda. And how tight are the rules anyway? Is Brettanomyces an unforgivable fault, or an element of complexity associated with great grand cru classé Bordeaux?

Could all wine judgement be subjective?

“Of course it’s subjective,” says my friend with impatience. “Unless we’re talking about something that can be scientifically and unarguably measured – like the capacity of that jug – every human opinion is, at least partially subjective.”

That’s why, of course, we have book, restaurant, art, music and wine critics – plural – rather than a single official body that defines what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. And sometimes they argue – as happened in 2012 when no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded.

My friend—otherwise known as the voice in my own head—has a point. The wine world needs its Naughty Boys, and its Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet and its cloudy, cidery ‘natural’ white wines, just as the art world needs its Jackson Pollocks and Jeff Koons. And it needs people to stand in judgment on, and to argue about, them. All of these critics will, of course, believe themselves to be ‘right’. Time, the great arbiter, will support some more than others.

In some cases, the jury will remain out, as when it comes to the Pavie 2003, whose merits were famously disputed by Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker. After 15 years, according to Wine Searcher, the Pavie 2003 sells for around $330, roughly the same price as the the 2001. Robinson’s marks for the two wines were 17.5/20 and 12/20 respectively.

I have tasted the 2003 on three occasions and absolutely agreed with her verdict, and I think we were both ‘right’.

But are we really? How could we prove it? After all, there is no measuring stick or litre-bottle out there to help the wine lover prove once and for all the worth of a wine. In the end, it’s all just opinion.

Robert Joseph

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