Monday, September 8, 2008

Wine By The Numbers

By Julianna Hayes

The proprietors of my favourite watering hole aren’t exactly wine connoisseurs. Indeed, their inventory of wine is limited to just four bottles – two that are drinkable, two which I can only describe as “challenged.” Obviously, I go there for the company.

Recently, I noticed they’d posted a tasting note on their chalkboard for one of the lesser wines in their repertoire:

“The ripe, plum-strawberry fruit is immediately inviting in this hulking whopper. Then it opens up unexpectedly like a linebacker with degrees in literature and art history, offering up stimulating layers of lavender, provençal herbs, licorice and an elegant, mineral-laced finish. Brawny but complex.”

The description was not of their own hand, but rather ripped from the pages of a national newspaper, which publishes a regular wine column. It was a lark, with the patrons and proprietors poking fun at the prose used by the author.

I laughed right along with them. But as a writer myself of such things, the ribbing struck a cord. While the linebacker-slash-scholar analogy was arguably clever, what purpose did it serve other than providing a source of amusement?

I confront this question a lot because I see this sort of thing creeping into tasting notes more and more. As writers, there’s an ongoing temptation to get fancy with our words whenever we put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard, as it were. But when it comes to wine critiquing, at what point does imaginative prose simply become superfluous?

Superfluous is precisely the word one reader used to describe my original tasting notes, which featured a five-star rating system:

“I look forward to your column each week, particularly your recommendations on wines as my wife and I are always looking for new and great wines to drink,” wrote Steve K. “I’m just not that impressed with the way you rate the wines. First of all, the definitions you provide for the one-to-five star levels are amusing, but they’re superfluous and don’t really tell me much.”

In fact, according to Steve my entire system of rating wines was fundamentally flawed: “If I were to take the five-star system literally it would mean that a four-star wine is 20 per cent better than a three-star wine. I know that is probably not what you intended. But the 20-point differential is pretty broad, wouldn’t you say?”


When I received that letter, I hadn't been happy with the way I critiqued wines for some time. But I struggled to come up with a superior format. After much research and plenty of soul-searching, I implemented a new system a few months ago.

Since I have an entire column in which I can flex my dubious creative writing skills, I decided that wine tasting notes should be utilitarian and provide the information I believe wine enthusiasts are looking for when they read them. And if the queries I get from readers are any indication, consumers want to know the following:

How does it taste?
What does it cost?
Where can they find it?
How does it rank?

In this no-frills format, I hoped to provide all this information along with a few notes on the appearance, body and finish, my overall impression of the wine and its cellar-ability.

The ranking system was a trickier issue. I agreed that the five-star system wasn’t working and that too many wines were falling into the 3½- to four-star range. But until now, I resisted switching to the more popular 20- and 100-point scales, as used by Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker respectively.

I have finally opted for the 100-point system, but with some personal tweaking. This is how it works:

Each wine will be awarded a certain number of points in six key categories:
Appearance – 5 points
Appropriate colour, clarity, brilliance vs. off colours, cloudiness or dullness
Aroma – 25 points
Intensity, complexity, many detectable and appropriate aromas vs. little or no aromas, off smells
Taste – 25 points
Several flavours detected, well-balanced sweetness, tannins, acidity, oak vs. few flavours, lack of balance (overly sweet, acidic, bitter, oaky, tannic)
Body – 15 points
Excellent texture and weight feel in the mouth vs. too little structure, too weighty.
Finish – 15 points
Flavours linger, smooth and rich or clean and crisp aftertaste (depending on the wine) vs. taste and flavours end abruptly, little or no aftertaste.
Overall Impression – 15 points
Is the wine multi-layered as opposed to one-dimensional? Is it pleasant to drink? Does it have that wow factor?

Appearance gets the least amount of points as it has lesser importance is there is very little room for error. Any form of cloudiness is undesirable and will likely indicate a wine with flaws in other areas. However, unfiltered wines should not be penalized for sediment or wine diamonds – but the should be otherwise clear. As for colour, reds tend to fade and lighten in hue as they age, while whites deepen and darken and should be assessed accordingly. A young red wine that has brown or brick tones has likely prematurely aged, for example. A wine may lose a point or two if they are exceedingly light in colour when they should be more concentrated, but otherwise unflawed. Appearance is perhaps most important when it comes to sparkling wines, where the mousse and bubble size is assessed.

Aroma and taste are the two most important considerations in wine assessment and thus are awarded the most points. Consideration in these categories is given to the variety and blend as well as production practices as certain characteristics can expected from certain grapes and winemaking styles. I.e. aromas reminiscent of “cat’s pee” is considered desirable in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but would not be highly sought after in Pinot Noir. Wines that have more complexity in aromas and flavours tend to be superior. Balance is key in taste particularly where residual sugar, oak use and tannin structure are concerned. For example, Icewine may have pack a punch on the sweetness scale, but high levels of acidity temper the impact of the residual making these wines appear far less sweet than one would imagine. Meanwhile, oak-aged wines suffer if woody, smoky characteristics overpower the fruit flavours.

Body and finish each receive 15 points and again assessment will vary depending on the variety/varieties and styles. Certain Chardonnays can have a creamy, almost round texture not unlike milk. Some wines intended for aging may have a slightly drying finish from the tannins that should not be penalized unless overdone. A lingering finish is desirable in all wines, but more so with fuller bodied reds. Highly alcoholic wines can burn on the finish, which can be unpleasant if overdone.

Overall impression is the most subjective of the six categories but provides me the opportunity to award wines up to 15 points depending on whether they seem to have all the ingredients but are still lacking something or have bring the wow factor to the glass.

Now when the are all added up, what do the numbers mean?

95-100 Set the bar.
90-94 Outstanding, superior character and style.
80-89 Good to very good.
70-79 Average, may have minor flaws.
60-69 Drinkable, but not recommended.
50-59 Undrinkable, not recommended.

I would appreciate your feedback on whether this new critiquing system works for you as I am willing to tweak it further. Send me your comments and any suggestions.

Nk’Mp 2005 Merlot
Appearance: Brillant cherry red colour and good clarity
Aromas: Black currants, dried cherries, vanilla, chocolate, cloves, herbs.
Smells: Dark berries, cocoa, leather, roasted vegetables, herbs, spice.
Body and Finish: Good mid-palate weight, above average length, moderately tannic, slightly alcoholic and peppery
Overall Impression: An earthy rather than fruit-forward merlot with a bit of a bite. Good value.
Would I Buy It? Yes, to pair with a juicy, medium-rare steak. No, to drink on its own. Maybe, to cellar
Cellaring Potential: Age 2-5 years
Score: 88/100
Price: $20
Availability: BC LDB, VQA shops, private retailers

Quinta Ferreira 2005 Merlot
Appearance: Deep concentrated cherry/berry hues
Aromas: Cherries, violets, chocolate, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon
Flavours: Spiced cherries, chocolate, vanilla, pepper
Body and Finish: Luscious and velvety, weighty mouthfeel, fine tannins leave a lingering smooth finish.
Overall Impression: A real treat of a wine. Deliciously fruity and concentrated with a balanced use of oak that is easy to drink now.
Would I Buy It? Yes
Cellaring Potential: Age 2-5 years
Score: 89/100
Price: $25
Availability: VQA shops, private retailers

Van Westen 2006 Viognier
Appearance: Pale golden hues, bright clarity
Aromas: Peaches, melons, pineapple, honey, orange blossoms, lemon, allspice
Flavours: Pineapple, peaches, pears, citrus, honey, mineral
Body and Finish: Sweet tasting on the entry, but there’s a pleasing mineral and citrus tang that cleanses and lingers.
Overall Impression: A lovely, well-balanced, fruit-driven wine with loads of character.
Would I Buy It? Absolutely
Cellaring Potential: Drink it now
Score: 90/100
Price: $25
Availability: VQA shops, private retailers

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