Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The 1947 Cheval Blanc and the 100 Point System

Most regular wine buyers are familiar with those "shelf talkers" that extol the virtues of a wine with a pithy description ended by a score on the 100 point scale pioneered by wine critic Robert Parker. There are undoubtedly wine drinkers who chase points and won't buy anything that scores under the magic 90 point threshold. Those who aren't chasing points, though, tend to have strong negative feelings about the scoring system. In particular, the anti-point crowd maintains wines that tend to be high in alcohol, excessively fruit driven, dense, extracted, heavily oaked and generally unbalanced tend to garner the highest scores. These are wines that can't pair with food and will grab your attention with sheer power, not finesse.

Find any wine blog and this topic has been pretty much beaten to death. Given my preference for balanced wines with more than just fruit and alcohol to offer, I do tend towards the anti-point side. However, points in conjunction with a good stylistic description can be helpful as long as you understand there's no fundamental difference between an 88 and a 90 point score.

But is it possible that high scoring wines are supposed to be unbalanced and attention grabbing? A recent Slate article on the 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc suggests this may be the case. (Cheval Blanc, incidentally, is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that is one of the few "great" wines dominated by Cab Franc.) This article perhaps puts the whole Robert Parker 100 point wine rating system in context. A universally respected "great" wine (whose reputation predated Robert Parker's influence as far as I know) ended up with both high alcohol (14.4%) and perhaps some residual sugar, yet lacked in acidity. In fact Robert Parker refers to it as port-like and vinegar-like (volatile acidity is what you get when acetobacter make vinegar) in his description where he rates it 100 points:

"Having a 1947 Cheval Blanc… made me once again realize what a great job I have. The only recent Bordeaux vintage that comes even remotely close to the richness, texture, and viscosity of so many of these right bank 1947s is 1982. What can I say about this mammoth wine that is more like port than dry red table wine? The 1947 Cheval Blanc exhibits such a thick texture it could double as motor oil. The huge nose of fruitcake, chocolate, leather, coffee, and Asian spices is mind-boggling. The unctuous texture and richness of sweet fruit are amazing. Consider the fact that this wine is, technically, appallingly deficient in acidity and excessively high in alcohol. Moreover, its volatile acidity levels would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists. Yet how can they explain that after 47 years the wine is still remarkably fresh, phenomenally concentrated, and profoundly complex? It has to make you wonder about the direction of modern day winemaking."

It appears that such a wine was an anomaly 6 decades ago. But now that grapes are being grown in warmer climates where grapes have high sugar levels at phenolic maturity and winemakers can regularly achieve high levels of extraction from very ripe fruit, perhaps this is now closer to the norm. Since the bar has been set, though, I can see why the now relatively common "big" wines regularly could garner such high praise (i.e. lots of points).

Maybe "great" wine isn't supposed to pair with food. And perhaps since "great" wine is so expensive you won't get much more than a glass out of it sharing with friends or at a larger tasting, palate fatigue from what would be considered a lack of balance is not an issue. Maybe 50 years from now, when hot climate wines dominate the market place, wines with moderate alcohol levels and balance will be praised as "great" wines as they will be the anomalies from top producers during vintages with unexpectedly moderate weather.

From my perspective, then, all is good and well. I know that an Aussie fruit bomb Shiraz rated at 93 points is not being rated in terms of balance, but in terms of some idealized imbalance. I'll leave those wines to point chasers with more money than taste and go buy myself a Cab Franc for half the price that I'll enjoy doubly as much.


Rajiv said...

Nice post CFP,

My understanding of the point system is that it exists to complement the tasting notes. The tasting notes are a sensory analysis and interpretation of the wine, while the score allows the critic to communicate how much pleasure the wine brought him.

Just as in music, one can find excellent examples in many styles, a 100-point wine can mean many different things. In fact, I fervently believe that every varietal and style of wine has the potential to yield a 100-point example, even if one hasn't been recognized by a critic yet.

I don't think it's fair to say that 100-point wines tend to be big, powerful, or oaky. Certainly a lot of winemakers tend to produce this style of wine, and many achieve near perfection in this style, according to one or more critics. However there are plenty of balanced wines that achieve "perfection" - an example I like to use is Guigal's La La's (single-vineyard cote-roties). These are some of the most elegantly balanced wines in the world, and Parker has said many times that were he on a desert island, he would choose these above all else.

Thus being pro-balance should not mean you are anti-point. You just need to explore the reasons that a wine is rated highly.

My view is that great wines come in all different forms, sometimes (as in the case with the 47 Cheval Blanc) in forms no one expects. Some pair well with food, some don't. Personally I appreciate balance, but just because the wine can pair with food doesn't mean I think you should drink it with food - a great wine should stand on its own.

As for the role of balance, I believe very strongly that great wine - like life - is a delicate balance between balance and imbalance.


CabFrancoPhile said...


Thanks for your comment! The analogy to music is a very apt one indeed. Bach and Mahler, for example, differ greatly in style and form, but are both wonderful in their own way. And despite the outwardly disparate impressions Bach and Mahler provide, both share common threads of structure and balance. This is an analogy that deserves some elaboration in a future blog post.

There's another major issue I didn't address in terms of wine ratings. Most (if not all) rating systems attempt to address the aging ability of a wine. Wines that appear imbalanced in youth may well integrate with age. High alcohol will probably always be high alcohol, but tannins and oak influence will integrate over time. Without doubt some of these wines are just being consumed too young. Caveat emptor, not caveat Parker, in this case.