Saturday, March 7, 2009

Grade Inflation and My Rating Scale

I've noticed that I'm posting a lot of 90+ point wines lately. However you decide to set up your semi-arbitrary 100 point system, usually 90 (but not 89 or 91, of course) is a magic number that divides very good from excellent. Have I been engaging in rampant grade inflation?

Maybe, but probably not. I tend to post only wines that I really enjoyed on this blog. There just isn't much point in bashing a wine I didn't enjoy. It's much more constructive to give an accurate stylistic description of a wine that maybe will get someone to try something new or different. There are so many bad wines to hate upon that it's not worth any one's time, unless he or she is a paid critic, to create an encyclopedic list of plonk. The ratio of good to bad wines is small, and there's greater value in pointing out the few good ones than steering people away from a few bad wine.

Furthermore, the wines I drink are self-selected. I tend to know something about what I buy. I pretty much know that a $15 Australian Shiraz will be pretty deplorable and borderline undrinkable based on my own likes and dislikes. That's not to say I don't accidentally pick out wines I hate. But for the most part I tend to match my selections to my tastes on a macro level, and to my meal or mood on a micro level. If I was being given a random selection of wines to review, I'd have many more negative comments to make.

Finally, my overall rating are subjectively based on the sort of "matrix" I've shown to the right. In terms of the bouquet, I tend to look for a combination of fruit, floral, earthy, vegetal, spicy and funky aromas that add dimensions of complexity to the wine. I'm not put off by barnyardy Brett aromas, though if that's all I can smell the wine is essentially one dimensional. Vanilla from oak is also nice in small quantities, though again that should not be the dominant aroma. Rotten or sulfide based aromas are a definite flaw in my book. The smell of alcohol or (vinegar-like) volatile acidity is also a big demerit.

As far as how the wine tastes, I'm looking for wines that have a good burst of flavor on the attack, sustain well on the mid-palate, then finish with a pleasant, lengthy aftertaste. Excessive oak or alcohol flavors are flaws and can be deal breakers if too far out of balance. Bitterness or tartness, especially on the finish, is not desirable. Wines that taste sweet also are not to my taste, though certain styles are supposed to be sweet. I'm particularly interested in the balance of acidity and tannins. Wines with "good" acidity are a bit mouth watering without tasting really sour. I appreciate a wide range of tannins from nearly imperceptible to mouth-coating, but the key is that the tannins should not be too astringent or bitter. Quality, not quantity, is the key. Concentration of flavor is also important in that I do not like wines that taste watery. But extreme concentration is not desirable if it comes at the expense of elegance, particularly on the finish.

The third corner of the triangle is entirely subjective. Here I'm looking for a wine that has some individuality. Creamy oak, for example, rarely tastes truly bad. But oak is a flavor that is rather ubiquitous. Extremely fruity wines are delicious, but again taste and smell pretty much alike. In some sense individuality is synonymous with complexity. But it also means to me that the wine has combinations of flavors, aromas and textures that are not found in your average wine. The wine isn't over-processed or over-manipulated, and the varietal or region in which it's grown are somehow reflected in the finished wine. So I'm looking for some idealized, Platonic expression of typicity, but with a unique imprint. This plays a huge role in the enjoyment of a wine for me; it tends to leads into conversation and thoughtful discussion about the wine.

To give a more concrete example of how this triangle factors into scores, here's a rough key.

0-50 = Not wine.

50-69 = Varying degrees of serious flaws ranging from undrinkable to highly off putting.

70-74 = Flawed, but drinkable.

75-79 = Drinkable, but extremely bland, confected or possessing a minor flaw/imbalance.

80-84 = Good, balanced all around wine, but lacking complexity/uniqueness. Also could be an "interesting" or really tasty wine with some moderate degree of imbalance. This could be a wine that really "lights up" one corner of the above triangle, yet doesn't do much on the other two vertices as well.

85-89 = Very good all around wine that may be a bit one-dimensional or maybe has a really good bouquet, but isn't quite that delicious or wine tastes great, but doesn't have wonderful aromatics. Wines in this range usually must show some typicity and/or individuality unless they are absolutely delicious. A "two corner of the triangle" wine would be something that typically falls in this range.

90-94 = The whole package. Great aromatics, delicious flavor, structured, balanced and showing a lot of character. Elegance is necessary here. Very hard for a wine without individuality to do this well unless it is just mind-blowingly delicious. Generally must be a wine that hits upon all three vertices of my tasting triangle.

95-99 = A rare wine that has everything going for it. Perfectly aged, complex, elegant, powerful and so on. Something that changes your world view. I've tasted nothing yet I'd rate here.

100 = Perfect wine, your dream wine. Impossible to achieve.

No comments: