A favourite Paul Simon tune was at the top of my iPod playlist last week. When Numbers Get Serious isn’t as famous as The Sound of Silence or Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, but it has a hidden message for the wine business. “When times are mysterious,” sings Simon, “serious numbers will always be heard.”
You can say that again. Only last week, wine merchants and investors sat nervously by their computer screens waiting for Robert Parker to deliver his verdict on bottled samples of the 2010 Bordeaux vintage. His Bobness passed the point of self-parody some time ago – how much hyperbole can you shovel into a single sentence? – but he didn’t disappoint his followers.
Last year he gave 100 points to 19 different 2009s (wine’s equivalent of Bob’s Full House). This year’s total was down to a mere 10 perfect wines, but eight wines scored 99 points and a further sixteen 98 points.
And remember that 2010, showing more acidity and structure than the plumper, sweeter 2009s, is not really a Parker-style vintage.
There’s nothing wrong with enthusiasm. I also have great respect for a wine critic who is prepared to speak his mind.
A set of lukewarm, fence-straddling notes and scores, where you get no sense of an individual’s real likes and dislikes, is worse than useless. But really! According to Parker, that’s 29 perfect wines in the space of two vintages. For the record, I gave two perfect scores in 2010 (Margaux and Vieux Château Certan) and two more in 2009 (Lafite and Cheval Blanc).
Certain Parker choices are controversial. Is Château Pape-Clément really flawless? And Le Dôme? I gave the wines 88 and 92 points, respectively, when I tasted them from barrel two years ago. They may have changed in the intervening months, but have they changed that much? At least the monolithic Château Pavie, a perennial Parker favourite, is absent from the list this year.
Mind you, other choices are spot on. I’m a big fan of the 2010s from Châteaux Latour (99 points from me), Haut-Brion (99), Pétrus (99), Pontet-Canet (98), Le Pin (98) and Cheval Blanc (97). I can’t comment on the two remaining wines on the list (Châteaux La Violette and Beauséjour-Duffau) because I didn’t taste them en primeur, but I suspect I would like them less than Parker does.
But my views are by the by, as are those of other critics. What the Bordelais, the international trade and the numerous people who see the region’s wines as a way to turn a quick or medium-term buck want is Parker points. In fact, it’s tempting to paraphrase Voltaire on the existence of God: “If Parker did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
Whether the Parker phenomenon helps consumers is another matter. “It’s a reality of life that a perfect Parker score drives up prices,” says Steve Browett, chairman of Farr Vintners. “You can’t buy a 100-point Bordeaux for less tha n£1,500 a case in bond.” And what about those who want to drink claret? “You just have to accept that some wines will be overpriced.” Or you drink things like Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Domaine de Chevalier that Parker doesn’t really get.
You could argue that all this hoopla isn’t really Parker’s fault. All he does is score the wines according to his own taste and publish his findings. And yet his overall view of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, complete with those 29 perfect wines, helps to add to the hype and the high prices.
Parker’s effect on other wine writers is just as great. Some of them look at the slew of high points – and how readily wine merchants are prepared to quote them – and seek to follow his lead. You can see this in
almost every major wine region, from the Barossa to the Napa Valley, Montalcino to Priorat. Score inflation is rampant, some- times to a ridiculous extent. I take three to five points off the scores awarded by one American wine magazine as a matter of course.
The pumped up scores help all sorts of people, from the wineries to the wine writers themselves, but they don’t help consumers unless they are truly merited. If, say, a humdrum Aussie Chardonnay gets the same score as a great Corton-Charlemagne, then we have lost touch with reality.
It’s probably too late to shepherd the genie back into the bottle, but I sometimes wish we could start the 100 point scale from a new and lower base. Drinkable wines would score 60 (the equivalent of a lower second class degree), good ones 70, very good ones 80 and anything amazing 90-plus. At the moment, some very ordinary wines score 90 points from some critics.
And 100 points? Yes, why not. But such a score should be reserved for the handful of wines –there might be half a dozen of them in a critic’s life time – that are genuinely sublime: bottles that put a lump in your throat as they flow across your palate. Were there 29 of these in Bordeaux in 2010 and 2009? Almost certainly not. But in mysterious times, serious numbers will always get a hearing.