Tannic Panic! Issue #30: Suckling at the Teat of the Wine Critic
The 100-point rating system and the wine critics that use it are a major part of the wine economy. But is it all just a bunch of malarky? Let's talk about it.
WHAT’S SLAPPININ’ WINOSAURS?
Ever since the Jurassic era (possibly earlier), wine ratings have played a crucial role in guiding consumers and shaping the market. Today we’re going to delve into the nuances (AND NUISANCES) of wine ratings, the popular 100-point system, and the role of critics in the marketplace.
The 100-Point System: Origins and Critique
“Pioneered” by the American wine critic Robert Parker “Jr.” in the 1970s, the 100-point wine scoring system has become an industry standard. It mirrors the American grading system, starting at 50 and rewarding points for quality. The scale is generally broken down as follows:
95-100: Classic, exceptional wines
90-94: Outstanding, superior character and style
85-89: Very good, with notable qualities
80-84: Good, well-made wines
75-79: Mediocre, drinkable but flawed
50-74: Not recommended
This system's simplicity is both its strength and its weakness. It provides a straightforward metric for comparing wines but can oversimplify the experience of wine tasting in a way that downplays subjectivity and obscures value. Not to mention the fact that you rarely see wines rated below 90 in stores, as lower scores don't aid sales and critics are less likely to announce their lower scores.
Because of this, the score of 90 has in a way become a benchmark for a “good” wine, where scores that fall below 90 are misinterpreted as being of poorer quality than they are, and wines that actually are of poorer quality will sometimes be awarded better scores than they deserve.
You have probably noticed that we often use the 100-point system ourselves when reviewing wines, and while we do our best to ensure they are scored as objectively as possible, a level of subjectivity is always going to be present. If it weren’t, all critics would score wines exactly the same, and scores between tastings would not vary unless significant time had past. And on that note — how is ageability factored into scoring? The En Premeur ratings in Bordeaux are crucial to the prestige and sales of their wines, yet no self-respecting producer in Bordeaux would try to suggest their wines are ready to drink upon release (they are meant to be aged!). And the wines tasted are out of barrels anyway, so even less ready to drink than they are when they get released.
Then there’s the ever present issue of value — is a 90 point wine that costs $200 the same quality as a 90 point wine that costs $12? Or is the $12 wine being held to a lower standard because of the price? The reality is, a wine that is much more expensive for the right reasons (choices in the vineyard, wine making techniques, quality of grapes used to make the wine, etc) is likely to be of higher quality as a result of those things. Knowing a wine should be of higher quality may mean the critic’s benchmark is skewed, but at the end of the proverbial day, a 90 point wine of any price should be identical in quality to a 90 point wine of any other price. The only real way to guarantee the price won’t be a factor, of course, is to make sure the wines are tasted blind, which in the case of critics writing their reviews, is by no means a given.
Clearly there are flaws in the system, and they stem from the inability to standardize and objectify (objectivize? objectivificate?!) the process of evaluation.
So how are we supposed to make sense of these ratings? How can we use them to our advantage when seeking good value? We think the answer is simple: KNOW THY CRITIC.
Wine Critics and Your Palate
Evaluating wines from various critics is enlightening. Really the best way to know if the rating you see slapped on the bottle at your local wine shop is relevant is to know whether you share common taste with the critic who scored it. It’s a lot like movie critic ratings — some people just don’t like the same things as we do, and that’s okay (IT’S NOT), we’ll just take their opinions with a grain of salt.
For instance, we here at Tannique Panique™ often find ourselves in general agreement with James Suckling, though our scores on the same wines tend to be slightly lower. To illustrate this, and in an attempt to put a critical eye to the scores of one of our favorite critics, this week’s reviews are exclusively focused on bottles James Suckling rated 90 points or higher.
But before we dive into those, let’s talk a little about just a few of the mainstream critics whose names you’re likely to see alongside wine ratings.
James Suckling is a prominent wine critic who has been actively bouncing around the world’s finest wine regions like a shiny rubber ball (especially Tuscany and Bordeaux) for over 41 years. He is known for tasting and rating a large number of wines, with his team having rated over 32,000 wines in the last 12 months alone.
His ratings often lean towards the higher end of the spectrum, making him a go-to critic for those seeking top-rated wines. Suckling's reviews are tailored to appeal to people who want great value wines with the best quality given the price. While some critics question the high number of 90+ point ratings he awards, many people find his ratings valuable, especially for value wines.
His palate and preferences have significantly influenced wine appreciation, but it's important to remember that his ratings reflect his taste and might not align with everyone's. For example, Suckling tends to prefer structured European red wines (especially Italian red wines) and has often dismissively referred to New World red wines as “jam juice”.
Robert Parker Jr.
In contrast, Robert Parker Jr. is known for his affinity for full-bodied, high alcohol red wines with prominent fruit concentration and ripeness, leading to the so-called “Parkerization” of wine. Parkerization refers to a global wine production trend that sought to achieve an "international style" of wines that would garner high scores from wine critic Robert Parker (particularly in the last few decades, though the trend is on its downswing). Winemakers were influenced to produce riper, bolder, and more fruit-forward wines in an effort to cater to Robert Parker's preferences and achieve higher ratings, which had a significant impact on wine production styles and market trends.
Brace yourself for a HOT take. This guy is a hack. He essentially sells his ratings to producers as marketing materials, and is overly generous with his scoring in general. Read this great reddit rant about it for more of a deep dive into the guy (including some statistical analyses and charts, if you’re into that sort of thing). His scores are overinflated and frankly not reliably reflective of wine quality. As an example, take this St. Giorgio Toscana IGT from Total Wine – it received an astonishing 97 point rating from Luca Maroni, and sells for under $15. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because *DRUM ROLL* it is. We tried it and it is far from a bottle we would ever recommend to you WONDERFUL winos.
Jancis Robinson is a total badass in the world of wine, having written numerous books for everyone from the casual wine drinker to the seasoned somm. She is also a prominent wine critic, but unlike the aforementioned fellows, she uses the 20-point scale. This scale, while less granular than the 100-point system, is appreciated for its simplicity and ease of understanding. You won’t really see her scores on your typical grocery store shelf (or even at most wine stores) simply because the 100-point system is so pervasive and it would be hard for anyone unfamiliar to understand that a 19 is a mind-bogglingly good rating if it’s coming from our girl Jancis.
BOTTOM LINE: Try a handful of wines you see rated by each critic (EXCEPT LUCA) and see if their tastes match with yours. Then, you’ll feel more confident trusting that critic’s scores when you see them at the store. Remember, a high score doesn’t mean anything without context.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS, IN ORDER OF PRICE:
2019 Domaine Coudoulis, Lirac AOP, France / $18 [VALUE PICK!]
Profile: Strawberry, raspberry, cherry jam, black pepper, rosemary, grass, band-aid (brett)
TP: 91 points. JS: 90 points.
Super concentrated flavors, great structure, rich acidity, improves beautifully as it opens up. Very well balanced, and surprisingly doesn’t read as hot, in spite of the relatively high abv (15%). We actually scored this one a little higher than ole’ James, making it our value pick of the day.
2019 Renieri Invetro, Toscana IGT / $18
Profile: black plum, chocolate covered cherry, mocha, black licorice, juniper berry, thyme, graphite
TP: 88 points. JS: 93 points.
This one has a nice bouquet, with some complexity, decent balance, and nothing off-putting in the mix — but the structure is lacking. It also sports a slightly bitter finish that pulls this puppy a couple points under the 90 point mark for us.
Big fan of Bacci as a producer, especially the wines from their Renieri Estate, but in our extremely humble opinion, the Invetro does not stand up to James Suckling’s rating. For a comparison, we gave the 2019 Re di Renieri a score of 93 points, and that bottle blows this out of the water.
2018 Donjon de Lamarque, Haut-Medoc, France / $20
Profile: Bleu cheese (fades), blueberry, black cherry, blackberry, graphite, band-aid (brett), brine, vanilla, leather, nutmeg.
TP: 90 points. JS: 92 points.
This wine showed great structure and an interesting bouquet of blue and black fruit, along with some oak spice and tertiary notes. Good concentration and a nice finish.
2018 Chateau Larose-Trintaudon, Haut-Medoc, France / $20-23
Profile: Black cherry, blackcurrant, barnyard, earth, cedar, mocha, vanilla
TP: 91 points. JS: 91 points.
Nice Left Banker with a classic bouquet and a pretty long finish. Agreed with James on this one — 91 points!
We were able to find it for about $20 at Wegmans, but if you can’t track one down there, check the link below to see if it is in stock at a Total Wine near you.
2019 Chateau Potensac, Medoc, France / $27-35
Profile: Black cherry, blackcurrant, strawberry, crushed rocks, tobacco, cedar and violets.
TP: 91+ points. JS: 94 points.
Really nice bottle, and definitely breaks 90 for us, but doesn’t quite hit that high note to merit a 94 from us. Showed great balance and structure, with an interesting profile led with black fruit and strawberries alongside crushed rocks, tobacco, cedar, and violets.
We were able to find it for about $27 at the local wine shop, but if you can’t track one down there, you can grab one for $35 from wine.com using the link below.
2020 Chateau Siran, Margaux, France / $35-40
Profile: Blackcurrant, blackberry, cassis, black plum, dark chocolate, cedar, graphite, mint, sage, tobacco, crushed rocks.
TP: 96 points. JS: 95 points.
We reviewed the 2019, rating it at 95, and this one is even better. Incredibly concentrated with nothing but deliciousness down to the last drop. This is a straight up chewy wine. Insane structure. It will continue to develop beautifully with decades of bottle age.
We were able to find it for about $35 at Wegmans, but if you can’t track one down there, you can grab one for $40 from wine.com using the link below.
So clearly we directionally agree with James Suckling — there may be some variance, but we find that typically if he has rated a wine highly, there’s a good chance we’ll like it. You can easily develop a standard yourself to know who to trust.
FOR EXAMPLE — WE HOPE YOU TRUST US! But the only way to know for sure is to try our recommendations and see how good a fit it is.
If you do have a chance to taste any of our recommendations (links to buy for any we could find online are right there in the reviews), we’d love to hear your feedback! So leave us some comments or shoot us private messages if you have stage fright, and we can talk it out at the lock in.
So like… points, man. Can’t live with em, can’t live without em.
Until next time, HAPPY DRINKING PEOPLE.
Isaac & Zach
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