Gauging the Grapes
If you read our last piece on this particular issue, you know that there are almost as many rating standards as there are types of wine — and no single system is universally applied.
But how do critics actually assign these — widely variable — values to the wine? This, too, is a complex system taking into account not only the current taste, texture, and color of the wine, but also how well the rater believes it will age.
The phrasing may change between rating systems, but for any reviewer, when it comes to evaluating wine, the name of the game is typicity, or how well the wine represents the ideal characteristics of its type in these areas suggested by the UC Davis rating system:
Although many things can be associated with the appearance of wine, this relates specifically to the wine’s clarity. Wines with visible sediment or that appear slightly murky or dingy are typically of lower quality — and therefore receive fewer points — than those that are completely translucent and reflect light brilliantly.
Beyond whether a wine is red or white — something even a newbie can tell at a glance — this evaluates the subtle shades of color found in each vino. The color and the intensity of the wine’s hue can provide important clues about its age, quality, and taste.
White wines, for example, should be very pale yellow to golden or straw-colored, depending on their type; amber or orange-red tones, however, can indicate oxidation. Although older vintages will show some of this discoloration over time, extreme color changes in older wine, or amber hues in very young wines, may indicate that the wine was improperly stored or otherwise overexposed to air, a defect that will cause the wine to taste and feel flat.
Aroma and Bouquet
Although these may seem like the same thing, each represents a different type of scent sensation that is integral to the experience of taste.
Bouquet indicates the scents one perceives through orthonasal olfaction, or when scent molecules are delivered into the nose via the act of sniffing. Aroma, however, indicates the scents perceived via retronasal olfaction, or when scent molecules are driven up through the nasal cavities during the process of swallowing.
Although the intensity of the scent is important, in this case, the rater is also gauging the wine on which scents are absent.
For example, the smell of mold or wet cardboard — or no smell at all — indicates that the wine is corked, a fault that occurs when a chemical compound called TCA, often found in wine corks, contaminates the liquid. A wine that smells very strongly of alcohol or one that is excessively woody also would be found faulty.
This particular quality rates just how much the wine smells like vinegar, with the ultimate goal being that it doesn’t at all. When bacteria come into contact with alcohol for a long period of time, it creates acetic acid — and that characteristic vinegar scent. That’s why we can create such products as red wine vinegar with the proper bacteria and conditions.
Although red wine vinegar is a delicious ingredient in its own right, most critics agree that a drinking wine that smells like vinegar is fatally flawed, and should not be consumed.
Despite it sounding similar to its counterpart “volatile acidity,” this actually indicates the mouth feel of the wine, or the way it feels on your tongue or palate. Most wines should feel refreshing on the tongue, almost as if just ever so slightly carbonated.
Wines that do not have “zing” or that feel flat or soapy are fundamentally flawed, and therefore are rated poorly. Conversely, a wine that feels too sharp or carbonated is equally unpalatable.
Sweetness and Sugar
Believe it or not, this one is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the wine should not be overly sweet or overly dry for its type.
This category indicates another aspect of the overall mouth feel of the wine. Most wines should feel smooth and silky against the tongue, and ideally, depending on the type, should not leave an excess of residue that causes your tongue to feel coated or sugary.
Although this one sounds like it should be subjective, indicating whether the wine tastes good or bad to the reviewer. But actually, when determining taste, the goal is to identify whether the wine delivers on the flavors promised by its scent, and whether it possesses the flavor profile characteristic of wines of its type.
Although often considered a quality of only red wines, all wines possess at least some tannins, or natural polyphenols found in everything from wood and bark to grape skins.
If the wine is too tannic, it will taste extremely dry, almost to the point of sharpness. Conversely, a lack of tannins will make the wine feel soft to the point of being almost buttery.
This, too, is precisely what it sounds like, and allows the critic to award points based on the wine’s overall performance. This area also takes into account the potential for the wine to evolve with age, as high-quality wines tend to improve over time.
The Problems with Points
Using a simple point system to evaluate these characteristics does help inform the casual consumer about the quality of wine very quickly and easily. But even Robert Parker admits that these reviews are subject to the critic’s personal taste, as well as his or her mood at the time of the tasting.
“I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment,” he has said of his reviews. Not to mention that a critic who prefers bold reds may find fault in an extraordinary, yet subtle, white, diminishing the usefulness of this review for the consumer.
So, given the sheer number and variance of wine ratings in the world, how do you use them most effectively? Well, the answer with this, as with most things, is by using them in moderation — and always with a grain of salt.
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