2021 Bordeaux En Primeur report by Lin Liu MW
2. The Magic of Points
As I mentioned briefly in my video when I launched my website, I feel that the wine industry is limited by high scores. Everyone, including journalists, needs a way out of this dead end.
I only started working as wine critic in 2020, and I was already penalised once in 2021. I agreed to do a vertical tasting with an estate. After driving three and a half hours from Cahors to Pauillac, I was told that the owner wanted me to re-taste their 2020, and that there was no vertical tasting. I have a very young child at home and was perturbed by the loss of a full day, when this situation could have been avoided by a simple email exchange.
I calmly asked the person who received me if this was because of a tasting note or score that was felt to be disappointing, but no answer was forthcoming. I re-tasted the wine, admitting it could be possible that the sample was not well presented or tasted, and this confirmed my initial assessment: my quality analysis was unchanged. This year I intentionally skipped tasting their wine, as we are obviously not on the same wavelength.
By the way, I gave their 2020 a 94-95 point score, which was quite high by my standards.
This was a distinct contrast to my vertical tasting with Château Lafite, where I was well received. I rated their 2020 vintage as 96-97 points (not particularly flattering compared to many colleagues’ scores). But grand estates are not grand by luck. Respecting everybody’s opinion is a good foundation. The best way to convince others is by showing quality and respect. But we are not always so lucky.
Inflated scores only serve to crown certain critics, transforming them into emperors (Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale comes to mind).
I am nobody, and have only been tasting Bordeaux en primeur since 2012. So I checked around for reference, looking at the scores of a few people with the most admirable palates, to see how they tend to score.
First up was Michel Bettane (co-founder of Bettane & Desseauve), my tasting mentor and source of French wine culture since the start of my wine journey. Off the top of his head, he told me that he had given full marks only 10-12 times since 1976, including Romanee Conti (twice), Hermitage (twice), Yquem (twice), and Domaine Leroy (four or five times). Many – perhaps 40-45 – were rated 99 points.
Joel Payne, another tasting guru, confirmed that he has only given 100 points 17 times in his 40+ years of tasting and rating, which includes 24 years as chief editor of Gault & Millau, and five years as publisher and chief editor of Vinum.
And yet today it is easy to find annual reports from one country with a handsome bunch of full marks. Theoretically, there are better wines today. But there may also be other explanations.
An Australian colleague advised me to change my scoring system from 100 to 20 points. I told him that many French wine critics had recently switched to the 100-point scale. Well, maybe another system? he asked. Well… the 1000-point system already exists.
Metrics never changes the weight, does it?
When I was in Aberdeen, Scotland, I frequently prepared food with my international friends at the weekend, and I noticed how cultural differences were exposed around dining table.
The Americans would be giving praise before they had even tasted the dishes: “Oh my, that looks delicious! Wow!” While my Danish friends would murmur, “that’s OK” – high praise indeed.. Brits would mutter “pretty good” and Scots would comment “nae bad” for almost everything they tasted. The Chinese are quite similar to the Brits, (maybe a degree less) but when we’re amongst ourselves we feel free to tell the cook “this would be better with a bit more salt” and so on, and no-one feels offended if this is a constructive comment.
So cultural differences could be one explanation? Robert Parker may beg to disagree.
Robert Joseph summed it up well with this observation about multiple high scores. It’s like being at your graduation ball. You get to dance with the girl you fancy and you’re thrilled, until you realise that she has danced with every single boy at the ball.
What next? Let’s hope that consumers don’t discover that some of those 95-point plus wines are barely satisfying.