Top Ten Smart Buys – John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 26th 2012
Consensus on Greatness: Is it Possible? You Bet. May 26th sees the annual Vintages release focused on 90+ point wines. By most standards in the world of wine ratings, 90 is the magic number, the dividing line between good and very good, between satisfying and special. Where and how that line is drawn depends entirely on the reviewer, yet I never fail to marvel at the consistency of the definition of “very good” from experienced tasters, even if from incredibly diverse backgrounds. As though to hammer the point home, I spent the last week in Hungary judging wines at the 13th annual Pannon Wine Challenge, with panelists from the UK, Poland, US, and Hungary. Though we may have warbled on about acceptable degrees of technical flaws and other granular details, and though each of our scales were calibrated differently, in relative terms, there was remarkable agreement on the wines that stood above the others. The middle ground, however, was much more variable.
This leads me to believe that there is such a thing as great wine. It’s not a single beacon in the sky, but more like a bunch of circles of light that overlap. Where all the circles intersect you’ll find consensus on greatness. Moving out from the center it gets more and more individual; agreement on the fringes is less consistent. And I love that the characterization of excellence in wine remains intangible and elastic, and changes as you change. By most definitions it must incorporate elusive and brackish concepts like “balance”, “terroir expression” or “varietal character”, which become evident only after years of tasting wine. At this point, it’s more of a feeling than a rational explanation of greatness.
Though all of the judges at the Pannon competition have had dramatically different life experiences and exposure to wine, the one point in common between all is significant tasting experience. And this leads to another shaky truth: the more you taste, the more the image of greatness emerges out of the mist and comes into consensual focus. Beauty shouldn’t, nor couldn’t, be pinned down to a standard rational definition. Experience seems to lead us all to a remarkably similar vinous landscape – the converging points of light – beyond the rational.
One 90+ point score could thus be an outlier, but when consensus is found among a diverse group of experienced tasters, there has to be something there, a mutually shared feeling, however un-definable and intangible. Here, the greatness is not the sole proprietorship of the experts; even if you don’t taste a thousand wines a month, these mutually commended wines will most likely touch you, too. Outside this convergence, you’re back in the land of personal experience.
It’s a bit like how I imagine it must be for a figure skating judge. I suspect that even for judges with vast experience watching skaters, the feeling of witnessing a great performance arrives first, before the degree of technical prowess comes into focus. That feeling is shared by the audience – when you see a top skater you feel they are great, even without the ability to describe a perfect triple Lutz, or even knowing what a Lutz is, and you expect a top score. The judges can then rationalize the feeling of a great performance through analysis of the skater’s technique and artistry, but the scorecards have already been selected. When the performance is less than great, the audience waits in anticipation; rational analysis has taken over, and it’s not clear to the inexperienced which way it will swing.
When I taste a great wine, I get a little shiver first – I feel that it’s something special. That’s past experience tickling my frontal cortex, saying, hey, this is worth paying attention to. After that I’ll set about trying to describe rationally why it’s great. A tasting note that gushes with worn out superlatives is a start towards sharing that feeling. But when words are inadequate, as they invariably are, I can flash up my scorecard to draw a line in the sand and make my position clear. In the absence of the shiver, the technical analysis starts first, and the results between reviewers are more variable. Paradoxically, it’s a feeling of greatness that leads to the intersecting points of light in the sky. Rational thought leads to greater discrepancy, less consistency and greater variability.
Top Ten Smart Buys (also 90+)
Of the 75 wines I tasted for this release, 21 gave me a little shiver – See the smartest ten buys of those here. I’ve yet to see the reviews of my WineAlign colleagues, but I suspect there will be some convergence, and that’s where you should start. Hopefully you’ll get the same shiver, unless of course, you’re the Russian judge.
For more details on the Pannon Wine competition, see thoughtful American wine blogger Alder Yarrow’s posting at Vinography.com or UK author and blogger Dr. Jamie Goode’s popular wine Wineanorak.com. Results of the competition can be found on the competition’s official website, Pannon Bormustra. I’ll post a selection of my notes shortly.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier