A MARK OF A GOOD WINE

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
The subject of numerical wine- ratings causes fevered debate among wine lovers. One side argues that ratings import rigour into a field that may otherwise be dominated by impressionistic waffle, and that while detailed tasting notes are useful for some consumers, others want a quick guide to quality. The opposing side think wine tasting is a subjective enterprise, and that while you can be objective about certain aspects of quality, numbers lead to a false sense of precision.

The Grandaddy of wine-raters is Robert Parker, chief taster behind the enormously influential publication Wine Advocate. Parker's system is clever: wines are marked out of 100, but the numbers start at 50. Parker thinks his system gives more "flexibility" in scoring than the widely used Davis Scale (marks out of 20) which originated at the University of Cali-fornia at Davis, a world-class centre of oenological R&D. And you have to admit that 98 sounds better than 18.

The questions arising from numerical rating are various. Since wine tasting is inevitably a subjective business, can any system of tasting-by-numbers avoid an element of arbitrariness? Should the delightful Rose Paradines, Domaine Henry 1996 (pounds 5.75 from Adnams, 01502 727 220) get 18 points out of 20 because it's so much more complex than most wines of its colour; or 16 because there are perfectly drinkable roses selling for pounds 2 less; or perhaps a mere 14 because rose never gets really serious even when it's very good?

And how can numbers account for the VFM factor? Someone recently served me a bottle of beautifully mature Chateau Lanessan 1988. This vintage is no longer widely available but I could go and buy the 1989 at Berry Bros (0171 396 9600) for pounds 15.25. Or I could buy Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou 1988 (same supplier) for three times that price. Is the extra money worth paying? That's a question that numbers can never answer.

But everyone who drinks wine has a personal system for ranking the stuff, even if it's not as sophisticated as points out of 20, 50 or 100. I'm no exception here: I figure that if you're capable of liking one wine and loathing another, you can figure out some way of putting your numbers where your mouth is. And that's what I'll be doing from next week onwards, in a sip-sized Wine Box focusing on just a couple of cool bottles.

Not being a numerate kind of dude, I am using stars according to the comments that arose from personal experience in the last round of tastings. As I went round, slurping like all the other sponges, I noticed that wines tended to attract one of five comments I had scribbled down.

A few wines (not many) were really unpleasant, and I tended to write something like "YUCK" if I wrote anything at all. Others were not awful, but just dull, with nothing to commend them even at pounds 1.99. Wines in the YUCK category rarely get mentioned in this column, so they do not feature in my ratings. I reserve the right, however, to occasionally draw your attention to one star (*) DULL wines.

A slightly larger number of the wines elicited the comment GOOD in my tasting sheets, two stars (**). These were wines that would never set the world alight, but which - when price was taken into account - would give full pleasure to anyone drinking them. They were topped in quality by wines that really made my taste buds sit up and smile. Some of these cost pounds 8.99, some pounds 3.69. All, I thought, showed excellent value in their price range, and I nominated them as VERY GOOD, three stars (***).

Something like 1 per cent of the wines had lengthy, incoherent comments which usually ended with a crudely drawn STAR. The stars made me want to swallow, rather than swill and spit; and they caused sharp pangs of regret when I threw the remainder of the glass away. In short, these were wines of exceptional quality. There will not be many winning the full four stars: this ultimate accolade is reserved for the kind of supernova that would bust the lenses on the Hubble Telescope. But those that do get a stellar quartet will, I hope, deserve it richly.

So there's the system awaiting your judgement. Is it 12 marks out of 22? A mere 9.5 out of 30? Drop me a line if you have strong views.

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