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Saturday, 2 May 2020

In Praise of Wine Scores and Wine Education: The CWB Lidl-Off

Two Lidl wines selected by MW Richard Bampfield

Being an analytical sort of person, I rather like wine scores; done properly, they provide a transparent currency for quality. A 91-pointer is better than an 89-er? File under No shit, Sherlock.

Of course, the reality is not quite as simple as that. As W. Edwards Deming observed, “without data you’re just another person with an opinion”. Since wine scoring has no objective, universally-agreed, independently-verifiable test for quality, wine scorers are inevitably trading in no more than (informed) personal opinions based around a normative standard.

Nic Rezzouk of Manchester's Reserve Wines makes the observation of scoring, "agreement is generally broad and uneven. Even with the pros."

So, there are scores and there are scores.

In an imperfect world, then, the most reliable approach is someone with a demonstrably flawless palate and a consistency of scorer (i.e. the same person scoring). In the case of Lidl's Wine Tour range, you get both; all the wines in the range are rated by a single person and that person is Master of Wine, Richard Bampfield.

Taken in isolation, scores (like any data) are meaningless - what does it mean for a wine to score, say, 88 points? It is only when looking at trends or making comparisons (with other wines or with other data points), that scores become meaningful.

There are at least three immediate uses for a reliable, consistent set of wine scores:

Transparent Quality Index

A wine with higher score is better than a wine with a lower score; if this sounds obvious, remember that most wines do not carry a score. Then, have a think about how you decide what to buy when faced with a "wall of wine" at a supermarket.

If only there were some way of easily comparing the quality of the bottle contents, eh?

Value For Money ratio

In an ideal world, the more you pay for something, the better it would be. The real world does not work like this, of course, and you can find a £5.99 90-pointer next to a £10.99 89-er.

A better wine that is cheaper than a less-good wine; how does that work?

This is where softer factors like personal preference and fashion come into play: the 90-point wine turns out to be a tricky-selling off-dry German Riesling blend, while the more-expensive-but-less-good £10.99 wine is a popular, premium-region Bordeaux.

Palate education

If you want to learn what factors make a wine good, taste high-scorers and compare against lower-scoring wines to identify quality differences.

Having tried both the Bordeaux (2016 and 2017 vintages) and the Riesling (2018), I expected the Bordeaux to be the better-rated wine, whereas Richard gives it one mark less. I felt it had good fruit, good underpinnings and was well-structured. By contrast, I found the Riesling technically very well-made, harmonious and balanced but perhaps a little unassuming.

I dropped a note to Richard asking him how he had arrived at his conclusions and what I was missing.

He replied that he had marked the St Emilion down a little for being a bit chunky, not the classiest oak integration and lacking finesse - plenty of flavour, some structure but not the finest.

By contrast, he had marked the Riesling-Scheurebe up for its purity of aroma, subtle reflections of both grapes, excellent acid/fruit balance and pure drinkability.

Educating Rita

This is not the first time I have found myself underappreciating the delicate finesse of a white and being unduly forgiving of chunky tannins. I love inexpensive, characterful regional French reds, but have rarely got excited about more delicate wines such  as Condrieu or red Burgundy.

This realisation gives me pause for thought.

One of the key themes of the Willy Russell play Educating Rita is the tension between education and authenticity; does education make you a better person, or just more of a conformist with a set of identikit notions?

To put it in wine appreciation terms, the more you educate your palate, the more wines you don't like.

As an instinctive non-conformist, I have eschewed formal wine education, avoided the classics (mostly) and sought out left-field wines from Austria, Hungary and Romania, as well as a few more unusual countries.

To what extent do I want to make an effort to be less impressed with something I thought was good whilst getting more excited about something I thought was OK but nothing special?

I still haven't decided.

Education is a little like the evolution of a wine with age; certain things are gained, and others are lost. So we need to weigh up for ourselves whether what is to be gained will be greater than what is lost before embarking on the journey.

I think the answer to the conundrum of why would you go out of your way to enjoy fewer wines is that wine enjoyment is not linear or fixed; the ability to enjoy a smaller number wines need not be worse than having no limits on your enjoyment.

Enjoyment is not a zero-sum game; a greater enjoyment of a smaller number of more expensive wines (the inevitable end result of wine education, I find) can be a more rewarding experience.

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