Thursday, October 16, 2014

What’s 97 points between friends?

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a couple of years now but in the ensuing time a little boy, moving house, and a new job have all conspired to give me an excuse not to write it. Recent events, however, have brought back a bit of fire to the belly.

The issue is the growing irrelevance of the 100 point scoring system, rendered largely useless by the artificially inflated scores of many prominent wine critics.

Without going into the full detail of the 100 point scoring system, historically wines scoring in the 70s had significant issues/flaws, wines in the 80s were decent quality drinkable wines, while wines of 90 and above were excellent, and 95 and above were benchmark, world class wines. There will be debates at the margins in terms of what I have just described, but it roughly captures the original design and usage of the scoring system that has dominated wine appraisal over the past 3 decades.

Like any scoring system it has strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths is the ability to have a wide range of scores available to you to make both nuanced and large score differentials between wines. When you score one wine 92 and another 91, you are making a distinction that isn’t available to say a 5 star system (something I still use). This advantage of the 100 point system, however, has been much diminished in recent years.

Points Inflation

The past decade or so has seen an inflation of points scoring from a significant number of prominent critics. It has been a gradual but undoubted trend. In particular, wines scoring 95 and above abound in a way they never have before. Examples are legion, but perhaps the most infamous of recent times was the eighteen 100 point scores Robert Parker delivered for 2009 Bordeaux. Only a few years previously he had delivered only two 100 point wines from a similarly lauded Bordeaux vintage, that being 2005.

The local example, but by no means the only one, is James Halliday. He is undoubtedly Australia’s most famous wine critic, and someone I have always greatly admired. What has happened over the past decade however, has been an increasing points creep in his scoring that has almost moved to the point of farce. A decade ago, had I read a review of his that rated a reasonably priced wine at 93 points, my interest would have been piqued. In more recent years the equivalent quality wine would almost inevitably get something like a 96 point score. Accordingly, I’ve found myself in what seems like the ridiculous situation of largely ignoring any Halliday reviews for wines scoring less than 96 points. It seems like I will have to revise that up again now, with Halliday awarding a 97 point score to a whopping 166 wines in his latest annual guide, 98 points to 24 wines, and 99 points to a further two.

Undoubtedly in this tally are some genuinely world class, benchmark wines. But looking through those awarded 97 points, there are many that are not. A case in point is the 2012 St Hallett’s Blackwell Shiraz from the Barossa Valley which Halliday gave 97. It’s a wine I’ve generally really enjoyed most vintages and when I tasted the 2012 over 3 days recently I once again found it to be an excellent wine. It was to my mind a 92/93 point wine, which particularly given the $25 price tag makes it a fantastic buy if you enjoy your Barossa Shiraz, and a wine I would highly recommend. Having said this, it is not a benchmark wine, and I don’t think any serious consideration of this wine would label it as profound.

Moving beyond just Halliday, more recently there has been a frenzy around the release of the 2010 Penfolds Grange. This is undoubtedly one of Australia’s greatest wines and 2010 was a very good vintage in South Australia. That it would therefore get some very high scores upon release is no surprise. However, as with the broader trend of points inflation, Grange score inflation has followed suit. To the point now where this wine has already received 100 point scores upon release from critics like Andrew Caillard MW,  Nick Stock, and Tyson Stelzer. Never mind that this is a wine that typically takes a couple of decades to reveal its full potential, it has been given a hat-trick of perfect scores straight off the bat. What happens when these critics taste and score the wine in 20 years time, once the wine is in full bloom, is anyone’s guess.   

Of course not every critic has joined in this arms race, and I hope those that continue to show restraint will hold the line. However, my inbox now receives so many daily offers of wines that have been rated 95, 96, and 97 points by a prominent critic that it would appear that world class wine is simply a mouse ckick away. What has happened in the past decade has made the distinction between truly great wine and very good wine difficult to discern.

Does any of this even matter?

Plenty of people have suggested it’s not really a big deal, and that we should just take a cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down. Some of the typical refrains are -

Scoring wine is a nonsense in the first place, so who cares

A score stakes a claim as to your genuine opinion on the wine, or anything that you’re critiquing for that matter. People argue to the contrary that you should just read the tasting note and make an assessment from there. For mine, with a tasting note alone it is virtually impossible to both genuinely convey the quality, flavours and textures of a wine in a way that consumers can easily get their heads around, while also subsequently enabling them to compare and contrast different options available to them. I’ve increasingly come to the view that a tasting note without a score is a bit meaningless. They compliment one another. Scoring wine remains important.

As long as the range used is consistent what does it matter?

Have a think about anything else in life that is scored (movies, restaurants, the credit ratings of banks). Imagine now that you just decide to move everything up a notch. A David and Margaret reviewed 3 star movie (At The Movies), which has always been the kind of solid, ok movie that you would watch if it’s in your style or there is nothing else to watch, now becomes a recommended 3.5 or 4 star movie. In this new regime, the scoring might be consistent, but it is far less meaningful. The critic is not doing their job of sorting the wheat from the chaff. With the scoring of wine it is no different.

If you don’t like the way the critic scores just ignore it?

Unfortunately that’s not really possible. I guess if it was largely irrelevant bloggers like myself that were throwing out 97 points with gay abandon then yes it would be possible to ignore. People like Parker and Halliday and other critics, however, are too ubiquitous in their respective areas of focus. They have an affect. If you are passionate about wine, you can’t just ignore them or the issue more broadly.


Wine criticism is a profession riven with conflicts of interest (a topic for another day). However, I used to be of the belief that these conflicts could largely be managed. However, it seems I was wrong. The plethora of overrated wine about the place would appear to be evidence of this. Ultimately I believe it’s incumbent on people who are scoring things in their professional fields to show a level of restraint and integrity in the way they rate things. Giving everyone a guernsey does no one any good in the long term.

In my day job I’m involved in reviewing and rating investment opportunities for clients. I know that if I were to adopt the Parker or Halliday approach to my scoring I might make some fund managers happy in the short-term, but my credibility would ultimately come under question, and in the end I would be out of a job. Admittedly overrating a wine won’t have the same consequences as putting someone’s life savings in a dud investment, but I’ve got no doubt that if this points inflation trend continues, critics might ultimately find themselves out of a gig. There are only so many times a consumer will buy what they are told is a 96 point wine before it starts to become shorthand for just a solid bottle of wine, at which point how relevant is a wine critic?


Saturday, September 27, 2014

2013 Montalto Chardonnays - Mornington Peninsula

Simon Black is starting to produce some pretty smart wine at Montalto. Brown and I had the chance to visit him last year at the winery and taste through a range of barrel samples and there was plenty to like then. You also got the sense that things are on the up as Black improves the vineyards he has, and comes to understand these sites more intimately over time.

I tasted both the entry level Pennon Hill and the Estate Chardonnay over 3 days.

2013 Montalto Pennon Hill Chardonnay – This punches well above its entry level tag and registers very highly in terms of yum factor. Lovely fruit has gone into this wine. Stonefruits, cashews, creaminess, and a bit of oak spice. Generous yet restrained, it’s all underpinned by a fine acidity. Pushes through to a savoury, citrusy finish. If this was your house chardonnay over the next few years you would be very happy.
Rated: 92
RRP: $23
ABV: 13.5%
Closure: Screwcap
Drink: 2015-2018

2013 Montalto Estate Chardonnay – Just shows a bit more class than the Pennon Hill. More palate weight but also greater definition in the wine’s line and length. Generous stonefruit, grapefruit, cashews and a nice input from the oak. It also displays a bit of flintiness, adding complexity. Classy chardonnay, and worth leaving alone for a couple of years before opening.

Rated: 93+
RRP: $39
ABV: 13.2%
Closure: Screwcap
Drink: 2016-2020


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nickleback's Chad Kroeger to release a shredding range of new premium wines (RedtoBrown News EXCLUSIVE)

Chad hopes his new range of wines
shred as much as his soft rock mega-hits.
 The wine world is utterly abuzz at the news Chad Kroeger from Canadian rock band Nickleback will be joining the ranks of Rock n Roll wine makers by releasing his own range of premium wines under the Chateau Kroeger label. The announcement puts Chad in the same company as Maynard James Keenan of rock band Tool, and was confirmed during a press conference in the Nickleback tour bus as the band moved east to New York as part of their worldwide tour. In the conference, Kroger outed himself as a born-again wine fan. “My wife, Avril is part-French, so she was weaned on Beaujolais nouveau and loves moscato, tequila and grapefruit shooters. I also love the stuff, having drunk lots of Kristal and Grey Goose in my time. Her passion has been infectious on so many levels, and wine is one of them”.

The first wine in the Chateau Kroeger range will be the “How You Remind Me Cuvee”, an ambitious non-vintage blend of Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Moscato, matured in new American oak and infused with maple syrup essence and vanilla musk. It comes in a black glass bottle shaped as a fender Stratocaster. The second in the range is the “Photograph Sparkling NV” a blend of white zinfandel, Thompson seedless, and brandy, topped up with 1982 vintage Kristal. Each bottle of the Sparkling NV will have a 50ml vial of a Chad and Avril perfume to really add to the romance of this premium wine.

The Photograph Sparkling NV is in many ways
 a tribute to Chad's love of wife Avril (inset).

"These wines rock, but have a softer, more stylish side, just like me and my buddies” Kroeger gushed. “We drink the test batches in the dressing rooms all the time. It gets us pumped before we shred on the power ballads”.
Kroeger described his wine making philosophy and the genesis of his wine label during an interactive portion of the announcement.  “I aim to make honest wine, with minimal intervention from the winemaker, sincere and true wine, just like my tunes”. Kroeger revealed his wine making techniques to the enthusiastic crowd, including playing acoustic versions of Nickleback’s greatest hits to the truckloads of grapes shipped-in from Nevada.
“I reserve the love songs I have written for Avril when playing to the grapes that go into the “Photograph Sparkling NV”. I think they taste sweeter and more sincere as a result. It is hard for the winery staff to go about their day jobs when I go to that special musical place. Tears flow, I have to admit”.
 Chad has been know to connect with
 the grapes prior to them
going into his premium wines.
When asked about the inspiration behind Chateau Kroeger, Chad recounted the moment he spoke to Maynard from Tool about his Caduceus wine label – a discussion that convinced him to pursue his wine making dream. “I told Maynard that his wines rocked even harder than his Lateralus record. He called me a lightweight and told me to fuck off, but his enthusiasm and energy was infectious. My wine dream was born that day”.
Maynard James Keenan (inset) 
refused to be quoted for this article.
The Chateau Kroeger How You Remind Me Cuvee and Photograph Sparkling NV go on sale next week for $US 450 and $US 790 respectively. They can be purchased from any Wallmart or 7-11 Stores across the USA and Canada.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Harkham Wines - Natural wine with a smile (Hunter Valley)

Maintaining a wine blog when you have a young family is tough, tougher when you combine it with a busy day job. The wine appreciation never stops, (nor do the recording of tasting notes, TBH) though the volume of articles being posted tends to inevitably decline. The post below should have been put on the blog over a year ago – the hospitality and enthusiasm of Richie Harkham demanded it, even if the quality of the writing in the post doesn’t quite. Regardless, this post was lost in the mix, and I have stumbled-upon it, dusted it off and posted it for the record. Tasting notes are from early October 2012. Thanks to Ritchie for taking time out of his day back in 2012.

The wine making industry loves ‘the next big thing’, especially when it polarizes opinions and has the potential to attract new customers to wine. In the last few years organic/biodynamic wine making practices and in particular, ‘natural wine’, have assumed this status. The growing trend of producing, selling and drinking natural wine polarises opinions amongst industry types, wine nerds and the wine cognoscenti.

While RedtoBrown have made light of natural wine in some of our posts (the ongoing ‘Wine Wars’ series of video clips being the most obvious example), on a serious note we have never shifted our focus away from the subjective assessment of the quality of the wine in the bottle for any given wine maker – be it natural or not.  If I like the taste of the wine, I like the wine: a tear-inducing, inspirational story behind the making of a wine does not mean I will enjoy drinking it.

With that elongated intro out of the way, my family headed to the Hunter Valley last October (editors note: 2012), for a relaxing few days. On recommendation of a wine friend, one of the wineries we visited was Harkham Windarra.

Owner and winemaker, Richard Harkham (Ritchie) has an infectious passion for his craft. Harkham is one of the few, (if not the only) Hunter Valley-based wineries making natural wine. This may be due to the regions successful battle with bret over the last 20 years, though it does seem strange that the major wine region closest to Sydney (the natural wine consumer capital of Australia) is not jumping on the bandwagon with more gusto.

When we met, Ritchie summed-up his winemaking philosophy as aiming for a wine that will be “as close to nature as you can get”. Ritchie noted winemakers tend to intervene too much in the winemaking process, and he tried to intervene only when necessary in a way that is done through positive energy in the cellar. As Ritchie noted, “wine is alive and always living and changing.”

Our tasting was a bit rushed, with Ritchie kindly fitting us in on a weekend prior to the arrival of a Chinese delegation keen to try his wines. The most impressive of the wines tasted had pure fruit flavours and refreshing, natural acidity. The least impressive strayed towards some left-field tropical fruit flavours and less structure. However, none of the wines tasted slotted into the cheap throw-away natural wine stereotype of faulty, funky barnyard reds and cloudy, orange, apple cider whites. Quite the opposite.

We left the winery with 4 bottles of wine (one of them a wine that Ritchie admitted did not turn out the way he would have liked, but was a wild wine to taste). The tasting notes below are for three of the wines, tasted in early November (Rose) and mid-November (the two Shiraz).  (As for the delay in posting the notes – blame my day job and downtime with my beautiful baby boy).

Harkham Aziza’s Shiraz 2012
An earthy, meaty nose with crushed grape stems, some dried florals, blueberry and dark cherry fruit. On the palate, a bit salty, with minimal tannin. Largely driven by juicy black cherry fruit and fresh acidity. The finish is earthy, meaty and savoury though clean, with a hint of residual salt.
After two days on the tasting bench/fridge, the nose opened up, with sweeter fruit coming out on the front palate, and a finish with additional dried herbs.
Given the difficult vintage conditions, and the minimalist natural wine making philosophy, this is a surprising result. Drink now.
Price: $22
Rating: 88pts

Shiraz Nouveau 2011
This wine hits home to me the razors-edge natural winemakers tread each vintage. If the winemaking is not at fault (and in this case it definitely isn’t), the fruit and vintage conditions can do their best to hijack a wine. Especially if the scientific – dare I say it, ‘industrial’ wine making work-arounds are not available. The wine had a banana-like nose with tropical undertones on the palate, arguably variable acidity, yet a core of ripe red cherry and raspberry fruit. Finished with an almost white wine textural mouthfeel. Ritchie noted that this was made from super ripe, small berries that were carbonically macerated in whole bunches in stainless steel tanks and bottled 3 months later. It was a tricky wine to make, and it shows in the glass.
Rating: 87pts

Harkham Rose 2012
Attractive light, pale strawberry colour. Nose – Sweet red fruits and a hint of spicy stonefruit (white nectarine). Juicy yet delicate fruit flavours, primarily strawberry, light and vibrant with lovely fresh, cleansing, integrated acidity. The finish is dry, with some mixed citrus peel lingering at the end. A very drinkable, refreshing wine, sweet on the nose, yet largely dry on the mid-back palate. The fresh, integrated acidity a standout. This wine passed the ‘Wife Test’, with the better half giving it two thumbs up.
Rating: 94pts

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