The Art of Wine Appreciation: Wendouree Shiraz & Torbreck RunRig Reviewed

In recent years there seems to have been a growing trend amongst wine critics to be as clinically precise as possible with their analysis and rating of wines, to the point of dissecting the wine experience into separate components like colour, aroma and bouquet, texture, palate feel, initial attack, flavours, aftertaste, and so on. Indeed, there are many models adopted to judge and score wines, most of which involve allocating points to specified components and then adding them up, much like judging an Olympic event or grading a student’s essay.

In the US especially, more and more people – consumers, investors, and collectors – are relying on third-party evaluation in deciding what is good (and thus more valuable) and what isn’t. We see comic books, coins, banknotes, stamps, trading cards, etc., being graded and slabbed and entire registries devoted to pricing and valuing these collectibles.

A similar numerical grading system has been adopted to rate wines. This purportedly made it easier for consumers to know what they’re getting rather than rely on subjective descriptors and outdated wine classification systems and appellation rankings.

However, there is a serious risk in relying too much on third-party evaluation. For one, it could potentially diminish our ability to apply our own senses to appraise a wine’s inherent value, aesthetics and qualitative aspects. Blind faith in others’ opinions could impair our ability to judge for ourselves. Worse yet, we could become influenced by a dominant trend or passing fad (that could be commercially driven) and lose confidence in our aesthetic appreciation of wines. Moreover, by being over-obsessed with rating or quantitative reduction of a wine’s components, we might forget that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s try a little exercise in reviewing  two ultra-premium South Australian Shirazes: 2000 Wendouree Shiraz and 2005 Torbreck RunRig.

Although they are from different vintages, they are very reliable representatives of their respective cuvées.

When reduced to an analysis of component elements, a typical wine review of these wines might look something like this (broken down into point form).

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Wendouree Shiraz:
Colour: reddish purple; no signs of over-oxidation.
Initial aromas/ on the nose: hint of sweet berries; slight traces of secondary earthy characters.
Viscosity: not very long legs suggesting a low to moderate alcohol content.
Initial “attack” on palate and mouth feel: soft, supple and very smooth, typical of wines with significant bottle age. Wine is drier than initial aromas suggest.
Integration of wine elements: seamless and very well-balanced.
Complexity: this is a surprisingly simple wine. There is very little evolution in the glass over several hours. Secondary characters are very subtle.
Aftertaste: again very subtle and because it doesn’t dominate, gradually fades leaving a pleasant mouth feel.

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Torbreck RunRig:
Colour: deep reddish purple, almost inky black.
Initial aromas/ on the nose: fruit, lots of ripe fruit; seemingly sweet (due to high alcohol, perhaps); followed by a riot of chocolate, mint, and spices.
Initial “attack” on palate and mouth feel: bold and very confident; yet, harmoniously smooth. Simultaneously sweet and savoury; a flood of ripe berries, vanilla, chocolate, liquorice, mint, cloves and exotic spices dominate.
Integration of wine elements: despite its many layered and contrasting aromas and flavours, these elements have integrated very well in the bottle. Not sure what it would have been like upon release; however, after 8 years it has come together perfectly. The power of the fruit suggests that this wine will continue to evolve for at least another 10 years.
Complexity: as indicated above, multi-layered and deep, but not overwhelmingly so. Needs time in the glass to reveal different dimensions.
Aftertaste: this one just lingers on and on with a very long mouth-puckering finish.

I believe my description of the two wines above give a fairly good, albeit somewhat clinical, idea of what they’re like. Of course, it will never replicate the actual experience of tasting the wines. It is but a mere shadow. And it would still vary significantly from individual to individual. But it would to some extent enable quantitative values to be ascribed to each component, as a formula for scoring wines.

Now, I would like to “review” these wines from a totally different perspective, which I will call a holistic experiential approach (for lack of a better term).

Wendouree Shiraz:
Tasting Wendouree is like sitting on your porch and looking at the sun setting. It is early autumn; ripened fruits begin to fall, and a gentle cool breeze brings soft fragrant aromas of sweet berries and herbs, hints of rose petals and cocoa, as well as mild spices. Soft aromas that you can actually taste. Everything is in perfect harmony, just like the recording of the Adagio Assai of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major playing in the background. You’re seduced by the sheer beauty of the experience, and you feel as though you’re a part of something very special and stylish. Yet, it isn’t grandiose; it is alluringly entrancing in its truly classy simplicity. You know it won’t last, but are more than grateful for having been a part of the experience.

Torbreck RunRig:
You’re in a fancy restaurant. The family at the table next to you is having desserts. Sweet aromas from the warm blackberry pie waft past. You can almost taste the spicy ripeness of the fruit, with hints of cinnamon coupled with a mouth-watering savouriness. Someone else is having chocolate mousse. Rich dark cocoa and vanilla so flavourful you feel as though you’re the one having it. A waiter serves deliciously aromatic espresso. People around you are chattering but it isn’t noisy at all. In fact, the chatter just blends harmoniously with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” playing in the background. Everyone seems happy and there is a buzz of energy in the room. Suddenly, you are transported to a tropical beach. Rainforest on the hills behind you, vast open sea stretches indefinitely in front. Your senses are heightened by the profound immensity you’re experiencing. You open your eyes to find yourself at home in your armchair sipping a glass of RunRig.

*****

Of course my metaphors mightn’t make sense to some because some of them might be quite personal. Still, it is possible to get a pretty good picture of my experience. It’s like a universal work of art: music, painting, food, etc. have a common denominator. They’re things that our senses perceive and experience.

Why Some Influential Wine Critics Could Be Doing More Harm Than Good

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(Photo courtesy of a very sad friend.)

What is the role of the wine critic?

I can think of many non-mutually exclusive reasons why people become wine critics: to educate, to share opinions, to establish one’s reputation as an “expert”, to promote wines, to influence market trends, as a complement to their wine business, and/or to “archive” or remember wines.

The last is more about making tasting notes either to share with others or purely for personal reasons; it will be dealt with separately later.

The other roles are interrelated and my main focus is on wine reviews by professional wine critics.

To begin, I would like to quote a review of Mount Mary Quintet by Robert Parker Jr.:

“The proprietor of Mount Mary has never wanted me to taste his wines, which are revered by segments of the Australian press, but with some stealth work, I was able to secure a few vintages. In addition to the 2001 Quintet, I was able to taste the 1998, 1997, 1995, and 1994. For my taste, only the 2001 merited a score higher than 80 points. The attempt appears to be to emulate a Bordeaux petit chateau, but none were as fine, being lean, high in acid, austere, and meagerly endowed. They will not improve with age. The 2001 has slightly more to it than the older vintages. It is difficult to understand what merit these wines possess.”
(Wine Advocate, No 161, October, 2005)

Naturally, this brief review caused a stir amongst many Australian wine professionals. Andrew Caillard MW even made reference to it in his assessment of Langton’s “Exceptional” category of Australian wines:

“In the beginning Mount Mary Quintet Cabernets was something of a cult wine but over the years has built up a reputation for being something quite special and complex. It does not always find favour with critics – especially of the American kind – weaned on the deeply concentrated, monumentally rich and alcoholic Barossa Shirazes and apparently determined to have us all drink the undrinkable.

Just before Dr Middleton died, the American Robert Parker Jr. derided the overall quality of Quintet raising more than a few hackles among Australian wine critics. Indeed it highlights the difficulties of scoring wines and the polarized perspectives of commentators around the world. Australian collectors have largely and correctly ignored American reviews. It’s probably just as well, because the wine is limited and difficult to find anyway.”

Robert Parker Jr.’s review would probably *not* had generated such a stir within the wine community, especially in Australia, had it been by a lesser “authority”. However, this is by the famously influential Wine Advocate.

On one hand, it seems quite obvious to me (reading between the lines) that here is a person, revered by the wine industry as a world expert, who was perhaps more than a little miffed that Mount Mary wasn’t interested in his opinions (and wouldn’t send samples to him), regardless of how all-powerful his influence might be. Let his pen do the rest. How anyone could come to such a conclusion about an entire wine portfolio based on a minuscule sampling of wines (with no reference to provenance) is beyond me. (It is worth recounting the incident when he gave Domain Faiveley a “bad” review and it was later revealed that the wine he sampled was “cooked” due to improper storage in the warehouse of the American importer.)

In contrast, Jancis Robinson MW is one of the rare few who have sampled every single vintage of Grange; so I would be very interested in her views of, say, the 2008 Grange. Did it merit the significantly higher release price because Wine Advocate gave it a perfect score of 100? Why pay well over $700 a bottle upon release when I can get it on the secondary market two years later for under $600? (Refer to wine auctioneer Mark Wickman’s review: http://www.wickman.net.au/wineauction/Grange_Prices.aspx)

Such significant price jumps occurred consistently whenever a wine received exceptional ratings. There’re too many examples to cite. A bottle of Shirvington Shiraz retails on average at $76 (all vintages), with the exception of the 2001 (98 points) & 2002 (99 points) which have an average retail of around $115 (2001) and $120 (2002) respectively. The price jump of the 2008 Grange is a classic example. Bear all this in mind when reading this:

“I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment.”
(Robert Parker Jr., in an interview with the Naples Daily News, published 25 January 2007.)

So basically, “the emotion of the moment” can make or break a wine’s future.

Such is the power of an influential critic; and, yes, much has already been discussed and written about this. Still, it is worth reiterating this as majority of the general public *do* rely on critics when deciding which wine to buy, and worse yet, “invest” in.

(A note on photo above: it is merely to illustrate how those bottles would feel had they received negative reviews. Ouch! No, they were not harmed deliberately, although their owner was most upset. He did lick the remnants and remarked that the “blend” of the two was rather good…)