Scoring Wines En Primeur: It Dis What it Dis


Recently, I had a dastardly disagreement with a distinguished and discerning docent, leading to a disjointed discussion about scoring en primeur wines—extremely young wines sold as futures while they are still in the barrel.

The reason for our dissent was that said associate, attending the press-heavy primeurs event in Bordeaux last week, felt perfectly comfortable awarding 100 points to grape juice that is still wearing its Limousin diapers.

Now, in terms of this discourse (which you are urged to join in), let’s say that one’s general opinion of wine scales is irrelevant. We can agree that any scale, useful or not, has an alpha and an omega; a rock bottom and a ne plus ultra, an apex and a nadir. The number of integers one cares to jam in between them is up to the scale jockey; Wine Spectator uses one hundred points, Jancis is jiggy with twenty while James Halliday relies on five, but allows for half-points, so it’s really a ten point scale.

Me, I’ve been known to employ a 120 point scale, which makes no sense until you realize that I can score a lot of wines ‘100’ and thus get Intoxicology Report mentioned on the winery’s web site.

We do know that wine scales are not bell curves, and that a lot more wines get scored 100 than get scored zero. That’s because there is a tacit understanding that a wine buys its way out of complete and utter humiliation merely by providing the critic with a free sample.

100 Point wine

It is also understood that whereas the Grail is always the full monty, one hundred out of one hundred points, to reach that magnificent pinnacle, from which there is nothing higher for a wine to strive, one must produce a product that personifies the precepts of perfection.

Or is—to avoid another annoying amalgamation of alliterations—some pretty fine shite.

Since this is just a thought experiment, allow me to say that in my world, were I to score a wine 100 points, it would be because I believed that every viticultural star in the wine cosmos had aligned within a single glass—color, bouquet, body, balance, palate, finish. And were I to purchase a wine based on another critic’s assignation of a perfect score, I would expect to find that same superlative fluid in that same single glass. I would not expect a wine that is unpleasant and unready for consumption.

And therein lies the rub; my side of the debate: En Primeur wines are not only not ready for the glass, they’re not even ready for the bottle.

When scoring ‘futures’, you are recommending that potential investors put their money where your mouth is, and as such, you are making a bold prediction based (presumably) on your expertise, keen sense of historical trajectory and your enviable organoleptic ability to tell meh from magnifique —with a little sleight of hand and self-promotion stirred in for oomph.

I get that. It’s all good.

But, here’s an analogy. As the most hapless breed of human imaginable, a Detroit Lions fan, I can look at the team in April, and using my expertise, my keen sense of historical trajectory and my absolute conviction that I will ultimately be let down by a team that has blown batfish balls since the day I was born, I can predict that the Detroit Lions, on the strength of a decent offense, will make the playoffs on a wild card bid and lose in the first round.

In wine terms, that might make them an 85 – 90 point en primeur football team. And yes, I’d be comfortable telling you to drop a hundred dollar bill in Las Vegas that this prediction will be accurate.

However, if I told you that I predict that, based on a decent offense, the Lions will win the Super Bowl, you’d be silly to place that bet. Hell, if I told you that the Patriots will win, you’d still be silly to bet any hard-earned money, because there is only one Super Bowl winner and it is far too early to know what injuries, trades, suspensions, deflated footballs or dog fighting arrests might intervene between now and 2018 to prevent that from happening.

On the other hand, if I said the Pats will make the playoffs? I think you could safely drop the C-note.

Likewise, at least one critic has predicted the 2016 Grand Vin de Mouton will win wine’s equivalent of the NFL championship: He gave it 100 points. Not 99 points, not 99.5 points, but the full ball of wacky wax.

In other words, this is grape juice utterly devoid of any detectable flaws or defects; the Virgin Mary of Viticulture.

And yet, as always, when in a fetal stage, Mouton tends to be closed, tannic, acidic and harsh. It is one of those Châteaux that you buy for your cellar, not your dinner table. And not because you don’t want to drink it right this fucking this instant, but because… wait for it… you believe historical trajectories suggest that it will improve—not just a little, but  tremendously.

But we’ve already established that it cannot improve. There are not shades of perfection; there is only perfect. Ask the Virgin Mary: The only place where ‘extra virgin’ is a concept is olive oil. A wine does not transcend a hundred points as it matures and mellows and deepens in complexity and become a 105 point wine. It can’t. The consummation devoutly to be wished, the apotheosis, the paragon of point pursuit (according to those who would pass out perfect scores to barrel samples) has already been reached.

Meaning that rationally, once you plunk down your six grand or so for a case of beau ideal, there’s no place for it to go but down.

That said, people far more in the know than I insist that they can indeed, and with good conscience, judge a wine while it’s still in the womb. They are not the soothsayers and the crystal ball gazers of the trade—they are perhaps closer to the new breed of social geneticists who can predict which kids will grow up to be neurosurgeons and which will rob 7-Elevens.

As people, do we award them 100 points on the super-taster scale? Or will their skill-sets continue to evolve to a point where they can taste unfermented grape juice—or nay, where they can pluck a grape from a vine and confidently judge what sort of wine it will make?

We may not live to see such a world, but our children might: A world where the en primeur experts can look at random vine cuttings in a horticulturist’s shed and claim with certainty which will produce the next 1945, 1961 or 2009.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime, I’m gonna desist and disappear here—you kids can continue dissecting the discussion and rate embryos as though they were adults; I’m done dissing my betters, and I will not name names when it comes to the Bordeaux preaux with whom I disagreed last week…

Let’s just say that I have great respect for his palate and Leve it at that.

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