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France

    My Column

    Did Someone Say “Classification”?

    Wine buffs just love official wine classifications, especially French ones. So do the producers-among the top Médoc and Burgundy growths, anyway. It is easy to see why: Classifications push up the prices of their wines and land. But the whole thing takes on a nightmare quality as recent classifications come up for review. The squabbling over the Médoc crus bourgeois has exhausted the patience of even the best-intentioned regulators; and two years of wrangling by the crus classés have made a laughing stock of the St-Emilion classification.

    The latest ruling by the French courts entitles properties listed under the 1996 rating process (the penultimate classification) to display their ranking on their labels. But this is only until a new ranking can be drafted, which wouldn't be necessary if the latest classification (2006) had been drawn up properly.

    That producers should want classification at all is suspicious. Everyone is in favor of ranking but only on condition that no one gets left out. Those who aren't promoted or are demoted will use every legal means at their disposal to have the new classification annulled. The slightest failure to observe the letter of the law, and the new ranking will be deemed void by the courts. Lawyers will meanwhile talk up the distress suffered by the also-rans, pointing out the heavy financial penalties in store. According to even the most conservative estimates, a cru classé promoted to premier cru can expect to double the price of its wines in just two years and triple the value of its vineyard land; a demoted cru faces losing half of both its value and its customers.

    A bigger worry, though, is the philosophy that underpins this sort of classification. There is no justification for a system cobbled together from two conflicting sets of principles: on the one hand, the producer-driven Bordeaux model, based on a château's reputation and trading price; on the other, the vineyard-driven Burgundy classification.

    The 1855 Classification for Bordeaux red wines is founded on the name of the château. These rankings have remained unchanged ever since, no matter how much those châteaux may have increased or reduced their vineyard holdings. It is unfair that 1ha (2.47 acres) of Pauillac purchased by Château Latour will increase in value tenfold-significantly more than if purchased by Château Pédesclaux, and unimaginably more than if purchased by the La Rose Pauillac wine cooperative. But price is one thing and quality is another. A cru classé that wants to consolidate its position must commit to wine of uncompromising quality. However much its vineyard expands, its performance will always be up to the mark. Any newly acquired plot that fails to deliver will be declassified by the owner, even though the land may hold its price. This explains the longevity of the 1855 Classification and why it is still trusted. It was naive of the St-Emilion crus to think they could break with commercial wisdom and imagine this sort of injustice could be avoided by insisting on official approval before any cru classé could expand its vineyard.

    Remember when Beau-Séjour Bécot was demoted for allegedly introducing an incompatible terroir to the mix? But who decides whether a cru should be promoted or demoted? On what objective criteria is soil classified and defined as grand or premier cru? And, scientifically speaking, does anyone understand those criteria? Referring to the Burgundy classification is pointless because Burgundy has never been ranked on the basis of terroir (meaning "agricultural land") but according to climats (meaning "vineyards"). These are two different concepts: a terroir is an accident of nature, but the Burgundy crus (as in Bordeaux) are man-made.

    What they understood in Burgundy but largely failed to grasp in Bordeaux is that soil is not the only criterion. So, they added others, such as the position of the vineyard on the slope and its exposure to sunshine, wind, and rain. These enduring criteria, proved in turn by the taste of the wines, are what defined the official boundaries of the Burgundy climats today. The consistent character of the wines, in the hands of conscientious owners, has produced a precise classification that nobody questions.

    Bordeaux undoubtedly has climats of its own, but the wines they produce are blended. Blended wines from a variety of plots may well be more complex, consistent, and original than those from isolated parcels. But since quality in this case is determined by human choice, the individuality of these crus is much more difficult to classify. What blind-tasting expert can claim that one château bottling is always better than another?

    Who could name the St-Emilion crus classés and, in the same vintage, months or years later, still rank them in the right order? How many times have the producers of these wines actually failed to recognize them? Are we to trust expert brokers and enologists more than consumers? The judgments of the former are clouded by conflicts of interest; the latter are too unsure of themselves to go with genuine emotions that contradict traditional rankings. In the end, only the market can provide a respectable basis for the ranking and pricing of the Bordeaux crus, because only the market covers every possible angle of wine production and trade- and represents the greatest diversity of tastes and opinions. They understood that back in 1855, and they still understand it in Pomerol. Will they now understand that lesson elsewhere?

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    My Yesterday

    The Absurdity and Flattery of Scores

    I am a wine critic. And so, of course, I am called on to judge the quality of thousands of different wines every year. Not just to describe them or to give an opinion on their quality but also to score them and rank them in a league table. And that’s where the trouble starts.

     

    It doesn't take a genius to appreciate the absurdity of giving a number score to a work of art or, worse still, an artist. Salvador Dalí had huge fun scoring great artists (including himself) on the basis of design, color, and composition-but that says far more for his sense of provocation and irony than it does for the principle itself. When it comes to wine, alas, US wine critics, starting with Robert Parker, have convinced us that awarding an absolute score out of 100-to any wine, regardless of year or country of origin-is not only possible but actually in the best interests of the consumer. No one doubts that such scores mean something to a palate as discerning as the Maryland guru's, but only a mind reader could understand the tiny nuances that distinguish an average-vintage California Merlot awarded 89 points from a greatvintage sweet South African wine awarded 88 points.

     

    Absolute flattery

    The fact is, an absolute score serves only to flatter the self-esteem of wealthy buyers. It must be a real ego trip to know that you can afford the perfection of a wine rated 100/100. The rest of us must, meanwhile, surf the top-scoring options in search of wines within our price range. The sooner a critic awards that score-to the newly made wine (why not?) or, better still, within one or two years of bottling-the more useful it is for that huge army of budding speculators looking to buy the latest vintage at the right price, whether to drink it themselves or, increasingly these days, to sell it on to buyers in Asia and elsewhere.

    Then there is the other kind of wine critic, who admits that their scores are quite obviously relative, understandable only in the context of a particular type of wine, a particular vintage, and, indeed, a particular preference (meaning you personally prefer the wine awarded 90 points to the wine awarded 88 points). Such critics are accused of cowardice, of being unable to do their duty courageously for the benefit of their public. They are reproached by the average consumer for assigning more or less the same score every year to the same (good) wines made by the same (good) producers. We may well point out, however, that this is only natural, given a consistent quality of production that in good years or bad brings out the best in the vintage and the terroir. Idiots will simply see this as a veiled admission that we are in the pay of those producers. They insist that even if we won't or can't give an absolute score to the wine, then we could at least award an absolute score to the vintage to help people understand our scores from one vintage to another. But that's just as pointless-and equally impossible. How do you award points to a vintage?

    Do you base it on the value of the worst wines, or the best wines, or the average value of the wines tasted, or the average of the average? You could use computers, I suppose. But what use is that when trying to determine how much pleasure a wine will give when it reaches drinkability, which for wines from the greatest vineyards is definitely not going to be on the day of tasting? A skilled taster will, indeed, predict the likely evolution of a young wine and give a "prognostication" (the only way to put it) about how good it will be once it is fully mature- a maturity that might come to pass five years, or 10 years, or sometimes 20 years after this first tasting.

     

    What right to judge?

    And it doesn't end there. As scary as it is, there is only one question worth asking when the voices of contradiction can't agree among themselves: "By what right do we declare one wine, one terroir, or one method of fermentation to be better than another?" Conventional wisdom doesn't help here, since it's invariably tainted by ideology. If you say, for instance, that it's better to buy minor wines from a great vintage than great wines from a minor vintage, that will be anathema to anyone who doesn't believe in a hierarchy of terroirs. But it's even worse if you take the opposite position-that it's better to buy great wines from minor vintages because they will always be more elegant than small wines from great vintages, and more reasonably priced, too!

    All of which goes to show that a whole bunch of arithmetic scores is not the way to educate consumers about wine. What we critics have to do is teach people to compare their tasting sensibilities with our own. This starts by helping consumers to discover what they like or what they are seeking based on the reviews that we provide. It does not mean spoon-feeding them with ready-made critical evaluations on the misguided assumption that they are too lazy to digest the information themselves. A difficult duty, for sure-but it's our duty nonetheless!

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    Me

    Michel Bettane is a leading French wine critic, and for twenty years, a writer for the French consumer wine publication La Revue du vin de France. He left La Revue in 2004 to work for the rivaling wine publication Le Classement des Meilleurs Vins de France.[2] He now runs his own website.

    Following the acquisition of La Revue du vin de France by Marie-Claire and media group Lagardère, Bettane and his colleague Thierry Desseauve left the publication on grounds of editorial differences, and the two launched their own series of wine guides, Le Classement des Meilleurs Vins de France. Bettane also appears in publications such as Le MondeDecanter and The World of Fine Wine.

    Bettane is credited with coining the term "vin de garage" and its winemakers "garagistes".

    In an interview with Swiss newspaper Le Temps Bettane stated that wine critics are "not gurus", and stated that criticisms by Jonathan Nossiter in his book Le Goût et le Pouvoir were "infantile".

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Wine Moments

Here you can see wine moments from tastingbook users. or to see wine moments from your world.

Michel Bettane, Wine Writer (France)  had a tasting of  13 Wines  from  13 Producers 

Petrus 2018 / A Petrus of great dimension with a structure that gains in finesse with the passing weeks and an aromatic scope delivering spices, pepper, iris, marshmallow, violet. Alluring and shining tannins. A legendary vintage for the cru.

99 points

10d 7h ago

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