June 02, 2004

Grand Cru Smackdown

Here's some serious and substantive disagreement behind the flurries of winetalk modifiers.

The subject: 2003 Chateau Pavie, from the Premier Grand Cru Classé estate in St.-Emilion, Bordeaux.

Robert Parker's evaluation: "an off-the-chart effort", 95 to 100 points on a 100-point scale.

Jancis Robinson's evalution: "completely unappetizing", "ridiculous", 12 points on a scale of 20.

It's not only the ratings that vary: expert descriptions include both "hint of wood" and also "huge wood"; both "needs more fruit" and also "powerful, super-concentrated dark berry and mineral flavors".

It's clear from the SFGate article by Roger Voss that there are many dimensions to this story: tradition vs. innovation, friendship vs. objectivity, and (apparently not least) ego vs. ego. I also take this tale as evidence that whatever else is going on in winetalk, it's not purely a sort of lexicalized read-out from human mass spectrometers (despite the implications of the Wine Aroma Wheel or the Recognose Wine Aroma Dictionary):

Blackberry? yes. Blueberry? a little. Strawberry? no. Gasoline? no. Rubber? yes. Tar? somewhat. Oak? moderate. Grass? yes. ...

That's not to say that the writers are intentionally fabricating their descriptions, or that the categories are physiologically meaningless and without any intersubjective validity, or even that such descriptions need to be intersubjectively valid in order to be interesting and useful to readers. Remembering Emily Dickinson's poem

    A sloop of amber slips away
      Upon an ether sea,
    And wrecks in peace a purple tar,
      The son of ecstasy.

may enhance your appreciation of a certain sunset, without corresponding exactly to everyone's perception of the same scene.

Since Ms. Dickinson is not available to give us her opinion, we'll have to make do with these fuller descriptions of the 2003 Chateau Pavie from a variety of contemporary experts (taken from Voss' story). Alas, it would cost each of us a couple of hundred dollars to experience for ourselves the tastes they're talking about -- and part of the obvious context here, as I've observed, is the linguistic scaffolding of a cultural construction intended to persuade us that it would be worth it.

Michael Broadbent: (14 of 20 points) -- "Very deep, extraordinary nose. Slightly fishy, tarry; fairly sweet, full bodied, powerful, dense and again tarry."

Clive Coates: (no rating) -- "Anyone who thinks this is good wine needs a brain and palate transplant. This wine will be scored simply as undrinkable."

James Lawther: (4 of 5 stars) -- "Big, powerful wine in the super-ripe mould. Rich, confit nose of dark fruits woven with liquorish-vanilla oak. Almost portlike. Palate full and fleshy with a muscular tannic frame. Firm, persistent finish."

Charles Metcalfe: (90-94 of 100 points) -- "Samples and opinions varied. This has very high tannins -- daunting and mouth-drying at present -- and there is a great deal of oak flavor. But behind all this (is) fresh, raspberry fruit with length and perfume. Not one to approach for a long time, but should be excellent in time. Something of a return to traditional form for this estate."

Robert M. Parker Jr. (96-100 of 100 points) -- "An off-the-chart effort ... a wine of sublime richness, minerality, delineation and nobleness .... Inky/purple to the rim, it offers up provocative aromas of minerals, black and red fruits, balsamic vinegar, licorice and smoke. It traverses the palate with extraordinary richness as well as remarkable freshness and definition. The finish is tannic, but the wine's low acidity and higher than normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests it will be approachable in 4-5 years . . . A brilliant effort, it, along with Ausone and Petrus, is one of the three greatest offerings of the right bank in 2003."

Jancis Robinson: (12 of 20 points) -- "Completely unappetizing overripe aromas. Why? Porty sweet. Oh REALLY! Port is best from the Douro, not St.-Emilion. Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux with its unappetizing green notes."

James Suckling (95-100 of 100 points) -- "Super-ripe and almost jammy. Very New World on the nose but impressive. Bordeauxlike on the palate. Berries, raspberries and strawberries. Hint of wood. Full-bodied with ripe and round tannins and a long finish. Chewy. Got to like this."

Stephen Tanzer (92-95 of 100 points) -- "Explosive, super-ripe aromas of cassis, violet, minerals and licorice. Thick on entry, then chewy as a solid in the mid-palate, with powerful, super-concentrated dark berry and mineral flavors and enough ripe acidity to give the wine shape and freshness. Best today on the great building finish, which features huge but thoroughly ripe tannins and palate-saturating berry and mineral flavors. An impressively rich, structured wine that wears its high alcohol gracefully."

Roger Voss (87-89 of 100 points) -- "With its aromas of raisins and sweet jam, this wine smells like port. To taste, there are dark tannins and huge wood. It is very tough and needs more fruit. Black and toasty and overripe. Maybe the fruit will develop, but it will take many years."

Some other discussion:

A decanter.com article by Adam Lechmere, quoting from an "impassioned three-page letter" from the chateau owner; and the decanter.com description "One of the top Saint-Emilion's of the vintage. Deep, intense colour. Ripe, dark fruit and liquorish nose. Rich, layered extract, velvety texture of fruit with a muscular tannic structure. Powerful but ripe and balanced with a long fresh finish."

A discussion of the "rumpus" by Neal Martin at wine-journal.com, and his lengthy evaluation, in which he mostly avoids taking sides, but does mention that "the hedonistic delight had given way to something with less delineation and poise".

A story on the "spat" by Catherine Lowe at Wine International.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 2, 2004 01:21 AM