I want to address a subject always guaranteed to get readers riled up. No, this is not a naked clickbait play for more Twitter followers (but should you be so inclined, be my guest!). It’s about math. I’m talking about wine scores.
Before you feverishly tap out a poorly spelled, inscrutable tweet at 3 a.m. as Kanye West or the Leader of the Free World do, let me talk you off the ledge. There will be no defence here of such controversial subjects as the pre-eminence of numbers over the star system or a manifesto declaring the 100-point scale vastly superior to the lame 20-point system popular in Britain. (Been there, done that.) Rather, I want to replay an exercise I’ve played in these pages before. It has to do with what I’ve called the 90-point albatross.
Wine lovers who happily rely on the 100-point system are, I think it’s safe to say, constantly on the hunt for products that rank 90 or above. Those people operate on the not-unreasonable assumption that A-level wines are blatantly better than the ones that earn a B-plus. And they would, I’m sorry to say, be dead wrong. The difference between 89 and 90 is – are you ready, math whizzes? – one point. If a 90-point wine were dramatically better than an 89, it would score 95, not 90.
I can’t tell you how frequently I’ve agonized over whether to award this pinot or that merlot an 89 versus a 90. The scoring burden plagues me daily. Ultimately a critic, similar to a gymnastics or ice-dancing judge, must make the call and commit to a number. If you’re a certain wine-critic colleague of mine, you might resort to half-point slices, as in 89½. But that just takes us to a 200-point scale, which is nuts. And fractions were never my forte.
The not-so-great divide between 89 and 90 came rushing back to me recently as a noticed lots of 88- and 89-point scores in my tasting notebook. “Good wines," I thought to myself, “too bad that many people won’t bother buying them.” Yet for those willing to consider the other number in the mix, namely price, I think the appeal of the wines below is obvious. There’s big value on the humbler side of 90.
Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2016, Australia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Full, luscious and rounded, this consistently good red showed well in 2016 and, in my estimation, sits on the fence between 89 and 90, score wise. (Catch me on a sunnier day and I might settle on 90.) The flavours hint at chewy berry candy, sweet pipe tobacco and spices. The tannins are soft and well-integrated. An ideal red for gamey grilled meats, such as lamb shanks. Available in Ontario.
Seaglass Pinot Noir 2016, California
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
It takes considerable digging to unearth a good pinot noir for this money. But a promising place to look always is Santa Barbara County, Seaglass’s beautiful home. This actually tastes like pinot, light-medium-bodied and very dry, yet with a big, jammy-berry flavour characteristic of sunny California, along with baking spices. Good acidity, too. Available in Ontario.
Esterhazy Estoras Gruner Veltliner 2016, Austria
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
This is true gru, so to speak. In other words, a white displaying textbook characters of Austria’s signature white grape. Light-medium-bodied and dry, with a tangy, mouth-watering vibrancy, it comes across with notes of apricot and citrus, lifted by an almost spritzy texture. Available in Ontario.
Château du Breuil 2014, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $24.95
An Haut-Médoc Bordeaux, this red supplies a fairly full, properly ripe palate of blackcurrant, graphite and chalky tannins. Ever so earthy, slightly oaky and spicy. Serve it with steak. Available in Ontario.
Jardin Inspector Péringuey Chenin Blanc 2016, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Medium-bodied, with satisfyingly leesy depth. Apple, gingery spice and well-integrated acidity. Punchy and precise, this is a well-crafted example of South Africa’s signature white grape. Try it with mildly spicy fish or chicken dishes. Available in Ontario.
S. Sebastiao Tinta Roriz Syrah 2015, Portugal
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
From the coastal rolling hills north of Portugal’s big city, Lisbon, comes this “country” red with lots of bang for the baksheesh. A blend of tinta roriz (“tempranillo” in nearby Spain) and syrah, it’s remarkably and unusually similar to an Australian shiraz in some respects, though with less apparent sweetness and more of the grainy tannins characteristic of Portugal. Plum, bitter chocolate and a hint of cherry lead the way, followed by a slightly earthy essence. Nice for wintry meat dishes, such as beef stew. Available in Ontario.
Tarapaca Gran Reserva Carmenère 2015, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17
Full, smooth and polished, this is properly ripened carmenère. So, if you’re wondering what the herbal-jalapeno essence is doing in there, chalk it up to the grape variety, which is supposed to taste that way and makes carmenère hounds like me very happy. Sweet, dark plum, leather and bacon join with jalapeno in a succulent, meaty, cleanly made red. Available in Ontario.
Gorgo San Michelin Custoza 2017, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Medium-bodied and soft for an Italian white, with rounded acidity yet a delectably juicy-wet feel. Gently musky and aromatic, it’s brimming with orchard fruit and ends with a refreshingly bitter snap. Available in Ontario.
Sinergia Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Spain
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
The category of good organic cabernets for less than $15 is not what one could call vast. Trust Spain to come through, even if cabernet is not exactly a traditional vine in Valencia, whence this full-bodied red comes. It’s chunky, very dry and grippy, with concentrated fruit displaying its dry-farmed roots. Arguably, it may lack the sort of proper – which is to say French – varietal character that might have earned it a 90-point score, but it’s satisfying and would pair suitably with steak. Drink it over the next four years. Available in Ontario.