Of all the scoring schemes employed by wine critics, none has ruffled feathers quite like the 100-point system. It's used here at The Globe, of course, and owes its popularity around the world to influential American critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. Back in the '70s, Parker reasoned that the metric would appeal to Americans because college essays and exams are often graded the same way. In going that route, he eschewed other options, such as the five-, four– and three-star scales, as well as the 20-point scheme common in the U.K. and used for training at UC Davis, the top wine school in California.
So why a fuss over percentages?
Mainly, people argue that grading with such a sharp pen implies that wine criticism is something it's not: a precise science. True enough; it ain't exactly rocket surgery, as Tim McGraw once said of country music. But Parker's point – forgive the pun – still stands. Grading philosophy essays isn't exactly a precise science, either (as one of my philosophy professors blatantly proved with his ludicrous mark on my brilliant takedown of Immanuel Kant's metaphysics). Numbers can, in fact, convey overall impressions about quality and performance. Just ask any figure-skating or gymnastics judge.
My only unease with the 100-point scale relates not to whether pleasure or perceived quality can be fairly represented in fine numerical slices. It has to do with what I call the 90-point albatross. Jeffrey Davies, an American-born wine merchant in Bordeaux, was once asked about the influence of Parker's scoring system on the retail landscape. "Below 90, you can't sell it," he reportedly said. "Above 95, you can't find it." (Others have made similar observations, and I make no claim about who was first.)
His key point was that the world has come to see a great divide between 90 and 89, and I think that's unfortunate. It's sort of like the line between A-minus and B-plus – only worse, because it's become more like the difference between pass and fail. For some reason, the 20-point system doesn't carry the same baggage. Sixteen or 17? They just don't scan with the same thrill as 90.
That's the irony about the 100-point scale. Its virtue is that it permits opinions to be expressed on a spectrum with many small divisions, yet some people interpret the minor gap between 89 and 90 as the Grand Canyon. I personally don't see that canyon when I'm scoring, and I'd happily part with my money for a well-priced 88 or 89.
This all came frothing up for me while previewing the Aug. 22 release of fine wines at Ontario Vintages stores. It features a special "90-plus" promotion, with numerous wines that received 90 or better from one or more critics around the world. Spittoon in hand, I discussed one such wine at the tasting lab with a fellow critic, a wine that I did, in fact, score 90. He agreed that it was good but said, with a laugh, that it was worth 89½. Frankly, I concurred, but on my scale you round up to the nearest tidy whole number. What's the difference, after all?
Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $35.20
Marvellous. Light-bodied and off-dry, but with well-crafted balance, this white explodes with green apple, lime zest and peach flavours, harnessing great tension between the sweet fruit and Sour Patch tang as a subtle, stony-mineral essence makes its presence felt. Well-suited to grilled pork or smoked fish and worth decanting or cellaring for five years or so.
Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 2013 (Nova Scotia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
Fair warning: This is medium-sweet, suitable for light desserts or – if you don't mind the sugar – sipping in the sunny outdoors. At just 7-per-cent alcohol, it goes down without a punch. Greyish pink in colour, it's gently spritzy, floral and reminiscent of fresh muscat table grapes and grapefruit. The splendid 2013 is being released today in Ontario Vintages stores, and the equally good 2014 is available direct for $24.95, www.benjaminbridge.com.
Finca de la Rica El Nomada 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
A red Rioja that tastes a little bit like a Christmas dessert in a very good way. Smooth, chunky plum and strawberry fruit mixed with chocolate, nutmeg, vanilla and pepper. It hides its 15-per– cent alcohol well. Serve it with big red-meat roasts.
Gérard Bertrand Grand Terroir La Clape Syrah-Carignan-Mourvèdre 2011 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Smooth yet vibrant red from southern France. Full-bodied and plummy, it's sweet and jammy in the middle, lifted by aromatics of black pepper and herbs. Match it with roast lamb.
Castellani Filicheto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Not entirely dirt-cheap, but a great red value that displays the essence of what serious Tuscan dirt has to offer. Medium-full-bodied, earthy, peppery and salty, it's perfect for grilled poultry, especially the little juicy stuff like quail or Cornish hen.
La Ferme du Mont Le Ponnant Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2012 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Hello, lavender, fennel and cracked pepper. Full-bodied and richer than most Côtes du Rhône at this price, this ripe red blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre offers up loads of dark-fruit flavour with a whisper of raisin, lifted by a toasty, crisp finish.
Domaine Saint-Etiénne Les Albizzias 2013 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
A full-bodied red with smooth raspberry and plum fruit sharing centre stage with lively notes of licorice and black pepper. Bonus: It's organic. Try it with grilled red meats.
Celler Cercavins Lo Virol 2014 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
A red from a little-known northeastern Spanish appellation called Costers del Segre, this exists in the shadow of better-known places like Rioja. Perhaps that's why it's so well-priced. Full-bodied, it's layered with flavours of plum jam, dark chocolate, dark coffee and baking spices. Somebody throw some lamb on the grill.
Lenz Moser Prestige Gruner Veltliner 2013 (Austria)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
At less than $14, this is a joy. Austria's signature white grape gets a refreshingly zesty interpretation, hinting at stone fruit and stones (a.k.a. "minerality"). A tad plump in the middle, it sparkles around the edges. Great for light seafood, salads or young cheeses.