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Jancis Robinson uncorks en primeur debate

As Bordeaux warms up for en primeur season, Jancis Robinson MW has voiced her concern about the practice of publishing scores before châteaux have released their prices.

Her fear is that château owners use a high score to inflate their prices. In short, she feels, “Stepping a long way back from the whole business of being a diligent reporter, I can see that I play a part in a process that really does not benefit the consumer.”

Responses from fellow critics highlight the problem of implementing Robinson’s proposal that they join together in holding back scores.

Robert Parker raised concerns about “collusion”, while Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, argued that a low score from critics can have a deflationary effect on prices.

As the drinks business does not publish its own scores on Bordeaux, it is possible to comment on this issue from a rather more neutral perspective.

There is no doubt that this is an important topic that is overdue for an airing among those who are actually in a position to make a difference to the system.

At the risk of oversimplifying a thorny issue, it appears to be the magic score which is the problem, rather than the tasting note. In this respect, perhaps it matters not so much when the scores are released, but rather that they are released at all.

Unfortunately, the definitive nature of scores is what makes them so attractive for consumers and château owners alike in their constant desire to label a wine the “best”. Is Beethoven better than Brahms?

Surely it is the tasting note which is, or should be, the most useful tool in helping a consumer decide whether a particular château is producing to the style and quality level they are seeking.

Tasting notes may be highly inconsistent from critic to critic, but so too are scores. At least with a tasting note you have some chance of understanding the process which leads a critic to declare a wine excellent or otherwise.

Unlike a score, the tasting note allows some room for the notion that wine is a subjective area. In time, you learn which critics most closely represent your own palate, as well as those who are likely to advocate a style you do not enjoy.

Especially in a scenario such as Bordeaux en primeur, where the wines are so far from being their finished selves, it seems dangerous to give anything so definitive as a score. This is especially the case when the liquid provided as en primeur samples may not be the same concoction that ends up in the bottle.

Sadly, on the basis that consumers and the press have an enduring obsession with league tables, we must reluctantly accept that scores are here to stay.

However, at least some of their distorting effect could be mitigated by critics taking the responsible decision to hold back scores until the châteaux have released prices.

To refer back to Matthew’s comment, a low score may prevent a price hike, but how many châteaux have actually lowered their prices in recent years?

This is an important discussion on an issue which for the sake of wine lovers (rather than wine collectors) deserves to be explored fully and honestly.

We can but hope that fellow critics begin to come round to Robinson’s request, rather than continue to lamely defend the status quo.

The debate continues on Robinson’s site, Purple Pages. To follow its progress so far, click here

Gabriel Savage, 24.03.2011

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