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Points and Place

by David on October 12, 2006

As I wrote in our blog titled Culinary Getaways a la Provence, Colleen Topper, our proprietor, and I have been extremely fortunate and thrilled to have spent a week exploring the wine and food of Provence and the southern Rhone. Ah, the ever-expanding waistline! I’ve been going through the memories and can’t help noticing that we couldn’t get through a day without someone mentioning Robert Parker. We met with winemakers, brokers, chefs, food vendors and he was always there, lurking in the background (and sometimes the foreground). Intellectually, I have known that this American man has remarkable influence internationally, but it still caught me off guard to see it so clearly demonstrated. It’s almost as if you can’t talk about wine without talking about the “Emperor of Wine.”

Views were mixed. The charming producer/distributor we met with, Guy Bremond of Cave du Verger des Papes (a must-visit when you are in Chateauneuf-du-Pape – you can taste several brands and blends of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, many of them excellent, under one ancient roof), clearly loved Parker while serving and discussing the 2003 Chateau La Nerthe Cuvee des Cadettes, a wine which often receives upwards of 95 points depending on the vintage. For the other wines there was no mention of Parker, lovely as they were. In sales, he’s your friend when the score is over 90 and otherwise???

A chef who conducted a cooking class for us despaired of wines becoming too similar globally because of the influence of Parker and the Wine Spectator. He didn’t bring up the elephant in the room but Allan Wilson, the owner of Chateau St. Esteve de Neri, did when he commented that restaurants are beginning to push back regarding these high-alcohol, so-called “fruit bombs” with the high scores. While they may be attention getting, they don’t necessarily marry well with food and the chefs don’t like seeing their work out-shouted by wine on steroids. Since the wines we tasted were routinely 14-15%, I asked Allan if the wines of southern France are normally so high in alcohol, or if this is a recent trend. Guess what – it’s a trend. I wonder why??  And it’s easy for those producers in sunny southern France to respond to the trend. But what about cooler regions that really have to work for that unctuousness (or manipulate) to get the high scores? Are they betraying their terroir to make a sale? It’s a tricky equation.

Then Allan told a story about how a group of Master Sommeliers held a tasting of Merlot from several continents with a common denominator of Michel Rolland as the consulting winemaker. These highly-experienced tasters got it all wrong. They thought the Chilean wine was Bordeaux and the Italian example was from Napa Valley. Their terroir was Rolland. I fear that if the wines of the world lose their sense of place while chasing the scores and the sales it will be very hard to get it back.

If you’ve been following my conversation (“Great Wine by the Numbers?”) with Leo McCloskey, of Enologix, you can see that there’s lots of room for opinion on the subject, and re-reading the above comments, I realize my sentiments are apparent. It’s a tough nut. The wine writers absolutely have a right to their opinion and producers have the right to do what’s necessary to pay the bills. But, as a consumer, I hope that there will always be a place for great wines that embody that evocative sense of place. You know – you get a whiff of something that brings back a vivid memory. I look forward to the day when the scent of a white wine makes the beautiful memories of an ancient cave, a glass of Beaucastel Vielle Vignes and the smiles of the day come flooding back.

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