After last year's great claret tasting at the little seaside town of Southwold on the UK's Suffolk coast (pictured), I came away armed with a very serious spreadsheet: the one with the scores on. Not just mine, everyone's. There is an omertà about these and the document is not one for sharing: I could show it to you but I'd have to kill you or, at least, give up my spot on this quite brilliant panel of tasters. Not my plan.
Who can taste and who can't is a conversation that every wine merchant has on a fairly regular basis. The object could be a colleague, a critic, a competitor. Colleagues are generally first into the sights, as you taste with them, and the best tasters are often useful as a sounding board on a wine that you either just 'don't get' (I always used to struggle with Palmer from barrel, for example) or one that has totally seduced you (is that wine really as good as I think it is?).
The critics come next, largely for commercial reasons: Mr Parker's palate has been called into question recently over his latest appraisal of the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, largely by those who would have profited from higher scores. Conversely, other critics are derided in private for throwing high scores at pretty much anything while, at the same time, those high scores can come in handy if you have access to the wine in question.
The answer to the 'Can he or she actually taste?' question is generally arrived at by experience, particularly with colleagues. You can soon work out that Colleague X knows what he is doing even if he does have an almost embarrassing weakness for barrel gloss. Colleague Y is the opposite: an excellent judge of quality, though he is rather turned off by the merest hint of fruit in his claret. And colleague Z: how on earth has he got this far when he couldn't taste the difference between tea and coffee?
With the critics and the writers it's trickier. It's mostly a question of comparing notes and scores. Critics A, B and C say 95 points, Critic D says 89, and I say 95, for example. But this is flawed unless the experience – principally the surroundings – is the same: it is very, very hard not to like a wine when it is being shown, direct from the barrel, by a charming host whereas it is much easier to find faults with a wine when tasting in more academic surroundings. I think it fair to say that most tasters at Southwold lean toward the miserly in their scores, partly on account of the academic surroundings, partly on account of healthy egos. [I'd second the miserly bit - JR]
At Southwold, tasting a few hundred wines blind in a closed room of 20 tasters soon separates the men from the boys and, with scores called out at the end of each flight, there is nowhere to hide. But the nature of the tasting and the panel is such that the cut has already been made in terms of onions and knowledge of them. One of the key pleasures, for me at least, is seeing what each of the group thinks about any particular wine. While it's not about who is best, and putting one's own judgement against them, there is an element of, if not competition, some sort of test.
I find that it is generally the old boys who know what they're on about (this is not exclusive to wine tasting) and watching legends such as Steven Spurrier or Barry Phillips [of Four Walls Wine] make their calls is a sight and a sound to behold. Observing those whose palates one has worked with or tasted with before is equally interesting, as is the examination of those with reputation.
Armed with the numbers, though, you can go a step further. Correlation. I know that my friend Stephen Browett [Farr Vintners] likes the same beer as I do (light, hoppy) and I know what sort of wine he likes (claret, posh, preferably from a ripe vintage), but do our palates correlate in terms of our judgement of quality? I now have an answer. Having removed the names (I take this omertà seriously), I pass the spreadie to someone much, much, cleverer than I am. He does some stuff to it and sends it back. I can now see how the palates of the tasting group correlate.
There are two key bits of knowledge here. Firstly: I get some individual answers. For example, on 2010 Bordeaux, my palate and that of Mr Browett correlate to a degree of 0.61, which isn't bad. With Jancis the figure is 0.63: even better (though Stephen and Jancis correlate by 0.54, not quite as good).
The second bit is a little more interesting. What these figures also show is the palate that is most in tune with the rest of the group (ie the palate that is most closely correlated with the others). Looking at this from the point of view of a statistician, that palate is the leader, the one that knows best. It also shows any potential renegade, the palate that the statistician would discount. This is what my clever friend explains to me – and this is where it starts to fall down.
The merits or otherwise of summing up a wine and its quality with a number have been much-discussed. I've written about it countless times, though without ever coming off the fence: I admire the ability to do it correctly as much as I admire the refusal to do it. And my little exercise on correlation is little more than gloating sophistry: it's scoring in reverse, scoring the tasters – giving their palates a number rather than a description. What I want from anyone in terms of wine advice or discussion is description, not numbers. And – exactly as I want in any wine – I want character.
The lead taster, the one who happens to be most in tune with the rest of the group, happens to be someone that I admire from afar, someone that I would automatically describe as 'knowing his kit'. The rogue? Impeccably qualified, with a reputation for irritating all-round brilliance. Moreover, he is someone with a gift for description, someone who can capture in his words a trait or character in a wine that most could not.
The simple fact is that, while some of us are seduced by a bit of what I call barrel gloss, others detest it. Some love the regal austerity of old-fashioned claret while others bemoan the lack of fruit in the same wine. And some – like me – appreciate a bit of make up in the right wine though not all of the time.
So simply looking at a score without the note, without the description, is totally flawed. Because a number, if it is to be the only way of quantifying quality, has to be totally objective. And total objectivity in tasting is impossible. Which is why you simply can't do this wine thing by numbers.
For other articles on the subject of scoring wine, click on the tag at the top of the article.