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Someone innocently suggested a dinner wrapped around a Penfold's Grange Hermitage vertical, and soon enough there were a couple of dozen players and every vintage of Grange between 1978 and 1990 but for '79 and '84. For extra fun, we brought things like Krug, '86 Climens and '86 Guiraud Sauternes, '63 Graham's Port, 82 Dunn Howell Mountain, 91 Dominus (Grange or no Grange, this was a candidate for wine of the night!), 91 Monte Bello, 91 Silver Oak Napa, 86 Muller-Catoir TBA, and, well, you get the idea. Leaving the other things for other notes (see theTasting Notes section), let's go straight to the main event.
Some general observations: First, Penfold's had a pretty consistent signature style until the radically altered 89. This means a jammy wine with extremely ripe, dense, concentrated fruit. Some vintages were jammier than others (78 vs. 80, for example) and started to call to mind the adjective "port-like", but they all tasted like Grange Hermitage except the 89. Second, we had two bottles of some wines, only one of most. There were differences in comparing "a" to "b" in each instance, although not always dramatic. Storage and handling counts, if you had any doubt. Third, not a single wine (other than one bottle than was damaged) was past peak. These hold. Conversely, they were pretty much all approachable until we hit the 1987. This is not to say that they were all at peak prior to then, and most of the older vintages are better off cellared than drunk. With the 89 and 90, especially the 89, there was a style change. They were extremely forward. Finally, consistency was displayed not only for style but for quality. I have SOME mild criticisms of some of these, but only compared to each other. It would have been hard to dislike any of them if opened alone.
The '78 was a crowd pleaser. Very sweet and ripe, a little over the top in some respects, the wine most likely to be nominated as port for the evening. I have sometimes found that very dense, concentrated wines, when they age, will first go through a stage where they become almost honeyed and syrupy, in various degrees depending on their type, of course. It's most noticeable for late harvest wines as they mature and before they dry out. I thought some of that was going on here, meaning, that this wine was showing some age, but the degree of ripeness was so high that that it just didn't come across that way. My view on this wine is that it will hold fine for some years, but will not get better.
The 1980 reverted to a more balanced style. After the 78 this left some people disappointed. I thought it was a fine wine nonetheless, if a little more claret-like than other vintages. It seemed to be drinking pretty well and evolved gradually in the glass. I found the 1981 the least interesting of the first few pours, perhaps also because it seemed the least approachable. It showed more acidity, more tannins, less forward fruit and suffered a bit in comparison. I think this can benefit from more cellaring, at least two to three years.
The 82s presented our first "double" bottle. The first bottle showed more ready to drink, with the very ripe signature characteristic, balanced by more pure power than the 78 and just a hint of leather. The 82a was more ready to drink and farther along. The 82b seemed in more pristine condition, tasting more tannic and younger. In the latter incarnation, it needed still some cellaring and of the older wines was probably most likely to improve. Still, approachable now.
The 83s again presented the basic GH style, very similar in flavor and feel to the 78 although not so much over the top. This was a double bottle too, and while the "b" version seemed marginally younger and displayed perhaps a hint of licorice on the finish, the differences were not all that dramatic. This wine is more approchable than the 82b or the 81, but will continue to improve with cellaring.
The 85 presented again some of the basic "style," and was a wine along the lines of the 83 and 78 (without the 78's super ripeness). Some dry tannins came through on the finish, and this is a wine which, again, you can nibble on if you want to, will reward some patience with further improvement. The 86s presented another marked contrast, with the second bottle showing much "bigger" and more tannic, and less ready. In that incarnation it needed a lot of time and bordered on unapproachable.
The 1987 at last had sufficient tannins so that I would say unequivocally that it should be cellared, not drunk. The tannins were creeping up on us through the 80s, and here at last, they win unconditionally, not that some of the older wines were exactly at peak. (g) The wine shows an gobs of sweet fruit, though, and it's going to be a beauty. The 1988--ditto and more so. Very tannic, completely unready, tightly wound, and extremely intense. This is even less approachable than the 87. Got a cold cellar? Use it.
Then, the tidy little world changed. In 1989, Penfold's produced a bizarre Grange that tasted like someone added gallons of framboise into the vat. It's a very good Chambord imitator and you may like that sort of thing, but it's hard to reconcile with the Grange signature. Very, very approachable, layers of extremely sweet, atypical fruit. Good candy, but do I want this in my Grange? In 1990, again in double bottles, some of the framboise was there in the "A" bottle but it appears they backed off that a lot. The "B" bottle was more tannic and fresher. Again, one would think somewhere along the line one bottle was a little warmer somewhere and is thus further along. The "A" is almost approachable, the "B" not there yet. The 1990 has hints of the 1989, but also of past Granges. Maybe someone compromised different stylistic ideas.
It's hard to pick. I'd say my least favorite in many respects was the 1989. I'm sorry. I know a lot of people like its flamboyance. I thought it was just too sweet, too bizarre. Not really a Grange. When I want a shot of Chambord in my Grange, I'll let you know. (g) The 78 was a sentimental favorite, but perhaps a bit overripe. I'll take it anyway. I liked the 82 a lot. It gave some definition to the fruit that the 78 had, added balance and structure. The 83 tried to do the same thing, but I thought the 82 did it better. Some of the others are more in the line of judging potential not what's happening today. I think the 88 will blossom into a great wine, as will the 85 and 86, probably in that order, although I could listen to arguments. (g)
The real conclusion here was that it was hard to find a reason to kvetch much because these were SO consistent and SO good. If you'd taken anything here close to being ready to dinner, you'd have been a happy camper. If you hold the others, you'll be smiling one day.
A virtuoso performance by a great wine.
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Modified and updated, September, 1996
Ok boys and girls. Here's your question for the day concerning Steve Tanzer's recent reviews (from his publication, the International Wine Cellar, Issue #65) of Beaux Freres and a related pop quiz on the usefulness of a 100 point scoring system.
"1994... Unbelievably saturated ruby color. ... Thick and sweet in the mouth but tightly wound; a massive, multilayered wine of great volume and palate staining concentration....A sumo wrestler...Very long, ripe aftertaste. ...This wine could serve as a meal substitute, but could it accompany food without overwhelming it?"
REVIEW # 2:
"1993... Very deep red-ruby. Cooler black fruit nose with a gamey nuance. Intensely flavored kirsch and framboise fruit is fat, juicy and very concentrated; a real fruit bomb. Has enough backbone to improve in bottle. Long, very strong finishing flavor. Really outstanding purity of fruit. Seems significantly less alcoholic and perhaps less tiring to drink, than the 94."
Ok. Have you read carefully? (I abbreviated the reviews a little for brevity.) The question of the day:
WHICH WINE DID TANZER PREFER?
A. The 1994, which he rates at 92 over 91 points for the 1993.
Could you tell that from his comments? Both wines get good reviews, but there are subtle digs, it seems to me, at the '94 as being a little too big and out of balance. The '93 comes in for no critique, just compliments. If the '94 is preferred because it's more concentrated and bigger, then why the dig at it for showing that way? Or maybe it isn't a dig. How seriously should we take this criticism...or comment?
Here's a perfect example of how the numbers can often give you a quicker and more accurate view of what the writer is thinking as opposed to prose. Let's face it; a writer can't spend hours for each twenty word review. Imprecision in pure prose is perhaps inevitable. Tanzer's "too big" implications on the 94 in this context (that is, after having seen the scores) can be chalked up to simple descriptives rather than sharp criticism. Considering the relative scores, he was obviously impressed by the wine and in fact didn't seem to mark it down for being un-pinot like, or whatever, in favor of a more restrained 93 that he could find no fault with at all, at least judging from his comments. Or perhaps he did mark down the '94 but still preferred it. (If in fact he preferred the 1993, he needs to rethink his scoring system....)
Those who get most excited about the numbers argue that the scoring system isn't mathematically precise to the nth. Who thought it was? This "straw man" argument ignores the point. The scores are a message, a way of conveying information. As Parker explains, for his own publication, which has created a norm widely followed, they approximate one's school gradepoint averages (you know, 90 and up is an "A"). Those who obsess on the scores ignore the self contained qualifications and explanations in the system, and then fault it for not meeting a standard they ---but not it---create. They invest it with a mysticism that it doesn't really have and never sought to acquire, then complain that it's sorcery.
What's the difference between an 86 vs. 87 point wine? Not much. First, it helps to read the notes in evaluating such closely ranked wines. I don't say otherwise; nor does Parker. Quite to the contrary, it is the notes in conjunction with the scores that makes the most sense of everything. Second, since these are scores that are close in the same gradepoint area ("B"), the wines are more or less comparable and at the time ranked there was simply a slight preference for one. A score difference of 89 vs. 90 is more significant--certainly in my scoring--because of the gradepoint overlay. The latter wine breaks into the "A" grouping. Although small differences are often a starting point for trashing this type of scoring system, even small differences in scores can sometimes mean something in the context of a gradepoint analogy. If you accept that "85" is a mid-level "B" and "89" is a "B+," a wine that gets an 86 vs. an 88 does have a bit of a different nuance, especially if they were tasted together. There's not a radical difference, but the critic is telling you that one wine is heading toward the next gradepoint class and the other is heading down to the next lowest. Again, not a radical difference, but a message. Just a message. That's the key: a message.
Ironically, those who criticize the system most ferociously don't want to listen to what Parker says about what the scores MEAN and what impact should be assessed from them, i.e., the gradepoint analogy, read together with the notes (which Parker says are more important). They, ironically, just want to look at the numbers! Read Parker's explanation of what he means by the numbers, and they can provide a quick, easy clarification of sometimes ambiguous words and comparable sounding reviews. What do you think about this? "Pretty floral nose, attractive peach and pear flavors, medium bodied, a great summer wine." Put "82" at the end of it, and you've quickly made a different point than if you put 92 at the end, haven't you? Sure, if the words go on long enough they can probably be as precise in making clear the writer's opinions of the wine's relative place in the universe, it's hierarchial ranking. But writers reviewing hundreds of wines a year aren't able to devote that much space to each wine. Few readers, I would say, would bother to read such wordy reviews, either. Eventually, the similarity of the words blurs meaning, not imparts it. The scoring system itself was a much needed rebellion against the wordy, often vague descriptions of a wine that left a reader confused as to whether the reviewer really liked it, and was recommending it.
And by the way...everyone ranks hierarchially. Whether they say so or not. Whether they're intellectually honest about it or not. Whether they moan endlessly about how it is not a question of "better," just "different," or not. Whether they blather on about Van Gogh v. Monet, or not. Otherwise nothing that's said has any focus or meaning. If you put, in the grand scheme of things, both 1990 Lafon Rochet and 1990 Latour in the same category because you don't want to make too fine a distinction, have you done the reader a service? I think not. In fact, let us just call such a system more or less useless even if accompanied by tedious, endless prose descriptions. We do, by the way, come to hierarchial conclusions in other areas, too. Taking music as an example, let me ask this: if you polled 100 musicologists as to who was better, Salieri or Mozart, would Salieri get even a single vote? One way or the other, we find ways to rank things. Scoring with a gradepoint analogy is simply clearer and more honest.
Then, there are those who are willing to score, but they just want broader categories, such as was alluded to above in the Lafon Rochet versus Latour analogy. Those who adopt point systems, like the 20 point scale (UC Davis, maintaining the perversity of giving points for each component of a wine, when it is really the whole that matters), or the 5 star scale (Broadbent), immediately begin to cheat. These systems obviously break down and either do not provide sufficient flexibility or are about as clear as mud. Why else do you begin to see things like "three and a half stars to four." By the time such writers begin adding nuances, to the time one realizes that Parker, say, gives virtually nothing that will not poison you less than a 70 or so, the difference in number of gradations are not as great as it first appears. The 20 point scale is more nuanced than the star system, and not far off the 100 point scale as used by Parker in that respect--but does any consumer actually understand what a 17.5 means? Really? Parker's system (which Tanzer and the Wine Spectator basically use, too) simply has more visceral impact because of the gradepoint analogy and a little more flexibility. What's important to remember is that it's a message, not a mathematical calculation.
Context is everything. It seems to me the scores provide an important subtext that was missing from the notes in the Tanzer analogy above. Equally true, the scores would not mean anything without the notes describing two very different wines. But both elements were important here in understanding his thought process. In flipping through his latest issue, I could cite other examples. Tanzer, it seems to me, makes effusive comments on '93 Burgs that aren't always matched by the scores, for example. But that's another story. I think this BF excerpt makes a good point in our eternal scoring debate.
The best evaluation system for wines is plainly a combination of scores and notes. Neither alone works well. Alone, in fact, neither often works at all. Together, you get a full picture, context and explanation.
Copyright © 1995 - 1996, all rights reserved, Mark Squires