The pursuit of useful or valuable information – obtained in the least time and with greatest accuracy – appears to be the primary objective of internet usage. There are different ways of achieving this: some people assess suppliers, resources or contractors early on and stay with those they trust. Others take whatever their search engine delivers first. A third group look to aggregated information – metacritic.com is the obvious example – finding comfort in numbers. There’s no easy solution: if even the news can be a work of fiction delivered by a seemingly reputable publication, what chance is there for those who seek reliable advice in the subjective world of aesthetic taste?
When it comes to wine judgement the problem is compounded by issues around integrity and brand, themselves by-products of the sighted versus blind-tasted debate. If a wine really has been judged blind (label out of sight) it doesn’t matter how much has been spent building the reputation of the label (or soft-soaping the critic). The wine has to stand or fall on its merits. However, it’s not always this simple: a young wine is less likely to reveal its full potential, even to the most astute palate. The nuances which distinguish a Burgundy Grand Cru from its next door neighbour only emerge after the passage of time.
Information about wine is available in many pure and hybrid forms. There are critics – very few it seems – who taste blind and who don’t delegate their authority to any assistants. I think I’m the only person regularly producing scores for South African wines on this basis. There are many around the world who work in teams, but with a single taster processing a number of wines, all judged blind. They issue their scores in the name of the critic who first acquired the reputation: this is the inevitable result of trying to have the most complete list of up-to-date ratings while still optimising the brand value of the best known palate. There are also the blind-tasting competitions, where the score is already the aggregated result of all the palates on the panel.
Then there are the scores arrived at in a sighted environment: a surprising number of the best known international names proceed on this basis. This seems to have been Robert Parker’s modus operandi. (It would be hard to imagine otherwise: when you are at Chateau Lafite they’re unlikely to be showing you Mouton or Latour). While this has the advantage of including the pedigree of provenance, it does mean that assumptions about the property/terroir, recognition of brand, perhaps even the context of a winery tasting – play a role.
Mike Froud, formerly editor of Wine Magazine, has published a table of the best South African wines – the SA Wine and Cellar Classification www.topwinesa.com – since 2004. His methodology aggregates the scores of a number of competitions, local and international. It includes the Platter Guide (which is a hybrid of the sighted/blind model, and with multiple tasters) because it is the most complete resource, covering almost all the small boutique/elite/elitist cellars which have chosen not to enter wine shows. It differs in many ways from the SA Wine Index: it draws on fewer sources, none of them obscure. It demands an extended track record and doesn’t offer any scoring system. Instead it has the Top 10 and 20 wines in each division, and the Top 100 overall, highlighting those with the very best track records.
It would be difficult to fault its list of laureates – especially those which have been a constant presence in the Top 20 listing. Those who have followed the Twitter feed since its publication will have seen the squawks of a few producers and their agents who have discovered that their much vaunted (and high-priced) bottlings haven’t made the cut. A few are too new to have acquired the requisite track record. The other are probably discovering the truth of the old adage that you can run, but you can’t hide.