CHOOSING the right wines should be easy and direct. Unfortunately, here in Shanghai and elsewhere stratified clouds of mystery often diminish our ability to make a practical decision.
Decades ago the American publication Wine Spectator and wine critic Robert Parker were pioneers in demystifying the quality of wines using a 100-point system to rate wines. With 50 being an undrinkable wine and 100 being a perfect wine, a new age of consumer-driven rating systems had begun.
Systems like these broke down walls of archaic and biased classifications used in France and other regions of the Old World. The wine world has unquestionably benefitted from a more consumer-oriented media and rating system, however, critics still abound.
Sheep or shepherds
The pendulum of wine authority has swung from producers, wine regions and organizations that long dictated the quality of wines to popular wine publications and critics. These are the new forces that help to drive the prices and desirability of wines. I've often hear wine shop owners lament that they can't sell wines under 90 points and can't procure wines over 90 points.
Because of my work I've been fortunate to know and drink wines with many of the world's greatest wine personages. Frequently, when bottles of wine are shared among some of the world's greatest wine authorities, there are differences.
There's usually a consensus on generalities such as whether the wine is well-made, balanced, intensive and persistent; but when the conversation turns to the best wine and its more subtle attributes, opinions and passions diverge. Over the years I've learned that at its apex wine is more about passion than objectivity. As with a song, painting or even a lover, no one should define your passion or enjoyment.
Many wine professionals believe that the influence of Parker and other critics and publications has gone too far, that in fact, while better than the archaic systems used before, they are very subjective and deeply flawed. They claim that the opinions of a powerful few have lead to a globalization of wine styles and consumers that act like sheep.
How wines are scored
It just so happens that I am composing this week's column on a flight from Vienna back to China after having been a judge in one of the world's largest wine competitions. The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles is an annual wine competition held in different capitals of wine production. The prestigious medals awarded from this competition are among the most coveted in the world.
With over 300 qualified judges from around the world and an advanced statistical and analytical system, the awards from this competition may be the most accurate and reliable way to pick a top wine. More than 8,200 wines from around the world were tasted at the event held in Bratislava, the scenic and historic capital of the Slovak Republic.
In this competition, still wines were rated 1-10 points for appearance, 1-30 for aroma, 1-40 for taste, texture and persistence, and 1-20 points for overall judgment. There's too a great a plurality of tasters to reach a consensus on perfection, so in contrast with judgments by Parker or Wine Spectator, wines never get perfect score but instead are award medals.
Wines with scores between 83 and 86.5 points are awarded a Silver Medal, wines gaining scores between 86.6 and 92 points are given a Gold Medal and the highest rated wines with point totals between 92 and 100 are rewarded with the Great Gold Medal.
The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles competition is one of the most comprehensive and professional wine competitions in the world, but unfortunately there are many competitions here in China and elsewhere that are far less professional.
While often helpful, the ratings of critics and wine competition medals are at best partial solutions to picking the right wines. So what can be done to help consumers in Shanghai and elsewhere pick the right wines? The Internet holds one solution.
The Internet holds increasingly comprehensive information on wines from around the world, including tasting notes, information on varietals, winemaking and value. A simple search on the Internet in English or Chinese will result in a plethora of democratic opinions from the most acclaimed critics to a wine geek living next door. You can also get information directly from the producer.
In my opinion, the people who know the most about wines are not wine critics or writers or wine educators; they are winemakers. Top winemakers can teach you more about their wines than anyone else. Unfortunately, they seldom know much about wines outside of their region and tend to be hopelessly enamored with their own wines.
It may be a little difficult at first, but with frequent use you'll learn to differentiate the reliable wine information from the promotional nonsense. Your smart phone is also a valuable tool to store your own opinions on wines, and over a period of time it will become your most valuable resource for choosing wines.
The best solution
The only way to truly advance your wine knowledge and appreciation is to apply yourself and trust your own taste.
The best wines in the world are not necessarily those with 100 points or gold medals, instead they are the wines you love best and bring you happiness.
Knowing how to judge and select your own wines is one of life's most enjoyable and liberating experiences.
I am not allowed to divulge which wines I scored highest last week in Bratislava, however, here are some wines that have recently been highly rated by me and wine-loving friends here in China.
In the budget price range between 100-200 yuan (US$16-32), the Chilean La Joya Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009 and Les Jamelles Mourvedre VDP 2010 from Languedoc in southern France have consistently scored above their peers. For wines with retail prices between 400-500 yuan, two standout reds are the Torbeck Woodcutter's Shiraz 2010 from the Barossa Valley in southern Australia and Jaboulet Gigondas Pierre Aiguille 2007 from the southern Rhone Valley in France.
For white, two champion Aussi wines are the Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay available for just over 200 yuan and the Brown Brothers Moscato sweet wine. Both offer an abundance of elegant aromas and flavors and are top performers in their class.