Jan 29, 201409:30 AM
Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

The Variations of Wine Evaluation Fully Explained

How do judges pick the best wines?

There are so many wines on the market it can be a confusing mess to determine which one you would like to try. Do you go for red or white? Wine with bubbles or still stuff? Wine from America or something with a label you don’t understand at all? Does Grüner Veltliner deserve a chance to impress you, or do you stick with Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir?

The only thing that may possibly be more confusing than the wines are professional wine evaluations. And do those messages stuck to a bottle about “Medal Winner in the Greater Hartford Monthly Wine Competition,” or “Rated 92 points by Wine Consultant Magazine” have any validity when it comes to you buying wine?

First of all, I must confess to you that the headline is a lie. I am not able to explain how a wine comes to be recognized by the myriad of evaluation processes. Some are quite legitimate, while others, not so much. Some might be helpful to you, while others may just be fodder for further confusion and obfuscation. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be able to use “obfuscation” in a sentence. Even correctly, I think.

The process of wine evaluation is pretty much the same no matter what the methodology, although the reporting of the outcomes differs. The taster(s) is supposed to check out the appearance of the wine, but today, most wines are made to “appear” bright and clear by the winemaker. “Fresh” is the operative word here.

Then there are the important qualities of aroma. A wine’s bouquet is a giveaway to so many things about the wine. Are the characters of the grape varietal(s) used in making the wine in proper order and proportion? Are there any objectionable underlying odors, like sulfur or a wet cardboard component? Is there any aroma at all? More than 85 percent of our perception of “taste” comes through our nose. Reread that last sentence to be certain you understand that truth.

Finally you get to taste and texture. Humans can taste only five values. We can do sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and a controversial one called “umami,” which is more directed to texture than actual taste. And that’s it. Our species is very limited in this regard. As noted above, most of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. It’s the reason when we have a cold and we are always blowing our nose that we say we can’t taste anything. Our sense of smell has been hindered and so we don’t “taste.”

The last evaluation quality is aftertaste. Does the wine remain pleasant for minutes after we have swallowed it, or are there qualities, like sour, that come into play? The finish of a wine should be long and continue to exude all the good qualities of the beverage for a good bit, at least two minutes, after it has left the mouth.

Which brings us to the reporting structure. The 100-point scale, used by respected publications, like Wine Spectator, has been the source of much derision as well as acceptance. Wines that score 90-points are immediately bought off the shelves. True commercial successes. But what is the difference between a wine that rates 91 points and one that achieves 89?

And since wines in the main never go below 60 in scoring, you in effect have a 40-point scale, not a 100. The challenge is taking a product that is measured in qualitative terms of personal preferences and trying to quantify the results of a particular group of judges’ experiences.

The same can be said for the actual results of the many wine competitions that occur in this country and abroad. The wines end up with the rewards of Gold, Silver, Bronze or no medal, as determined by a panel of experienced tasters, and then the results are noted in the media as well as marketing messages pasted to the wine bottle.

(Full disclosure: I am invited to judge in about 10 professional wine competitions each year in every corner of America, and sometimes Europe.)

I put more stock into wine competitions than I do into wine scoring. Competition judges are usually closer to the tastes of the casual drinker consumer group than to the professional winemaker/media group. And for most consumers, usually competition judges bring to the party a palate that is closer to what you like.

Professional wine tasters are looking for other things than consumers. Most consumers are looking for pleasant and enjoyable experiences at a good value. Professional wine ratings on a point scale are seeking specific levels of residual sugars, over-sulfur levels, presence of brettanomyces, premature aging, results of heat exposure, and such other quantifiable characteristics.

I do a lot of wine judging all over the country, and, as a group, the most difficult people to have on the panel are professional winemakers. They seek minute and detailed flaws which, for the most part, don’t bother the typical consumer. They also bring to the judging a “local palate.” Many winemakers don’t taste wines from other areas. They only taste their own and their neighbor’s juice. That’s way too narrow a context to be meaningful to a consumer.

Here are a few random results from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest judging of American wines in the world (more than 5,880 entries); and the South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival judging, an international competition, with almost 700 entries. Both were held earlier this month and I was honored to judge at both competitions.

 

Sparkling

Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut was well rewarded, as was (are you sitting down?) the Korbel Rosé Brut, although the wine really is a semi-dry. Domaine Carneros scored Gold in one competition, and did not medal in another.

 

Sauvignon Blanc

Our panel judged sauvignon blanc from South Africa and it was a very tough call. Too many good wines to limit the medal count. We settled on a Klein Costantia and Porcupine Ridge.

Domestically, Napa Valley Winery scored Gold and Lake Sonoma was the overall winner of Best White in San Francisco.

 

Chardonnay

Wow, there’s some mighty good juice out there! Winemakers have gotten away from the big, buttery oak bombs and are making delightful wines in great quantities. And they are not expensive.

Husch Vineyards from Mendocino, Starmont along with Roche, Bouchaine, and Baldacci from Carneros. Gary Farrell and Black Dog from Russian River are all worthy of your attention.

 

Pinot Noir

Seaglass and Wild Horse both from Santa Barbara, Montes from Chile, Mohua and Kim Crawford from New Zealand, Goldeneye from Anderson Valley, and CRU from Santa Lucia Highlands, all were awarded significant medals.

 

If you want to know more wines that have been recognized as outstanding, check out winejudging.com for the San Francisco Chronicle results, or let me know and I’ll send you the Florida results.

This offer is made for information and entertainment purposes only. Wagering or gaming of any kind is not sanctioned. And I have no idea what that means in this context.

 

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All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

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In New Orleans, when the subject is wine and spirits, it is very difficult to leave Tim McNally out of the discussion. He is considered one of the “go to” resources in the Crescent City for counsel and information about adult beverages and their place in the fabric of life in this great city.

 

Tim is the Wine and Spirits Editor, columnist and feature writer for New Orleans Magazine; the Wine and Spirits Editor and weekly columnist, Happy Hour, for www.MyNewOrleans.com; the Executive Editor and monthly features writer for Gulf Coast Wine + Dine Online; creator and editor of his own website, www.winetalknola.com; all in addition to his daily hosting duties on the radio program, The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, on the air at WGSO – 990AM, every weekday, 3- 5 p.m, and streamed live on www.wgso.com.

 

Over the years, Tim has proved to be an informed interviewer, putting his guests at ease, and covering tactile and technical information so that even a novice can understand difficult agricultural and production concepts. Tim speaks with winemakers, wine and spirit ambassadors, distillers, authors, people who stage events and festivals, and takes questions from listeners and readers, all seamlessly blended together in a program that is unique in America.

 

Tim’s love of wine actually came about many years ago from his then wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, a noted journalist in her own right, and together they have traveled to the major wine producing areas in the US and Europe, seeking first-hand information about beverages that give us all so much pleasure.

 

They were instrumental in the founding of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a major national and international well-regarded festival of its type. They both continue to be involved with the planning and staging of this multi-venue, five-day event now over twenty years old.

 

Tim is also considered one of the foremost professional wine judges in the US, being invited to judge more than 11 wine competitions each year, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (the largest competition of American wines in the world, with more than 6,000 entries), the Riverside, CA International Wine Competition, San Francisco International Wine Competition, Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, Indiana International Wine Competition, Sandestin, Florida Wine Festival Competition, the State of Michigan Wine Competition, the U.S. National Wine Competition, and the National Wine Competition of Portugal.

 

Tim is a guest lecturer to many local wine and dine organizations, and speaks each year to the senior class in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.

 

Staying abreast of the news of the wine and spirits world is a passion for Tim, and he is committed to sharing what he knows with his listeners and readers. “Doing something I love, with products that I truly enjoy, created by interesting people, coupling the experience with culinary excellence, and doing it all in the greatest city in America,” are the words Tim lives by.

 

It’s a good gig. 

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