Where Points are Pointless - in Praise of the Under-rated
In the last decade, demand for top wines has skyrocketed and so, inevitably, have prices. We have seen the emergence of cult domaines where just the name on the label guarantees a stratospheric price regardless of the actual contents of the bottle. And nowhere is this sad trend more prevalent than in Burgundy. The Cote d’Or was named for its eastern (orient) facing slopes and not the more obvious d’Or ‘of gold’ but these days it is more than living up to its misnomer. Big time. Want a delicious glass of chardonnay? The modest appellations that I bought in 2004 now cost between 5 and 10 times as much if they have d’Auvenay/Leroy or Coche-Dury on the label, or 3 or 4 if Roulot. Leflaive has doubled, and so it goes on...
As such, unless you have endless finances and simply don’t care about value, you need to trade down as it were, to find the less rated regions or drop down the terroir scale from grand to premier cru to village or even to the basic generic burgundy.
Against this backdrop we also face the current obsession with wine scores. There have of course been the uber critics for years, but now every wine merchant worth his or her stamp feels obliged to rate the wines they sell as does every magazine. Look at social media and every amateur who ever raised a glass now feels empowered or obliged to give their score, often with their initials in front. Understandable, but…
I am not going to get into a soap box diatribe about scores, but in one context, the points have become pointless.
Burgundy is the most geographically hierarchical wine region in the world. By far. If you are born on the wrong side of the road, bad luck, your wine will forever hold a lower title and sell for less. Of course, the right name on the label can turn this on its head, but basically a few feet up or down that golden eastern slope can make or break your fortune. Set literally in stone since the medieval monks.
Which is why the tasting scores can be so pointless. Let’s take an example of a star domaine we have already visited in these pages, Jean-Marc Roulot in Meursault. And let’s take the bottom two rungs on the ladder – the generic Bourgogne chardonnay, and a village Meursault. Just as a matter of interest, and woe, they cost me about 20 and 60 euros respectively, and now retail at I guess between 3 and 4 times that. But enough said on that subject.
But if you look at the pundits scores, well, do they really help? I have tasted up the range at Roulot and of course each wine is just that little bit bigger and more complex than the last, just that layer of extra flavour, a few pounds of extra weight, an ability to age a few years longer. To match this, the scoring is simply a numbers game. Pure maths. If the best wine (Perrieres) is going to score a stunning 96 or so, then you have to work backwards and downwards until you reach the humble Bourgogne. It makes mathematical sense and is an imperative. After all, when you see basic wines scored at 95 on social media, it begs the question as to what do you then score Le Montrachet at – 105 out of 100?
You cannot avoid it, you have to work from the top down, or you risk running out of space at the top. If we look at Allen Meadows (Burghound), probably the pre-eminent Burgundy critic, he scored the 2014 Bourgogne 86-88 and the 2009 Meursault Vieruils 88-91. And mathematically I am sure he was right. Technically too.
So, you might wonder, what is my point? My point is that the scores strap one into a straitjacket of absolute hierarchical scoring. Allen is correct because a simple Bourgogne is going to be bettered by a basic village, which in turn will be outscored by a lieux-dit named vineyard, then a Tessons (the top village wine) then up the scale of premier crus. On an absolute scale that is how it ‘has to be’.
Which is fine, unless you consider what is the point of a glass of wine? It is not to outscore something else, or to be entered into a quasi-competition or comparison with something you’ll probably never taste. No, it is simply to give pleasure and, at the top level, arouse some emotion. And my point is that really well-made basic wines can do that too. In spades.
86-88? Probably I’m a terrible wine snob, but for serious drinking, (as opposed to weekday quaffing), I’m afraid if someone offered me a wine with that score I’d look quickly for the exit. A cup of tea would be lovely, thanks. And 88-91, well, it will be without fault, and very good, but nothing more than that. They would be wines damned with faint praise.
And yet, and yet, these two wines were delicious, and I pick my words with care. Naturally, the Bourgogne is light, delicate, but it’s all there, a hint of reduction, a lick of ripe fruit across the teeth, a gentle coating of chalky extract and a bit of mineral bite of the finish. Will it age 15 years? No. Will it add layers of complexity as it matures? No. Does it carry the weight and flavour of a grand cru? Of course not. But then it is not supposed to, is it? Is the wine balanced? Yes. Is it beautifully made? Yes. Does it have enough flavour and taste to make you lick your lips and, the ultimate test, feel sad when the bottle is empty? Yes! The village Vireuils is even better and really a super wine by any quality standards. I would love to get my hands on more of it (not at today’s price!) and wanted to squeeze the bottle for every last drop. And, as you can see, they age a lot longer than you might think.
When you go to buy a family car, do you compare or judge its acceleration against that of a Ferrari?
What we should really do is not judge these wines on what they are not, but on what they are. Not on what they do not deliver and are not meant to, but on what they do. And then, suddenly, you have a completely different scale. If the Bourgogne scores an 87 or 88 on the absolute scale and the Vireuils a 90, well, on the sheer pleasure scale you’d bump them easily up to 90+ and say 93+…
There are some great bourgognes made by the stars, and of course the village wines are even better. If you leave the prime real estate of Meursault and the Montrachets and head a little up into the valleys and west, slightly behind and above the prime Cote d’Or, you find the satellites, St Romain, Auxey-Duresses and Monthelie. I don’t mention St Aubin as these days I rate it frankly as very much in the premier league.
When you drink these wines, especially as an aperitif, you can gain way more pleasure and value than their humble scores would suggest. Do not be put off by the faint praise and lowly scores from the critics.Leave those for the grand vins where it makes more sense.For the ‘little’ appellations, enjoy them for what they are, not for what they are not…