Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Are wine guides reliable....?

Fall is traditionally the wine guides period.

When the wine growers are approaching a critical time of the year, when they are waiting to decide the right moment for picking up the grapes, hoping that the weather does not create surprises and finally starting this great machine and feast that is the harvest...at this precise moment of great stress for the wine growers the wine guides reach the market.

If harvest was not enough stress for the farmer, then the wine guides provide an additional significant stress for him, since the wines selected by the guides are granted an easier access to the market.

It appears already bizarre that these two events happen at the same time, especially when you are a wine grower and you need to focus on the delicate moment of the harvest and the follow up process of the first steps of transformation of grapes into wine.

In addition to this, some guides have decided that this stress was not enough and have elaborated a "Countdown system", which is the discovery of the winners only step by step during a sort of Hitchcock or for some wine growers "horror" movie that is aimed at holding your breathe until the end, a system that is expected to attract a largest number of customers to their site (yes...internet is of course facilitating this exercise).

Newspapers or sites like the American Wine Spectator (which is starting the countdown in 3 weeks) or the Italian "Gambero Rosso" (which has decided to unveil his best wines, called "Tre Bicchieri", on a region by region basis, thus also creating an unecessary hierarchy between Italian regions) are following this route but others may be tempted by their success to follow-up in the future.

I do not know what wine growers feel about this (I guess they would deserve less stress in harvesting period), but I see a parallel between this exercise and beauty contest ("Miss ....), and I do not really appreciate much.

But this is somewhat secondary because I would like to focus here more on the reason for using a wine guide today.

First of all I want to clarify that I buy myself some wine guides and possibly this year I may buy more than ever because I would like to compare their different approaches and selections.

The main reasons for buying a wine guide appear to be linked to:

* a recognition that guides select the best wines on the market;

* a need to be get some indications for wines to taste and buy in a middle of the big wine world.

It is true that a big element of appeal for the wine guides is that they alawys advertise strongly their selction of the "best wines of the year", with more or less creative instruments (the classical system of points, mostly /100, like Wine Spectator; or the "glasses" like the Gambero Rosso, three glasses being the excellence).

However, we should note that there is a very limited rate of coherence between the different guides focusing on the same market: I remember in 2005 an Italian wine blogger stressing that only 8 wines could be found in all the 3 most popular Italian wine guides, less than 10% of the total number of the wine selected by each guide; and if we look at the points expressed by Wine Spectaor and Parker (clearly the two reference for the US wine market) we will notice the same differences.

The concept of "best wine" is then a rather arbitrary concept but, and this is even more important, guides do not cover the whole producers in a wine market, but cover usually only the wines that are directly sent to them by the producers (Note: these "samples" are not always representative of the average quality of the bottles that we'll find in the market). Now, just to take the example of Italy, a key producer of Montalcino, Gianfranco Soldera, is not sending his wines to wine guides at all, and several other producers only send their wines to 1-2 guides, making the reading of the result of the guides even less reliable.

There are then two fundamental problems related to wine guides in general: the first relates to the fact they do not cover the whole market due to the way of selecting wineries (as I said, usually those which are sending their samples); the second is related to the specific taste of the panel of the guide (preference for ripe, fruity wines or for more angular, light ones). Rarely these two elements are clearly indicated in the wine guides and this is clearly a key problem and the main limitation.

Obviously, an ideal solution would be to be able to taste during the year the largest number of wine to select them according to our taste and on the basis of the direct experience: wine fairs and tastings offer the best opportunity for this exercise. However, this is not always possible for all wine lovers, lacking time and possibility to follow wine fairs across many countries, and even for those who do it (I spent already quite a lot of time at wine events), I can only try a minimal number of wines in front of a growing and diversified offer.

Wine guides offer indeed an useful instrument, but wine lovers require to select them with attention and to use them more as indications, used in associations with other instruments, like participation to wine fairs, visiting wine blog on the internet that provide often information also on wineries that do not send samples to wine guides and then do not appear in most wine guides.

It is important not to rely only on wine guides, even less on only one guide. It is important to read about wine guides in order to understand their basic tasting approach (for example the "Luca Maroni" guide announces from the beginning its preference for "vini frutto", very fruity and jammy wines, an approach that is mostly banning traditional barolo or brunello).

Use a wine guide only if you know about that wine guide so that you can filter the information that are provided in it.

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