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samedi, 01 mars 2014

ROBERT PARKER

WHY DOES ROBERT PARKER SEE RED?

DECODING HIS ARGUMENTS


Claude Gilois

Like a bull in a china shop, Robert Parker has entered the debate arena with force and conviction to defend his position. Until now, he remained largely above the fray or not very inclined to participate in the debates that have agitated the world of wines over the years.  What has pushed  ‘Bob’ to his limits in order to intervene so forcefully in the twilight of his career after having dominated the world of wine for the last 35 years?  Does this Stakhanovite and talented taster, who became the most influential journalist of all time, all fields included, feel he is losing his grip on the world of wine? Perhaps… but why? Herewith a few possible reasons.

 

In his article published on the site erobertparker.com and entitled  “There is No Reason And The Truth Is Plain To See”, he points out several factors, which have annoyed him and have forced him to react.

 

Firstly, Internet and its ease of use, is accused of providing his critics an easy medium to attack him systematically and make money with anti-Parker campaigns. 

Then, there are natural or authentic wines that have gained in popularity over the last few years and which he feels are not fit for consumption.

The resurgence of lesser-known grape varieties accused of being substandard and unable to match the greatness of those known today as international grape varieties. Finally, the alcohol level in wine, which has to be high (14 - 14,5o), as grapes have to reach physiological and phenolic maturity, which are a sine qua non condition to achieve high quality wines.

 

INTERNET AND ITS NEGATIVE INFLUENCE

 

It is fairly easy to dismiss this point as the great majority of people writing on internet sites and on blogs do it for free, but it is true that the ease of use of internet is now providing independent writers and critics with a support where they can speak more freely than the specialist press muzzled by self-censorship of its journalists, publicity and the power of shareholders. Robert Parker knows this very well, as he was the first to detach wine writing and scoring from any of these influences.  This is probably what constitutes one of his greatest achievements.


NATURAL AND AUTHENTIC WINES

 

Conceptually, we associate natural wine with low concentrations of sulphur dioxide in the wine, while authentic wine has a connotation of terroir, but the frontier between these two concepts can be tenuous.

Standard operating procedures for making natural wines specify that sulphur dioxide should not be greater than 30 g/l for reds and no more than 40 g/l for whites.  Can wines, not showing any aromatic deviations, be made with this concentration of sulphur dioxide? Probably yes, but not in the hands of anybody.

Robert Parker is right to rebel against these wines as there are today groups of fundamentalists and ayatollahs who advocate the use of very low sulphur or no sulphur in wine which are, more often than not, undrinkable even for average consumers.   However, this movement has attracted faithful aficionados who have a very good network of distribution especially in Paris.

 

The concept of terroir and its alter-ego authenticity (or typicity) in wine is difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, it was translated into legislation in France in 1937 with the creation of the Appellations d’Origine Controllée (AOC), but how do you measure authenticity? There are juries chosen amongst winegrowers of the AOCs who verify the conformity of the wine to its Appellation, but sometimes the agreement is refused even though the wine comes from an Appellation as its quality is deemed to be insufficient or unauthentic.  More recently, there have been wines made in the most authentic fashion that have been refused the Appellation because they have been judged not to fit the organoleptic characteristics of their Appellation.

 

It is probably better therefore, if we want to understand the movement that is gaining momentum today, to describe wines produced under the terms of authentic as being wines of minimal intervention. The concept is not new, it is largely based on traditional viticulture and vinification as it was known, before the agro-chemical industry invaded vineyards and cellars but, with the benefit of today’s knowledge and modern equipment.

 

The most important characteristics of this movement are very often biodynamic or organic viticulture, low yields, and good phenolic maturity with alcohol levels at around 13-13.5o.  The barrel is seen more as a container rather than a medium that will bring aromas and flavours to the wine. We have to acknowledge Robert Parker’s contribution for being a tireless advocate of making wine without fining or filtration, which are two of the most interesting characteristics of minimal intervention wines.

 

We are slowly emerging from a period, during which time Robert Parker shone brightly, which saw unprecedented manipulation of wine, in particular in the cellar (over-use of pesticides and other chemical substances, acidification, chaptalisation, aromas and flavour enhancers, colouring substances, filtration and fining) and the list is far from being exhaustive. I do not feel that Robert Parker would be against this move if it was what authentic or minimal intervention were all about, but perhaps the wines coming from this movement are not quite the same as the wines he had been used to tasting.    It does not mean that they are bad wines; some of them are among the best wines currently being produced.

 

REDISCOVERING FORGOTTEN OR LESSER-KNOWN GRAPE VARIETIES  


This is probably the most amazing part of Robert Parker’s article.  He argues that the so-called international grape varieties are the best and that all the others are secondary and not really worth bothering about. This dominant thinking has led to a marked impoverishment of grape diversity over the last 30 years and you cannot plant international varieties anywhere, especially in Europe.  For decades, Italian wines coming from noble varieties such as Nebiolo, Sangiovese and Brunello have produced very poor wines. Should these varieties have been uprooted and replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah let alone Chardonnay?  Nobody in his or her right frame of mind would today argue in this direction.  The history of the establishment of indigenous grape varieties is a long process of matching soil, climate and grape varieties, orchestrated by man, and in Europe all possible experiences have probably been attempted, especially with international varieties.

Even in the New World, mostly planted with international varieties, some of the best wines are made with the so-called lesser varieties such as Malbec in Argentina or Carmenere in Chile, the grape variety not replanted in Bordeaux after the phylloxera as it was judged to be too substandard. Regarding Blaufrankisch, there are few who doubt that it is not a great variety and Robert Parker seems to contradict himself as he recently gave 95 points for a Blaufrankisch (Old Vines Blaufrankisch from Moric). Of course, all the grape varieties are not equal and only a few can make great wines, but I much prefer to drink an Assyrtiko from Santorini than a highly manipulated and over-oaked Chardonnay from the Murray Darling basin in Australia.  As far as the ABC campaign (Anything But Chardonnay), which Parker argues, failed miserably, it was more a rejection of the excessive wood than a rejection of the Chardonnay variety itself.

 

THE OPTIMAL GRAPE MATURITY AND THE CONCEPT OF TERROIR

This is a point very dear to Parker’s heart, but equally to his critics. It is true that Robert Parker is one of the first journalists to have encouraged growers to pick later. It is also true that some wine regions have benefited from his advice, but climatic changes have also largely contributed to wines with higher alcohol levels being made. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find Bordeaux with less than 14-14.5o of alcohol. California has more or less given up producing wines with alcohol levels of round 13o.  There are many critics and consumers, particularly in Europe, who feel that levels of alcohol of 14-14.5o are   too high and that the maturity has been pushed too far.  Robert Parker makes no bones about this, he does not like wines with around 13o of alcohol, in particular in California.  The following examples illustrate this point:  Two great domains and two great wines from California (Cask 23 from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars when Warren Winiarski was in charge, and Monte Bello from Ridge Vineyards where Paul Draper has been in command for 45 years) have been reviewed by Robert Parker in mid to late 1990s and the results published in the Wine Advocate. He scored the two top cuvées of these domains, Cask 23 and Monte Bello 1994 and 1995 (two very good vintages) respectively 86, 88 and (90-92) and 91 points.

Nothing to boast about for these two mythical wines, considered by some critics to be amongst the finest cuvées in the world. Robert Parker only started giving high scores for the Monte Bello when the proportion of Merlot increased (50% in a decade) which culminated in a score of 99 with the 2001 vintage, which, at best can be described as atypical for a Monte Bello and at worst caricatured. One cannot help but think that the Monte Bello is more a terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon than for Merlot.

 

Many domains had to succumb to the steamrolling that Parker created with his scores. Without high scores wines became increasingly difficult to sell by domains and importers.  It is not sure whether Robert Parker fully appreciated all the consequences and impacts that his scores had on the marketing of wines. So, throughout the world, domains had to conform to the market entirely dominated by Parker points and to a lesser extent the Wine Spectator points on the same line as Robert Parker. They started to produce broader wines with higher alcohol content. It is not because they embraced Parker views on maturity; they merely complied with market forces created by Parker scores. Michel Roland, Parker’s alter ego, was often recruited to put matters right and the Parker points followed. With all this in mind, we would have to conclude that the Parkerisation of wines has been the major trait of the dominance exerted by Robert Parker on the market; European writers did not get a voice and were largely marginalised.

 

There is no infallible method to evaluate the phenolic and physiological maturity of grapes.  The phenolic components responsible for colour, astringency and bitterness of red wines cannot be measured with enough precision, and a link between organoleptic characteristics and phenolic content is difficult to establish. We know that alcohol has an essential role in wine. It tempers the sensation of acidity, it enhances the sweet overtones and it contributes to the softness (moelleux) of the wine. With lower alcohol, wine is perceived to be more acidic and more astringent. Europe tends to privilege drinkability while Robert Parker is more seduced by softness and sweetness closer to the characteristics of the New World from where he comes.

 

Which philosophy best respects terroir?  With the current scientific knowledge, it is impossible to answer this question. It therefore appears that optimal maturity is, at the moment, more a question of taste than a matter for science.  Maturity has to be seen as a window between certain degrees of alcohol, which suits the winegrower’s and the consummer’s taste, and this window can vary by  1.5 degrees and within that window wine can be considered ripe.  

 

Today, there is a reversal of what has been the dominant thinking over the last 30 years or so, that is a move towards less manipulated and less alcoholic wines, and it is Europe that is leading the way, but the tendency is noticeable even as far away as Australia despite the country being plagued by repeated droughts and flooding for more than a decade.

 

 

 

Customers’ tastes do change over time and these changes are amplified by societal factors. More stringent regulations on wine consumption in most countries, together with increased awareness on health matters in relation to wine consumption are among two of the most important factors for change.  I do not think Robert Parker has fully measured the depth and the strength of what could become, in time, a tidal wave.

 

 

 

It would be sad, if in the twilight of his career, lack of discernment cast a shadow on the contribution of this writer who will have marked his area more than anybody else.  Let us hope too that the big stars in particular in Europe, from Jancis Robinson to Michel Bettane, including the major wine publications will contribute to the debate, as Robert Parker has been magnanimous to open it to those who are not necessarily of the same opinion, but with well-constructed arguments.  Too many people have lived in the shadow of Robert Parker, it is now time to come clean and speak out.


 

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