Rethinking Wine Enthusiast’s No 1 wine

In one of his NY Times wine columns, Eric Asimov makes a case for rethinking wine criticism. He sees the retirement of Robert Parker as an opportunity for wine critics to quit producing “dreary scores and tasting notes”. He argues that one of the core goals of any good wine writer should be to give consumers the tools to educate themselves. “The most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review.”

This article convinced me to write an article I was already brooding on for a while, but of which I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to write it. I’m talking about my experience with the number 1 wine of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2018. If you haven’t seen that list yet, just try and imagine which kind of wine you would expect on the number one spot. I assume many will think of a top Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Barolo perhaps, or a Californian cabernet? Plenty of options, but I’m sure you didn’t think of a Barbera, did you? Yes, Wine Enthusiast’s Wine of the Year is a Barbera, or to be more accurate a Nizza, a former sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti which became a DOCG in its own right a few years ago. The Cipressi 2015 of Michele Chiarlo received 95 points and was described as follows :

“Elegantly structured, delicious and loaded with personality, this benchmark Nizza offers earthy aromas of truffle, leather, game, pressed violet and ripe black-skinned fruit. The aromas carry over to the savory palate, along with star anise, black cherry, mature plum and crushed mint. It’s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity.” 

This wine happens to be available in a supermarket here, and I had drunk the 2014 of the Cipressi a while ago. I recommended it even in a blog post I wrote about Barbera. Not knowing that the 2015 had meanwhile been ranked No 1 by Wine Enthusiast, I ordered a bottle to taste this new vintage. When the bottle came out the box, it was impossible to ignore the big label on the bottle that showed that the wine was voted No 1 by Wine Enthusiast. I was very surprised to see it, and for a moment I even thought it might refer to a best buy ranking. But no, it tops the general list with wines that Wine Enthusiast calls : “the best of the best”.

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How about that?! I bought “the best of the best” for around 15€. Hard to believe, isn’t it?But I am a firm believer that wines do not have to be expensive to be really good, so it was not without certain expectations that I popped the bottle. This is my tasting note (a lot less elaborate than Wine Enthuasiast’s) :

Attractive nose, dark cherries, cedar wood and a touch of barnyard. On the palate it’s pretty straight forward, fruit driven and supported by the typical barbera acidity.

I was disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but anything that is chosen as the wine of 2018, should have more complexity, depth, length, something out of the ordinary, something that makes you silent and conclude that life is good…

It was obvious that this wine was not in that league.

Surprising? Well, it shouldn’t be. This is what I wrote about a year go : “Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young.”

And here’s a description by Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s wine grapes, of how barbera wines should be: “bright, fresh, vinous, loaded with brambly fruit…”.

If you look at the Cipressi like that, it’s actually a good example of what a barbera should be. Loaded with fruit, fresh, attractive. Above average even. And definitely a good value. The kind of wine that I would normally enjoy. If… I approached it as barbera. What happened here was that I let myself be led by a ranking that created unrealistic expectations, instead of relying on what I know about barbera.

Or as Asimov puts it : “By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random. With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge; instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb.”

Funny detail : Wine Enthusiast’s website also shows user reviews. This is how one user described the same wine :

Smooth finish, great bouquet, excellent value. A great wine to go with a wide variety of food for the everyday table.”

 He nailed it…