Safety in numbers: Are the world’s highest-scoring wines really that good?

Safety in numbers: Are the world’s highest-scoring wines really that good?

A taste test of critics’ picks

(Illustration: Dan Page) 

It has been three decades since a group of American critics introduced the 100-point scoring system and revolutionized wine reviewing. Some purists still argue that you can’t put a number on a piece of art (assuming wine is art—an unwinnable debate for another day) and that taste can’t be measured. But, like it or not, the system has become the industry standard. Ratings are now so important that retailers worldwide market their wines according to them. Vintages recently grouped more than 30 wines that scored highly among international critics in a special release called North of 90—a 90-point rating being the tipping point to excellence. The idea is to offer consumers what Vintages calls “a low-risk purchasing decision.” The promotion seems to work; the 90-point releases are among its most popular.

I’m a fan of the 100-point system: I believe an experienced, disciplined, objective critic who judges what’s in the bottle—instead of the label or the price sticker—can deliver a useful numerical opinion most of the time. Ratings can help consumers spend with confidence. Wine needs to be assessed on purity, balance, complexity and depth, and the tasting regimen must be consistent and controlled: time of day (morning works best for me), number of wines tasted (I won’t taste more than 50 in one sitting), even the type of glass being used (I use small Riedel stemless). Even so, you can build trust in a reviewer only by seeing if your tastes match more often than not; you need to test drive critics before shopping on their ratings. In the spirit of transparency (and for helpful cross-comparison), here are my ratings and comments on 10 of Vintages’ North of 90 wines, alongside the ratings of other critics.

Buil & Giné 2006 Giné Giné
$17.95 | Priorat, Spain | 90 points
One criticism of the big American wine reviewers is that their 90 pointers are too often big New World fruit and oak bombs. Not this time. A slender, pale blend of grenache and carignan, Giné Giné earned a 92 from Wine and Spirits, likely based on its lovely tension, fruit purity and balance. Raspberry notes are inlaid with mineral and gentle spice. It’s juicy and has good length. Vintages. LCBO 67843

WHITE

Concha Y Toro 2008 Trio Reserva Chardonnay–Pinot Grigio–Pinot Blanc
$12.95 | Casablanca Valley, chile | 86 points
It’s rare that a $13 wine scores so well. Jay Miller, who gave this one 90 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, may have been seduced by the tropical flavours, but it has a confected feel and finishes with alcohol burn. Serve well chilled. Vintages. LCBO 433938

Reinhold Haart 2007 Riesling Kabinett
$19.95 | Piesporter, Germany | 88 points
David Schildknecht pegged this at 91 in Wine Advocate, but a bit of matchstick sulphur drops it out of 90-point contention in my books. It is a classically built Mosel riesling, however, with complex lemon, pineapple and mint, as well as an acidity that balances a hint of sweetness. Vintages. LCBO 727461

Terredora 2008 Loggia Della Serra Greco di Tufo
$19.95 | Campania, Italy | 91 points
High ratings are especially useful when they highlight quality in an obscure wine. Greco di tufo is an ancient grape limited to a remote corner of southern Italy, and this well-structured example has an exotic nose of mustard, celery, dill and guava. Jo Cooke gave it 90 in Wine Spectator. Vintages. LCBO 983197

RED

Alta Vista 2007 Atemporal Assemblage
$19.95 | Mendoza, Argentina | 92 points
A blend of malbec, cabernet, syrah and petit verdot, the Alta Vista impresses with a great nose of currant, mint, leather and fudge. Amid all the bombast, there’s surprisingly fine tannin and elegance. It’s worth twice the asking price. James Molesworth gave it 90 in Wine Spectator. Vintages. LCBO 144352

Antinori 2006 Solaia
$244.95 | Tuscany, Italy | 95 points
A wine that costs this much has to be fantastic, and Solaia is. Effortlessly combining finesse and power, it harmonizes currants, herbs, leather and chocolate. Outstanding length, but I’d want more depth before awarding it 97 points, like Wine Spectator’s James Suckling did. Cellar to 2014. Vintages. LCBO 987586

Domaine Grand Nicolet 2007 Vieilles Vignes Rasteau
$21.95 | Rhône valley, France | 90 points
This organically grown youngster could use some aging to settle the tannin, but it’s well made and bang-on for modern Rhône red, with well-integrated black cherry, cedar, pepper and licorice. Robert Parker rated it 91 to 93 points, his approach when tasting unfinished or unreleased wines. Vintages. LCBO 155481

Ghost Pines 2006 Winemaker’s Blend Cabernet Sauvignon
$19.95 | Napa and Sonoma Counties, California | 89 points
This lean but not austere red shows classic cab blackcurrant and mint, meshed with oak. It’s a bit thin and doesn’t pack the depth for the 90 points Robert Parker gave it, but it’s close. Store until 2016. Vintages. LCBO 135376

Paxton 2005 Jones Block Shiraz
$26.95 | McLaren Vale, Australia | 88 points
Paxton’s organically grown shiraz is well balanced: not too hot or tannic and full of cherry and fig flavours, as well as a mossy earthiness. But there’s a whiff of meatiness related to hydrogen sulphide (a fermentation effect), plus some oxidation. Australian critic James Halliday gave it 95. Vintages. LCBO 149914

Renato Ratti 2005 Marcenasco Barolo
$49.95 | Piedmont, Italy | 92 points
This rich, refined barolo is just entering its prime, although it’s still bristling with tannin. The nose is fragrant: cedar, earth, cherry jam, herbs and some meatiness. Excellent length, but not outstanding, which is where it should be to earn the 96 points James Suckling bestowed. Vintages. LCBO 713479