Heated Debates Rage Over ‘Parker Wines’

‘There’s no accounting for taste’, so the old saying goes. Yet this let-and-let-live adage does not stop the makers and drinkers of fine wine occasionally taking part in heated debates over the styles in which certain wines are made. In recent weeks, various articles and online posts have ignited anew one such debate: are too many wines made in a super-ripe style, high in alcohol and smothered in the bombastic flavours of oak? By implication, those who answer ‘yes’ to this question argue that wines in this style do not express authentically the land and climate they come from – i.e. they betray their terroir.

A recent New York Times article (entitled ‘The Wrath of Grapes’) gave voice to a group of Californian winemakers called In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB). The mission statement of IPOB is to make a more restrained style of wine. This style is opposed to what they see as the influence of Robert Parker, the highly influential wine critic whose name will be familiar to most Vin-X clients. They argue that Parker favours super-ripe, highly-alcoholic wines with low acidity, made with lots of toasty new oak. So called ‘Parker wines’, they say, were awarded high scores from the critic so became the standard for winemakers who wanted to make a name for themselves.

In April this year a more inflammatory piece by writer Mike Steinberger railed against the wine Sine Qua Non (SQN), a Californian ‘cult wine’ and one of Parker’s personal favourites. Characterising SQN as ‘amazingly vulgar’, Steinberger claimed that a critic cannot claim to like equally both SQN and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s wine La Tâche without being either a ‘shill’ or a ‘cynic’. This ignited an online backlash from wealthy collectors claiming to be fans both wines.

To Bordeaux enthusiasts, these arguments may seem similar to the spat between Parker and respected UK critic Jancis Robinson over the style of the 2003 vintage of St.-Emilion wine Château Pavie: Robinson described it as a ‘ridiculous’ overripe wine while Parker said it was nearly perfect. These debates are thus nothing new yet no less provocative. Plus ça change.

Robert Parker himself refutes the idea that he only likes one style of wine. Indeed, he has written very favourably of La Tâche as well as Sine Qua Non. His narrative of winemaking over the past three decades focuses on the global increase in quality, a phenomenon which is broadly undeniable.

Yet the winds of change in winemaking seem to be with those blowing towards ‘elegance’ rather than ‘power’. Marcelo Papa, head winemaker at Chilean wine giant Concha y Toro, said in London this June that he was now picking grapes when they were less ripe and using less new oak in their flagship blend. At the higher-end, premium Bordeaux producer Château Pontet-Canet now uses only 50-60% new oak, striving for a more pure fruit expression. Even Château Pavie has stated they have implemented a ‘prudent reduction’ in the use of new oak, ironically reflecting a comment Jancis Robinson once made that ‘oakiness is now considered as 1980s as shoulder-pads’.

As regrettable as enraged tempers may be, such debates are not wholly negative. Criticism, reflection and diversity should be seen as positives. Ultimately, the meaning of ‘balance’ will be different for two different winemakers in two different countries, or even in two different estates within the same region. For investors in fine wines, the trick for the future is to seek out wines made in all styles that are desired by collectors across the world – so long as the quality, rarity and value is there. The rise of the Burgundy market in recent years is testament to the fact that wines conforming to ‘Parker’s palate’ are not the only place to look for good opportunities. Yet after all this the fact remains, like or loathe it, that so long as Parker is still scoring Bordeaux, his influence on market will still be felt strongly.