Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Terret Noir
Tasting the newly-bottled 2016 whites

Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points?

Yesterday, we posted to our Twitter feed a great review that our 2016 Vermentino received from the trade publication BevX:

I then had a brief exchange on Twitter with Sean Ludford, who runs BevX:

This got me thinking.  What is it about certain grapes or styles that allows them to be great?  I wondered how many Vermentinos had received 90+ scores from larger publications, so I looked in the Wine Spectator's database. They've scored 430 Vermentinos over the years. Of those, 17 have received 90+ scores, including just two 91s and one 92.  That's less than 4% of the Vermentinos reviewed (which, presumably, are the better ones) that received an "outstanding" or "classic" score.

Thinking about other grapes that fit a similar profile (bright, crisp, generally best drunk young) I looked up Picpoul. Of the 60 that they tasted, only one (from our neighbors here in Paso Robles, Adelaida Cellars) got a 90.  That's 1.7%.

Going more into the mainstream, Chardonnay returns 25,485 results in the Wine Spectator database.  Of these, 5,206 have received 90+ ratings (20.4%).   Sauvignon Blanc returns 10,706 results, with 935 (8.7%) receiving 90+ scores. Pinot Grigio returns 2,204 results, but only 82 90+ scores (3.7%).

Rhone whites as a whole score well.  Take Roussanne, for example.  Of the 456 Roussannes reviewed by the Wine Spectator over the years, 70 (15.4%) received 90+ ratings, with our 2014 Roussanne being one of three that topped the list at 93 points. Viognier has 362 90+ wines out of 2,404 (15.1%).  Marsanne has 33 90+ scores out of 269 wines (12.3%). And Grenache Blanc, which only returns 212 results, has 24 90+ scores, four of them ours (11.3%). Only Picpoul is an outlier here.

So, what does it mean that 20+% of Chardonnays can be "outstanding" or "classic", 11-15% of most of the Rhone whites, but only 4% of Vermentinos?  I think there are a few factors at play.

  • Ageworthiness. I do think that reviewers put a premium on wines that can be aged into something greater than they were in their youth. This makes some sense to me. A truly great wine should be interesting over time, and assume different personalities. Just as a great book is something that you want to return to at different stages of your life, and from which you can gather different insights depending on your own life experiences. Vermentino, as beautiful as it can be, is not a wine that we think improves with time in bottle.
  • Richness. There also seems to be a correlation between a wine's body and high scores.  Most Rhone whites (with the possible exception of Grenache Blanc) show a lot of body. And even Grenache Blanc can have plenty of body; it's just balanced by high acids.  But grapes that are lighter in body, like Picpoul or Pinot Grigio (or Vermentino) tend not to be treated the same way.  Sauvignon Blanc, which can be made richer but is typically bright and lean, falls somewhere in between.  If we were able to taste the styles of the highest-rated wines in the category, I would guess that they'd tend toward the richer side of the grape's spectrum. Here is a case where I think there's room to debate. Is there a place for rich wines? Of course. But I know that I value refreshment in wine as much as I do power. And yes, great wines should offer at least some of both.
  • Oak. What else distinguishes white wines with more body from those with less? The more substantial wines are more likely to have been fermented in oak, and to have a higher percentage of that oak be new. Does this mean that a category that typically isn't made with oak has to be oaked to get high scores? I hope not. You're starting to see this with some luxury rosé cuvées, most visibly Chateau d'Esclans, whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new and one-year-old French oak, has on its Web page a litany of reviews calling it the "best rosé in the world". But is the wine better, or is it the oak that tells people they should value it more? I think it's at least partly the latter. I tasted Garrus along the other three tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and I preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, not least because the oak to me worked against the freshness and charm that I look for in rosés. That said, the richer style clearly has its adherents. A grape like Vermentino is not likely to be put into new barrels, and thank heavens for that. But the sweet spice and weight that new oak brings to a wine is at least a part of what cues reviewers to identify wines as elite.
  • Provenance. Looking at the scores, the percentage of high scores is correlated with the percentage of each wine that is made in California. Now, before I dive into this potential land mine, let me make it clear that I do not believe that California wines are held to a different (lower) standard, that the Wine Spectator is biased in favor of California, or that all California wines are better than wines from the Old World.  That said, I do believe that California winemakers have taken a new look at many grapes which in the Old World were made in a certain way by tradition.  Take Picpoul:
    • In France, the Picpouls (mostly from the Pinet region, in Languedoc) are generally produced plentifully, harvested early with modest sugars, fermented fast and bottled young to showcase the wines' bright acids.  And they are all so cheap (generally under $10 retail) that there is little opportunity or incentive to innovate.
    • At Tablas Creek, we farm the same grape at lower yields, in a climate with colder nights, and those combine to produce wines with just as much acidity, but more concentration and texture than the French versions.
    • It's noteworthy that just 9 of the 70 Picpouls are from California, and yet most of the ones that received the high scores were. Same with Vermentino: just 9 of the 430 reviews are for California wines (6 of these are ours).
    • Are the wines principally different because of climate? Sure, in part. But I think it's at least as much in the freedom that we have from tradition, and the higher price point of most California wines, that has encouraged and rewarded a new approach to these formerly unfashionable grapes.
    • The wines with longer histories in California have more reviews but tell the same story; thirty of Roussanne's seventy 90+ scores come from California.

Ultimately, the ceiling score for wines is determined by the accumulated reputation of a category over the years.  And I don't think this is a bad thing, or that all grapes are created equal. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir command the world's highest prices and the lion's share of many magazines' top scores because the market has decided that their best examples are worth the high prices they command. Is there an extent to which this is tradition? Sure. But these are great grapes, which have proved their value and reputation over generations. There is a reason why I reach for a Chardonnay a lot more often than I do for a Pinot Grigio, and I don't want to suggest that the same percentage of every grapes should receive 90+ scores.

That said, remember that loving unfashionable grapes is a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a category's great examples on the cheap.  What the best Chardonnays from Montrachet or Cabernets from Napa Valley will set you back can be measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars.  This 98-point Vermentino?  $27, and less since June is the month it is our featured wine.

In the end, I find it refreshing to think that a grape can be celebrated for being outstanding in its own right and not bump up against some glass ceiling of worthiness. Is there really no such thing as a "classic" Vermentino"? Maybe not, if the definition of a classic is one that will stand the test of time; I know I'm going to try to drink all my 2016 Vermentino before the 2017 is even picked. But I hope there is the opportunity to identify a wine that is outstanding at a moment in time, even if (especially if) it's now the best it will ever be.  And as Sean Ludford said in his last tweet, "excellence is excellence".  Amen to that.