Behind the scores: Decanter Magazine

William Kelley

If Decanter magazine gives a wine a high score, the wine soars. Find out how wine expert, William Kelley, makes the point. 

Wine scores are an integral part in the way we interact with wine. Sure it isn’t exclusive to the world of wine, we use rating sites to make decisions whether to watch a new film that has hit the cinemas, which restaurant has the best food, or if the latest music album of our favourite artist is worth listening to. Ratings and reviews give us an insight into the quality of something we are interested in experiencing, and that is still (to some extent) unknown to us.

Wine scores and reviews are particularly useful. How often have we browsed an online shop or the shelves of our favourite wine merchant and were overwhelmed by the sheer variety of wines on display? The answer is most likely going to be “too often”.

With the recent outstanding scores some of our California wines received from the Decanter Magazine, I thought it was time to introduce some of the most important and highly regarded wine critics to you. Each and every wine critic and rating site is unique, have their own areas of specialty, preferences and scoring systems. Nonetheless, and important to highlight, professional wine critics have, despite their own preferences, the ability to rate a wine by many different features that stand for quality: how well is the wine made? Is it a unique and complex wine or is it one dimensional and boring? Is the wine well balanced or does it have too much of one component (such as alcohol, acidity, tannin or oak)? These are just a few examples of questions that wine critics attempt to answer with their reviews and scores. Wine scores and tasting notes therefore are instrumental in helping to answer the question “Will I like this wine?” before the “Do I like this wine?”

Today I’m looking at Decanter Magazine, and how to read their scores and reviews. Decanter Magazine is a UK-based wine magazine, which is considered to be one of the most reputable wine publications in the world. Published monthly, the magazine includes tasting notes and reviews, industry insights, news and stories on wine regions and winemakers, as well as vintage charts and buying guides.

Since 2012 all wines tasted by Decanter’s wine experts are scored on a 100-point scale, whereas previously it was on a 20-point scale. The new way enables readers to be able to use whichever scoring system they are most familiar with, and can, using the conversion table, easily convert any score from one system into the other.

The wine critics who review the wines for Decanter are some of the most renowned in the industry. They taste the wines blind, and are always mentioned by name, so that you can find an expert whose taste in wines is most similar to yours. Finally these experts tend to review wines from regions they specialise in, which ensures that the scores reflect the wines heritage and the region’s style best.

William Kelley, the North America Correspondent for Decanter Magazine and former president of the prestigious Oxford University Wine Circle, is one of the publication’s key experts. Luckily for us, William was kind enough to give us an insight to his approach in tasting and reviewing wines, and what he believes make reviews an important reference point for wine drinkers around the globe.

INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM KELLEY

Hi William, thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions for our readers, and of course congratulations on being short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year Award! How did you get into wine? And when did you start reviewing them?

I was initiated into wine, if I can put it like that, when I tasted a bottle of 1955 Château Lynch Bages at the age of seventeen. It was a radically more complex and compelling beverage than any I'd encountered before, and I resolved to learn more. While my parents drink wine with meals, their interest doesn't go much further than that, so I was fortunate to be mentored by an older wine writer named Hugo Dunn-Meynell, who passed away in 2013. Under his guidance, I cut my teeth as a taster on many of the great clarets and Burgundies of the post-war period. '55 La Mission Haut Brion and '61 Palmer come to mind as two bottles that really made an impression, but there were many."

I also joined the Oxford University Wine Circle as an undergraduate and ultimately served as its president for four years, which was certainly a bit of a distraction from my doctorate, but also a unique opportunity. We hosted weekly tastings with many of the world's best producers. I remember cooking dinner after tastings for people like Krug's winemaker Eric Lebel (who made his first visit to the UK to present a tasting for us), Yves Gangloff, François Mitjaville, Jeremy Seysses, Rodolphe Péters. Those were unforgettable times, and we also drank a lot of great bottles, which is really the only way to develop one's taste.

At some point it dawned on me that a career in wine was really what I wanted to pursue—writing about it and perhaps some day making it. So I ended up heading out to Napa Valley to work a harvest, and started writing for Decanter around the same time, becoming their North America Correspondent this year.

What do you think is the most important aspect of wine reviews for the consumer?

Above all, reviews need to be useful. So a tasting note should identify a wine's distinguishing features; the characteristics that differentiate it from other wines and give it its personality. Perhaps most importantly where North American wine is concerned, that includes giving a sense of what stylistic camp a wine falls into: whether its aesthetic is restrained and classical, say, or super-ripe and modernist. Because I'm reviewing wines for a large audience, I try not to be too dogmatic about questions of style (though my own taste is pretty classical): some readers will like one thing, others another, and I want my notes to be useful to everyone. But I do try to indicate clearly where a particular wine sits on the stylistic spectrum.

How do you prepare yourself for a (Decanter) wine tasting? Do you have a ritual?

I don't have any particular ritual. I simply try to make sure I'm in an environment without distracting ambient aromatics, holding a familiar wine glass (ideally a Zalto Universal), and tasting a wine that's at the correct temperature. Wherever possible, I like to taste wines repeatedly and follow them over several days, a practice I followed extensively for my 2013 California Cabernet reviews. I also think it's important not to fall into the hubristic trap of speed-tasting, or lining up too many bottles to taste in one day. It's definitely challenging to judge big, tannic reds that may be shut down, and it takes time and concentration. If it's taken a winemaker 18 months or more to make a wine, I think it behoves me to give it more than fifteen seconds of my cursory attention.

What do you consider the most enjoyable/ most difficult part of a tasting?

I love tastings that deepen one's understanding of a particular wine and how it evolves over time. Ridge's Monte Bello, for example, usually has really high acidity and a correspondingly low pH: sometimes as low as 3.3 or 3.4, which would be more usual in a white wine, especially in California. It's a characteristic of the high-altitude limestone site, and it makes most Monte Bellos pretty tight and structural just after bottling. It takes experience to read a wine like that and know how it's likely to evolve, but once you've acquired that over the years then it's great fun contemplating the beauty that's going to develop with bottle age. So vertical tastings can be very informative, as you get a sense of things like that.

I also love it when producers really succeed. Cathy Corison's 2013s, for example, may well be the best she's made to date—and I've tasted almost every vintage she's made back to 1989. Both the regular bottling and the Kronos really have the x-factor in 2013; the sort of wines that just proclaim that they're special. Raj Parr's 2014 Sandhi Chardonnays are the same. If I really don't have anything bad to say, then writing a note is a real pleasure; I can let myself write like a wine-lover, not a critic.

By contrast, the most difficult thing is reviewing and scoring a wine that is technically correct, but just soulless and dull. I can think of some California wines that might be superficially appealing—perhaps because of richness and 'fruit-weight' or whatever—but are really totally anonymous. Once you've tasted fifteen of them in a row, you become hyper-critical of wines like that. Of course, I think it's important to be critical, but I also try hard not to be polemical. It's about finding a balance.

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