Tasting Every BC Pinot Noir

BC Pinot Noir holds an ongoing series of panel tastings to sample every pinot noir bottling (regular, reserve, single block/vineyard) made from grapes grown and vinified in B.C.. At our last count there were approximately two hundred and eight bottlings.  So far the panel has tasted ninety-nine different B.C. pinot noirs.

Why Panel Tastings? 

No tasting approach is perfect but wine competitions are usually judged by panels for good reason.  An experienced, interested, articulate group of wine tasters judging properly under optimal conditions, tends to reduce the variation in opinion due to fatigue, mood, innate preferences etc. that can result from that of a single palate even if it is a superior one.

How Our Tastings Are Done

6 BC Pinot Noirs + 1 Guest Pinot Noir

Each tasting consists of 6 British Columbia pinot noirs plus one “guest pinot” i.e. a pinot noir from another region such as Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand, California or elsewhere. This keeps the tasting panel on their toes and gives an ongoing opportunity to compare the quality of B.C. pinot noirs to other regions in terms of style, quality and their value for money.

Timing, Decanting, Tasting Double Blind 

Wines are opened approximately two hours before the tasting to let them “breathe”.  They are draped to hide their labels and other distinguishing marks, shuffled and then tasted blind by one person to get a preliminary idea of the order in which they will be tasted.  The term “double blind” means that the wines remain draped so that no one on the tasting panel knows which wine is which.  Just before the tasting the wines are then tasted once more (still blind) to put into a final tasting order.

The reason for a chosen tasting order is that tasting context can significantly affect the way a wine is perceived. The considerations for a tasting order of pinot noir wines are: light bodied before heavy bodied, less good before better and if there are multiple vintages, younger before older.

Each taster has seven glasses. They are Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic White/Chardonnay glasses, the same basic shape as an ISO glass so suitable for white or red but a little larger, allowing the wine to show a little more character and complexity.  Providing a glass for each wine allows the panel to go back and compare to see if the wine has developed or changed further in the glass after the initial taste.

Tasting Conditions

Tastings are held mid-afternoon in a room with abundant indirect (North facing) light, at cool room temperature with bread/crackers and water only and individual cups for spitting the wines.

Pour, No Initial Talk, Make Individual Notes, Discuss, Publish Notes Unedited

The wines are poured one at a time in order to focus fully on each.  Each taster swirls, sniffs, tastes and makes their own notes. Putting aromas and flavours into words is difficult at the best of times and the power of suggestion at wine tastings can be distracting.  For that reason after each wine is poured, there is a “no talk” period for that wine until everyone has assessed the wines, drawn their own conclusions and made their own notes which you see unedited in the report on each tasting. The identities of the wines are not revealed until all the wines have been tasted and noted by everyone.

Scoring Wines: Numbers vs. Letters

There is always much discussion about wine scoring methodologies, much of it around Mr. Parker’s successful introduction of the 100 point scale.   The 100 point scale began as a simple metaphor that everyone who had been in school could easily relate to.  But is it the right scale for evaluating wine given the actualities of the wine tasting situation ?

 Any scale needs accommodate  the differences in palates, circumstance, bottle history and the other vagaries of tasting wine.  In the 100 point scale, anything below 50 is deemed a failure and a wine that scores 85 or below is not usually worthy of mention – table wine.  So, most published 100-point-based wine reviews run from 80 to 100 points.  So isn’t it really a 20 point scale? The 100 point scale conveys an exaggerated and misleading impression of precision that it does not deliver on.  It’s like a tape measure that purports to measure in millimetres and in fact can only measure in centimetres.

But why have a wine rating system at all?  A scoring  system of some kind does offer some advantages even though it can never fully capture and quantify the taste of a wine any more than a similar system devised for dance, music, painting or any of the other creations of nature and/or human endeavor.

Part of the point of scoring wines however is to communicate what is found.  It is a shorthand way to help wine drinkers take notice of wines that have stood out in a taster`s estimation.  Otherwise, simply sorting through descriptive wine notes would be a long, tedious process. Wine drinkers obviously like wine scoring systems and utilize them when they are purchasing wine.   A reasonable rating system certainly helps cut the clutter.  The 100 point system just doesn’t seem like the right one.  What is the alternative ?

Using Letter Grades to Rate Quality

Part of the 100 point scale’s success is that it parallels the marks we receive in our school years and so  it makes it easy to relate to.  So, if the 100 point scale is really a 15-20 point scale, why not just go with letter grades? Letter grades tend towards a more approximate but realistic (given tasting situation variables), evaluation of a wine’s qualities.  Having a letter grade system for rating wine is not a new idea nor a perfect one either but it avoids the misleading precision that the 100 point system implies.

Also Rating Each Wine for Value

Aren’t wine consumers also looking for value? How do I make a decision between a $100.00 wine scoring 93 points and a 89 point wine costing $40.00? A similar rating system for a wine’s value would be a helpful shorthand to help wine consumers find the best bang for the buck.

The Letter Grade System

Below are some guidelines about the characteristics of  wines from A to F for both the quality rating scale and the value rating scale that are used in our panel tastings.

Quality Rating Scale

Wines are ranked by letter grade  and proceed from the basic wine evaluation elements including: clarity, color, bouquet, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, body, intensity, finish and overall quality

F  Quality Wines  Technical faulted e.g. oxidized, volatile acidity, chemical imbalance, brettanomyces, heat damage or “corked” that makes it undrinkable but also exempt from critiquing.

D  Quality Wines  Wines possessing no actual technical fault but are indifferently or unsuccessfully  made and will not develop further. It may be that there is a flavour component that you have to “put up with” or there is  something displeasing in the flavour that just outweighs other pleasing components.  Examples of negatives would be sourish acidity, harsh wood flavours, overly bitter tannins , unpleasant herbalness etc. Basic everyday table wine.

C Quality Wines   Average, pleasurable wines with no negative aspects and includes  some very good wines  at the higher end (C+) . Could be vintage or non-vintage. The wines may develop further.  No real negatives to put up with in C wines.  To illustrate, a consistent C example – Lindemann’s Bin 65.

B Quality Wines   All elements should be pleasurable, including balance, structure, complexity, intensity, grape expression, some transparency of terroir, length and/or the fine, guiding hand of an excellent winemaker. At B+ level – superior fine wine.

A Quality Wines   An evolved partnership of what superlative terroir, grape and winemaker are all capable of. Often initially induces a silence born of wonder. The wines tend to be very distinct.

A+ Quality Wines     A “conversation with God” if you will or at least a nod and a smile…   As compelling, transporting and awe inspiring as any other exquisitely executed craft or work of nature that we can appreciate and that moves us. It may sounds fanciful or impossible but  it does happen.

If You Need to Compare

A Range – High 90s
Range – Low 90s
Range – High 80s
Range – Low 80s
F – Spoiled

Value Rating Scale

This rating scale is based on the cost of a particular wine relative to the cost of most comparable wines that could be purchased in the same marketplace. So a C wine in this scale would mean that the wine is priced exactly the same as comparable wines. The differences between the grades are on a percentage basis.

F – Regardless of the price, the wine has no value i.e. the wine is dead
D Range – Tastes like it should cost less than 50% of actual e.g. $20.00 wine tastes like it costs $10.00 or less.
C Range – Tastes like it should cost same as actual e.g. $20.00 wine tastes like it cost $20.00
B Range – Tastes like it should cost 50% more than actual e.g. $20.00 wine tastes like it costs $30.00 or more.
A Range  – Tastes like it should cost 100% more than actual e.g. $20.00 wine tastes like it costs $40.00 or more.

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