Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Gault Millau - a (brief attempt at a) critique

The 2011 "Gault Millau Wine Guide" has been a frequent companion on my desk in recent months. Still probably the best-known ratings guide to Germany's wineries and wines, it was the subject of much discussion and controversy a couple of years ago when a small but prominent group of wine estates decided to boycott the guide for reasons which, on the surface, seemed quite banal but culminated in the resignation of chief editor and co-publisher Armin Diel. At the time, the whole furore was the talking point among German wine bloggers. Although things seem to have calmed down since then, I have no desire to disturb that hornets' nest.

Instead, my critique, if you can call it that, concerns the ratings and judgements made in the guide itself.

By and large, I think the method which Gault Millau applies of rating not only a winery's latest vintage but the winery's standing as a whole on the basis of its track record over numerous years makes sense. I've read opinions criticising the fact that winery "xyz" with a three-star rating achieved better overall scores in a given vintage than an established four-star winery, citing this as a weakness in the rating system. Frankly, I believe this argument misses the point. The Knipser brothers, for example, who were elevated to five-star status this year, may or may not top the ratings at every quality level for each of their wines, but - to borrow a phase from the world of pop and art - it's their body of work over many vintages which arguably justifies their promotion to the quintuple-starred ranks of "world class".

Leaving that aside, what irritates me slightly about this year's edition is that, in a number of cases, personal preferences seem to have had an inordinate impact on the overall ratings conferred. Of course, subjectivity is the name of game when it comes to scoring wines, but in the Pfalz specifically, dry Riesling seems to be regarded as sub-standard if its residual sugar level exceeds a relatively misely level. That's my impression at least.

On various occasions, I notice comments to the effect that the personality and specificity of certain wines are diluted by the fact that the winemaker has not fermented the juice down to bone-dryness. However, I often suspect that vintners purposely leave anything from 5 to 9 g/l of residual sugar to prevent their still-dry-tasting Rieslings from becoming imbalanced.

Take Phillip Kuhn, for example - winner of this year's "Up-and-coming winemaker of the year" award ("Aufsteiger des Jahres") for the whole of Germany. I had to smirk last year when Kuhn's grand cru Rieslings attained scores of 89, 89 and 91 respectively and were criticised in the same breath for having too much residual sugar. These scores have now risen to 90, 92 and 92 this year, so it may be logical to assume that the sugar levels have been "reined in". Personally, I'm unable to judge whether Kuhn's 2009 Rieslings are actually superior to his 2008 versions, but whether they are more enjoyable to drink is another matter.

Comments about a wine's perceived sweetness run like a thread through the ratings (e.g. see the reviews for Ackermann from Ilbesheim, Scheu from Schweigen, Wolf and Pflüger from Bad Dürkheim respectively, Meyer from Heuchelheim-Klingen, Schreieck from Maikammer or Stern from Hochstadt). Don't get me wrong: the scorers' opinions are clear and consistent in relation to residual sugar, and that has to be acknowledged. However, their views seem to me to be a little dogmatic at times. To the extent that, far from deterring me from said wineries, they actually encourage me to learn more about them.

And then there is the case of Sven Leiner from Ilbesheim.

I've covered a few of Leiner's wines in the past (click here, here and here) and been fairly impressed. However, I've also been left cold by a wine of his on one occasion, meaning that the proverbial jury is still out as far as I'm concerned. Nevertheless, I'm baffled by the assessment of his wines in this year's Gault Millau. Based on a total of seven wines (of which all four of the whites belonged to the winery's more basic level in his quality range), the scorers have come to the conclusion that Leiner has "lost his way". Now, I haven't tried any of his 2009 vintage, but I would think that a basic dry Riesling costing EUR 6.40 and rating at 85 points is pretty good by anyone's standards. Leiner's three red wines don't score too badly either (84, 86 and 87 respectively), although these latter are more ambitiously priced. The worst two ratings are 81 and 82, for his two basic Weiss- and Grauburgunders, though this, too, is far from catastrophic. None of Leiner's top white wines are covered, however, so I am assuming that the criticism of Leiner's style refers more to his red wines. But that he should then be relegated from two stars to one star based on such an incomplete picture is somewhat harsh if you ask me. And I don't seem to be the only one who holds this view.

I don't belong to Herr Leiner's marketing department, I hasten to add, but I'd be more than a tad miffed if I were the winemaker.

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