Check out wine ratings, but also trust your taste

Do not rely solely on where the wine is on the 100-point scale or the number of stars it has. Trust your own taste. PHOTO: NK YONG
Do not rely solely on where the wine is on the 100-point scale or the number of stars it has. Trust your own taste. PHOTO: NK YONG

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - The first issue of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate that landed on my desk put the spotlight on 1982 Bordeaux, which had just been released.

This was before the days of the Internet, so the hunt for wine took place via fax or telephone. One had to call wine merchants in London, and, expensive as long-distance calls were, they were the only quick way of contact at the time.

A memory that remains etched in my mind is that of my conversation with the managing director of Corney & Barrow, one of London's oldest and most respected wine merchants - in those days, they were practically royalty.

He had seemed impressed that I was enquiring about the availability of Chateau Petrus 1982, which had just been released en primeur. I might have been his first customer from Singapore, and one who was asking for the Petrus as well. I placed an order for two cases. Along with the Petrus, I also ordered the Latour 1982.

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In my hunt for the 1982s, I also called Adnam's in Southwold, which I had visited the previous year to meet Simon Loftus, then one of Britain's best-known wine authorities.

Back home in Singapore, fine wines were then available only at Cold Storage and Fitzpatricks supermarkets, but the choices in stock were poor.

When one starts buying wines, vintage is at the top of one's mind.

Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate made a great contribution to the fine-wine scene by introducing the 100-point rating scale to rank fine wines. At a time when the only ratings available were the five-point and three-star ratings of wine authorities such as Michael Broadbent and Clive Coates, the rating scale immediately caught the attention of wine lovers. Five-star vintages and 100-pointer wines became the glamour boys, in the same way Gucci and Dior are in women's fashion, and prices were quickly raised for 100-pointer wines.

But while the rating is indeed useful, especially for quick and easy reference, one needs to look beyond the score and read the commentaries about the wines. One also needs to remember that the scores reflect the reviewer's taste, which may not be similar to one's own.

This applies particularly to vintages; it is all too easy to home in on five-star vintages to the neglect of many well-deserving four-star ones, or those not awarded points.

The takeaway here is: Do not rely solely on where the wine is on the 100-point scale or the number of stars it has. Trust your own taste. It is your best guide.

On this note, pay more attention to the lesser-starred vintages, especially those of the great and famous names. Your effort will be well rewarded, for the pleasure is all the greater because of the surprising quality you will often encounter - and at lower cost. Following my own advice, I like exploring the so-called lesser vintages of well-known Chateaux and Domaines and am often surprised at the quality I find. Doing this also gives me wines to drink while waiting for the 100-pointers to mature.

Chateau Latour 2004

Drunk Aug 3, 2014, at home

Opaque black-red, light, elegant, fine bouquet of cabernet sauvignon fruit, blackcurrants and cedarwood. A big, dense wine, concentrated berry fruit, good ripeness, long finish.

Drunk at 10 years old, still not fully mature. Another six years more needed (as at 2014).

The wine is now 13 years old, so I will be trying it again soon.

Chateau Valandraud 1999, en magnum

Aug 21, 2014, at home

Dense, black-red. Light bouquet of ripe berry fruit. A big wine, very dense, quite smoky, very concentrated ripe fruit, traces of cedary cabernet sauvignon influence. Quite ready, at 15 years, still quite youthful.

Mr Jean-Luc Thunevin, owner and wine-maker of Valandraud, always has a ready smile when I see him in his wine shop in the centre of Saint-Emilion town.

He had left his job as a bank clerk in Algeria in 1989, bought a small plot in St Emilion near Chateau Pavie-Macquin, and converted his garage at home into his winery to start Chateau Valandraud. He released his first vintage in 1991.

A non-conformist, he upset the St Emilion Chateau gentry, who called him (derogatorily) a garagiste.

But Mr Thunevin, ever the individual, went his own merry way. In the 2012 Classification of Saint-Emilion, Valandraud was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classe, confounding his detractors.

If you walk down the main street in Saint-Emilion, you will pass his shop and, likely as not, you will see him standing there, looking at passers-by. When I see him, I always stop to greet him and ask about the most recent vintage. He has never forgotten that we first visited him in 1999; we may have been his first Asian visitors.

His home is in a small side-road, a little way down just off the main street. There is no chateau building as such for Chateau Valandraud.

His wines are rich, well-concentrated, complex and always a great pleasure to drink.

I purchased two bottles of Valandraud 1991 in 1995 at the cost of 285 francs p.b. from his shop, not too expensive. (It was not en primeur and this was before the days of the euro.)

I bought the Latour 1991 at 182 French francs, en primeur, in 1992.

The vintages of these two wines are not regarded as great, but the pleasure was just as great - perhaps even greater, considering the "so-called" off vintages.

The moral of the story is that it is cheaper to drink "off-vintages" and they are drinkable earlier too. While waiting for the great vintages to be ready, have patience and fortitude.