Thursday, September 08, 2005

Robert Parker’s Knowledge of Australian Wine
There is little doubt that Robert Parker, Jr. is the most influential wine critic currently plying that craft. Indeed the release prices of Bordeaux wines are almost entirely influenced by Parker's scores. Such power generates not only an almost worshipful following but also controversy. Typical of this ying and yang scenario is the reception Parker’s wine reviews receive down under. Andrew Caillard MW of the Australian wine auction house Langton’s has written “In Australian wine writing circles Parker is generally loathed, with a reputation not unlike Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, no doubt inspired by a soupcon of jealousy and professional rivalry.” Caillard also noted “Whatever your perspective, Robert Parker Jr. is very powerful. He is the kingmaker whose pronouncements can change your fortunes in a very meaningful way.”

Much of the mumbled criticism surrounding Parker’s appreciation of Australian wine appears to center on his love affair with Australian Shiraz, particularly from the Barossa Valley. Some go as far as to call Parker’s favorites freakish, while others are content to argue that Parker only knows Shiraz and does not really have a good grasp of the complete Australian wine spectrum. It is true that, compared to French wines, Parker has reviewed relatively few Australian wines. His on-line site, which covers numerous vintages, notes that he has recommended more than 34,000 French wines, almost 16,000 US wines but only 3,331 Australian wines. Recommend wines are those that score 84 or greater on Parker’s 100 point scale. But how many wines does he actually taste? When I asked this question on ERPSupport the answer was that “no totally accurate record exists’ but “what is published represents approximately 25-35% of the total number of wines tasted.”

If we assume that 35% of tasted wines are recommended that means at least 9,500 Australian wines have been tasted. Incidentally the 3,331 recommended wines includes South Australia (2,468 wines) Victoria (396 wines) Western Australia (218 wines) Southeast Australia (99 wines) New South Wales (87 wines) Unclassified (49 wines) and Tasmania (14 wines). That big number from South Australia does suggest that he might like Shiraz! Of the recommended wines from South Australia 993 are Shiraz, 493 Proprietary Blends, 316 Cabernet Sauvignon, 143 Grenache, 125 Chardonnay, 93 Riesling, Merlot 71, Semillon 46, Sauvignon Blanc 39, Viognier 24, Pinot Noir 20, Zinfandel 17, Mourvedre 11, Port 10 , and another 17 varieties have less that 10 with 8 having one wine. Thirteen wines are unclassified. So while the focus is on Shiraz, Parker is clearly able to bestow his recommendation on a broad range of Australian varietals.

His tasting notes for Australia go back to the 1952 vintage however these older wines are almost exclusively notes on Penfold’s Grange. A tally of the number of recommendations per vintage show that he favorably reviewed more than 10 wines from 1989 onward, and got over the 100 mark in 1995 (coincidently the same year that The Wine Spectator named the 1990 Penfold’s Grange as Wine of The Year.). The largest number of wines that Parker has recommended has been 541 from the 2002 vintage. This suggests that Parker has a fairly limited knowledge of Australian wine over the long term, as some 90% of his recommendations are for wines produced in the last 10 years. Still during that period he is likely to have sampled more than 9,000 wines. A feat very, very few Australian wine drinkers will have achieved.

The 2002 vintage is classed by some as one of the best in recent memory. How did Parker divide his laurels? By varietal 2002 breaks down into Shiraz 209, Propriety Blend 107, Cabernet Sauvignon 61, Chardonnay 38, Grenache 26, Riesling 23, Merlot 14, Pinot Noir 13, and Semillon 12. And the remaining 14 varietals have less than 10 with 6 being for 1 wine only. So there is that predilection for Shiraz again, but also there is appreciation of a great variety of wine styles.

By location 2002 breaks down into Barossa Valley 176, McLaren Vale 111, Clare Valley 34, Langhorne Creek 21, Adelaide Hills 20, Heathcote 17, Eden Valley 15, Margaret River 14, Yarra Valley 13, and Coonawarra 11. The remaining 18 regions have less than 10 (Hunter Valley has 8) with 11 having just 1. Seventy wines are unclassified as to region. Well we already knew that he favored wines from South Australia. Still wines from many of the top regions get a recommendation.

How about that love of Barossa Shiraz? The recommended wines from the Barossa Valley include 77 Shiraz, 54 Proprietary Blends, 14 Cabernet Sauvignon and 12 Grenache. But it’s McLaren Vale that he seems to favor for Shiraz; McLaren Vale 52 Shiraz, 16 Cabernet Sauvignon, 14 blends, and 12 Grenache.

What does all this tell us about Parker’s Australian wine knowledge? Well he clearly has tasted many more Australian wines than most. Other (Australian based) critics like James Halliday taste significantly more wines, but their sphere is limited to Australia. Does Parker have a handle on the broad spectrum of Australian wine? He clearly favors Shiraz but is this unusual? Shiraz is unmistakably Australian and Parker’s support of the style clearly indicates that he has recognized this. Does he understand other wines styles/varietals? Well he obviously appreciates the quintessential Australian dessert wines called Muscat. In addition as his recommendations indicate he does see merit in wines from many different varietals and from very different regions. One can argue whether this displays a thorough knowledge of Australian wine but it is clear that he has tasted across the spectrum and found good things. Others with greater amounts of time on their hands may be able to tease more from Parkers’ recommendations. How do they match with Langton’s classification, with Hallidays scores or with their individual palate?

My opinion is that I was pleasantly surprised by the number of varietals that he has found to recommend. True most are small in number and they do appear to not garner the high scores that many Shiraz wines do. But it does suggest that Parker has not limited his experience with Australian wine to just the obvious.

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