Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Parkerizing New Zealand. Yeah Right!

New Zealand is not a producer of quality wine, well at least according to Robert Parker, Jr. It’s a bold statement, even if it does come from one considered to be the dominant exponent of wine swirling, sniffing, slurping, spitting and scoring. But what is Parker’s assertion based upon? What is his experience with New Zealand wine? Only one way to really find out and that is to surf across to and explore his wine data base to see what New Zealand wines he has tasted.

Of the 20 countries listed in the database New Zealand ranks 12th, ahead of Greece (58 wines), Japan (48 wines), Ukraine (7 wines), Algeria (2 wines), Morocco (2 wines), Hungary (1 wine), Israel (1 wine), and Lebanon (1 wine). There are 191 wine reviews listed for New Zealand, but that number is deceptive because it represents the number of wines recommended; there may well have been several fold more than 191 tasted. What is a recommended wine? Usually it scores 85 or above on the 100 point scale. In the case of the 191 wines this is correct as 34 were rated between 90-95 and 155 between 80-89. However none of the wines had scores below 85; there were 2 wines where the score was not recorded.

Thirty-four wines scored 90-95 points, or outstanding. What Robert Parker, Jr describes as a “wine of exceptional complexity and character.” But no wines were rated as extraordinary, that is scored greater than 95 points. These are wines of “profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety.” Does that say anything about the overall quality of New Zealand wine as assessed by The Wine Advocate? Its difficult to judge given that there is no indication of the total number of wines tasted. Parker usually recommends around 30% of Australian wines, and if that was the case for New Zealand then he may have tasted as many as 636 wines. But as he seems not to favor New Zealand wine all that much the percentage of recommended wines may be lower, let’s say its 10%. That would put the quantity of tasted wines closer to 1200. Seems like quite a sizeable number! How does it compare with the total number of wines produced in New Zealand? Michael Cooper, in his 2007 Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines, notes that there are some 550 wineries producing a total of 3,000 wines, and he tasted and rated 2,740 for his annual review. But Parker’s reviews are not from a single year, nor are they from just a few vintages, they span 1990 to 2004. The greatest number of wines recommended was for the 1999 vintage with 40 wines, followed by 2002 (38 wines), 2001 (23 wines), 1998 (20 wines), 2003 (19 wines), 2000 (11 wines), 2004 (10 wines), 1991 (6 wines), 1996 (5 wines), 1997 (4 wines), 1990 (2 wines) and one wine for each vintage between 1992-1995. Do they represent an adequate sampling of the wines of New Zealand? Well, a decade ago there were 200 wineries and 1,000 wines. So finding less than 10 wines to recommend from any vintage in the early to mid-mid-1990s suggests that a small number of wines were tasted or that Parker was finding very little to recommend! Lets look at two of the years where he scored the most wines and see if there has been improvement in the scores with time. In 1999 he recommended 40 wines, 36 of which were in the 80-89 point range. In 2002 he recommended 38 wines and 26 were in the 80-89 point group. Over that short period more wines have made it into the Outstanding group and more red wines have been recommended than in 1999; 15 as opposed to 6. But these are small numbers and without knowing the actual number of wines tasted its hard to draw any firm conclusions.

Let’s look at the 191 wines a few other ways. Where have they come from? Has Parker at least found wines to recommend in the major wine growing regions? Marlborough is the big winner with 106 wines recommended, followed by Hawkes Bay (24 wines), Wairarapa (16 wines), Otago (7 wines), Nelson (6 wines), South Island (1 wine), Waiheke Island (1 wine), and then Unclassified (30 wines). These numbers are not all that inconsistent with wine production if you consider the regions in terms of the most recent percentage of national production; Marlborough (47.7%), Hawke’s Bay (20.0%), Gisborne (8.3%), Otago (5.5%), Canterbury (4.1%), Wairarapa (3.4%), Nelson, (3.2%), Auckland (incl. Waiheke Isl) (2.4%), Waikato/Bay of Plenty (0.6%). Perhaps Gisborne has missed out, but then one might argue that if you don’t make the list that may be a good thing!

What about varieties? Clearly Sauvignon Blanc, with 79 wines, is the favorite but most wineries have at least one and sometimes multiple SBs. Next comes Pinot Noir (30 wines), followed by Chardonnay (27 wines). Nothing too unexpected there, but it is interesting to note that Parker’s critique of New Zealand wine scolds these three varietals, the three that he has recommended the most. I find that just a little odd.

Next came Riesling (25 wines), over half (14 wines) coming from Marlborough. Then came Proprietary Blends (17 wines) of which three were white (Selaks Ice Wine). The other red varietals, apart from Pinot Noir, were Cabernet Sauvignon (4 wines), Syrah (3 wines), Cabernet Franc (2 wines), and Merlot (2 wines). Single examples of Pinot Gris and Viognier also made the list.

It just does not seem all that impressive an experience, does it? The numbers just don’t support an extensive experience of New Zealand wine at The Wine Advocate. And its difficult to argue otherwise because if that is the case then the last time that Ata Rangi made decent Pinot was 1995-6, Felton Road 1997, and Martinborough Vineyard and Villa Maria only got it right in 2000. And Cloudy Bay only ever made Sauvignon Blanc worth recommending in 1990? No, Parker’s recommendations hint at a lack of exposure to the wines of New Zealand.

What about other reviewers? How does the Wine Spectator see New Zealand wine? In 2006 they rated 184 wines. None of the wines received scores between 95-100, 20% scored between 90-94, 56%, between 85-89, 18% between 80-84, and 6% found their way into the 50-79 point group. By comparison 862 Australian wines were rated with 1% in the 95-100 point group and 26% received 90-94 points, 61%, between 85-89, 10% between 80-84, and 2% found their way into the 50-79 point group. Those percentages seen very similar and certainly a lot better than Argentina with 18% in the 50-79 point group.

Now somewhere at the back of the room I can hear a murmur complaining “All this is just about Parker and points. Who cares?” Well the take home message is quite simple. When you think of New Zealand wine, what comes to mind?

“Not Robert Parker!”
“Sauvignon Blanc.”
“Yes, and Pinot Noir.”

Correct, and isn’t it interesting that New Zealand wine has established an international standing, particularly for Sauvignon Blanc, without the help of the lawyer from Maryland! If they can be left alone long enough maybe we’ll get other wines that speak of New Zealand - Pinot Noir and Syrah and Riesling, and…….


Thomas said...

Parkers palate is about as interesting as wine!! The way he scored some of these over the top Aussie wines 95's and over, he should be touted as insane. Someone explain to me how MollyDooker "The Boxer" scored 95 points parker. That wine tastes like someone poured a bottle of high fat movie popcorn butter in the barrels along with some wood chips and ink. Got to love it!

Salil said...

NZ Riesling's one of the most wonderful things I've come across. Many of the better ones are capable of aging for a while in the bottle and developing very well, and I've rarely had a bad one. Best of all, they're about half the price of most of their German or Alsacian counterparts.

As far as I'm concerned, New Zealand's producing some world class Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc (beyond Cloudy Bay), and some very, very impressive Pinot Noirs. If Parker doesn't acknowledge it, that's fine by me. If those who follow his word don't, even better - keeps the prices down, and leaves more bottles on the shelves for the likes of us.