‘Sensational’ or Just ‘Bad’? On 2010 Pavie, Two Critics Disagree

By ERIC ASIMOV / NYT     May 24, 2011, 12:37 pm

One wine. One vintage. Two critics. Two reviews that couldn’t possibly be more different.

One of the more intriguing things about wine is how two knowledgeable critics can have such diametrically opposing views of a single bottle of wine. In this case, it’s the 2010 Château Pavie, a St.-Émilion that is no stranger to controversy. The critics are Robert M. Parker Jr. of The Wine Advocate, long established as the most influential wine writer in the world among Bordeaux fans, and John Gilman of View From the Cellar, a younger writer whose web-only publication is one of the many new critical voices being heard in the Internet age.

Now, differences of opinion are one thing. But the degree of disparity in this case is shocking.

Since Pavie was acquired by Gérard Perse in 1998, it has been known for its powerful, ripe, concentrated style of wine. Year after year, Robert Parker has been a huge supporter, and the 2010 is no exception.

“Most Pavies have possessed off-the-charts richness, and the 2010 is no different,’’ he wrote in The Wine Advocate. “It also reveals an opaque purple color, abundant notes of roasted coffee, blackberries, cassis, full-bodied power and sensational density, texture and length.’’

Mr. Parker recommended cellaring the wine for 7 to 10 years, and predicted it would keep for 30 or 40 years. Like many critics rating barrel samples, he hedges his bets slightly by offering a range rather than a precise score, giving the 2010 Pavie a 95 to 98-plus. While it’s hard to imagine a better rating than that, Mr. Parker said nonetheless that he ranked the ’10 Pavie slightly behind the 2000, the 2005 and the 2009.

In striking contrast, Mr. Gilman had very little good to say about the 2010 Pavie.

“To my palate, no wine better exemplifies how bad a wine could be made in the 2010 vintage than Pavie,’’ he wrote. “The 2010 Pavie is absurdly overripe, unpleasant to taste and patently out of balance. The liqueur-like nose offers up a high-octane cocktail of kirsch, framboise, smoke, mocha and a boatload of new oak. On the palate the wine is deep, huge and very overripe and pruney, with zero focus or delineation, a blur of alcohol, and the most profoundly astringent, searing and brutally tannic finish that I have ever tasted.’’

In closing, Mr. Gilman called the wine “the biggest train wreck of the vintage,’’ and offered a rating of 47 to 52-plus, which I suppose is about as reassuring as an F-plus is to a student.

How to account for the disparity? It’s crucial to realize that when both critics tasted the wine this spring, it was still aging in barrels. The wine will not even be blended and bottled until next year. It’s entirely possible that, in tasting barrel samples, the two critics were given two different components of what ultimately will be the final Pavie blend.

This is one of the pitfalls of Bordeaux en Primeur, the annual ritual of barrel tasting, and the annual race by critics to issue their sweeping pronouncements about the vintage. Critics as prominent as Jancis Robinson and Guy Woodward, the editor of Decanter, a British wine periodical, have raised questions about the utility of these early tastings, suggesting they are far more beneficial for the Bordeaux wine trade than they are for consumers. But they both have continued to write up the barrel tastings.

“So why do we devote such space to our verdicts?” Mr. Woodward asked in an editorial in the June issue, which put Bordeaux’s 2010 vintage on the cover. “The en primeur system is well established. Like it or not, the wines will go on sale in the coming weeks – at prices that may or may not be influenced by the reaction of the trade or press. We want our reader to have as much information to hand as possible when they come to make their buying decisions.’’

Given the caveats, it seems like a weak rationalization for maintaining the status quo. Either way, collectors and retailers have a lot at stake in the critical pronouncements, since they are meaningful economically at the very least.

Since I do not attend the En Primeur tastings, I have not tried the 2010 Pavie or any other wines of the vintage. To help understand why the two appraisals were so divergent, I asked both Mr. Parker and Mr. Gilman for their thoughts. Mr. Parker said he had no comment beyond what he wrote in his review, and Mr. Gilman said he had not read Mr. Parker’s review and therefore was not sure how accurately he could reflect on the differences of opinion.

But clearly, these two critics are approaching the wine from very different universes. Mr. Gilman views Bordeaux from a classic perspective and sees historic and cultural reasons for adhering to styles that would have been understood several generations ago. Indeed, as he said to me in an e-mail: “Its very alcoholic, harshly tannic and overripe style is emphatically not what I think of as my paradigm for well-made claret.’’

Mr. Parker, by contrast, views wine less from a historical and cultural perspective and more from a hedonistic one. What’s in the glass, and the pleasure it offers, is what counts, not whether it fulfills a different set of expectations. Of course, if one feels as Mr. Gilman does, a wine that deviates from the norm like Pavie can’t possibly offer much pleasure.

Judging a more classically styled wine, like the 2010 Trotanoy, brings the two critics closer together. Mr. Gilman gave it a 94-plus, and Mr. Parker rated it 93 to 95-plus.

Does Mr. Parker simply have a wider appetite for stylistic diversity than Mr. Gilman? Or does Mr. Gilman have a more discerning palate?

Other critics who tasted the wine seemed inclined toward Mr. Parker’s view. Ian D’Agata of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar rated the 2010 Pavie 93 to 96 points, while Jancis Robinson, who jousted publicly with Mr. Parker over the 2003 Pavie, is more generous toward the 2010.

“Strictly for modernists,’’ she writes, but gives it a 17 on the British 20-point scale. It should be noted that 17, as she defines it, represents “superior,’’ while a 19 would be “a humdinger.’’

11 Readers’ Comments

1. HVJ  NY State May 25th, 2011 4:33 pm

Someone should ask Jay Stuart Miller, also a wine critic, to arbitrate the dispute. He knows good wine from bad, although not which is which.

2. Carl  Brooklyn May 25th, 2011 4:34 pm

Ok. So first, Eric, are you on the Garagiste mailing list too or did you and Jon just read the criticism the same day? Further. I couldnt agree with Mr. Gilman more about the merits (or lack there of) of Pavie in general, however, I think it is important to consider one thing:
Mr. Parker has not been rating wine for 40 years so how is he inclined to know that a wine of ‘this style’ will last that long? The style of that wine we’re speaking of did not even exist until ’85 with Lynch Bages (again credit to JR for pointing that out in his newsletter) and wasnt in full bloom until Tertre Roteboeuf/Valandraud/Pavie in the late 90’s. Mr. Gilman is looking at wine from a historical perspective with tangible, tasty results. I’ve been fortunate enough to taste 70 Cheval Blanc, Mission Haut Brion and Margaux this year (at 40 plus) and they were all brilliant.
We’ve seen huge scores for 97 Cali Cabs that are already falling apart and they are not yet 15 years old (Araujo Eisele for example). Will 2010 Bordeaux last that long? I hope it will last 40 years as it is the year my son was born and he will own his fare share, but I’ll certainly hedge my bets and buy ‘traditional’ Bordeaux like Langoa-Barton and Lagrange. It’s curious, Vintage Port lasts 40 years, a taste Gerard Perse must surely love, but to me, I’ve had plenty of ’77’s this year with waning fruit, plenty of alcoholic burn and little else even though that was a ‘Vintage of the Century’ or whatever wine pundits push on us.

3. The Sediment Blog London May 25th, 2011 4:37 pm

Ahem – just to say, from this side of the Pond, that actually 19 or 20 points on the British scale (which Jancis Robinson uses) represent “truly exceptional”. The description “a humdinger” applies to 17.5 through 18. (Although the phrase “humdinger” is rarely heard at tables where such wine is drunk…) http://sedimentblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/chateau-tour-de-barbareau.html

4. John Binkley  North Carolina May 25th, 2011 4:38 pm

Once again, Mr. Parker’s palate is showing. Not only does he like huge, dense, blockbuster wines that are totally lacking balance, failing miserably on the finesse and elegance scale, his influence (the myth of numeric rankings that he pioneered) is so strong that many winemakers make wine specifically to his taste, so as to achieve high ratings from him and bring premium prices from the hoards of buyers who choose not to do their homework but simply follow those numeric scores like lemmings going over a cliff.

I’m glad to see that new critics such as Mr. Gilman, who seem to appreciate elegance and finesse, are coming along. Hopefully Parker’s ratings will finally be exposed for what they are, and the damage that has been done to the great wines of Bordeaux and elsewhere will be corrected.

5. Richard Reeves Tampa, FL May 25th, 2011 4:38 pm

It could be added that British wine columnist, Stephen Spurrier, writing in Decanter, has come down forcibly on the side of what he calls ‘typicity,’ citing wines like Pavie, with their ‘Port-like’ richness and sweetness and high alcohol content, as utterly lacking in the qualities that have historically defined what Bordeaux is. I guess Parker would argue that this character, or typicity, is a moving target and susceptible to change. Modern tastes are different from those of 40 or 140 years ago, just as fashions are different. At any rate, it’s an interesting (and endless) debate in the wine world…

6. Pedro Philadelphia, Pa May 25th, 2011 4:39 pm

Reading both reviews, it seems to me clear that they are describing the same wine – the descriptors are extremely similar, it is the judgments that are different. Personally, I don’t find this that hard to understand: I *am* (or have been) both men. The wine lover I was twenty years ago would have reacted to the Pavie much like Sir Bob did. Today… Well, today, I’d likely enjoy a Barbaresco with Mr. Gilman, given Bordeaux prices. But you get the point.

7. jeff  nyc May 25th, 2011  9:32 pm

Carl, what ports have you’ve had from 1977? Considering that ports are meant to be longer agers, I don’t recall any major publication declaring the 1977 as the vintage of the century. The 1908/12/48/55/63/66/70/94 come to mind before the 77 ever will.
There is also a bevy of 77s as it was a huge general declaration, this was certainly a drink earlier vintage. The fonseca 77 is in perfect drinking window now and represents what a mature port should be. Or are you still looking for that thick black purple juice you’re knocking in the pavie?
Even so, the smith woodhouse 77, the gould campbell 77, the quarles harris 77 all maintain a fantastic opaque color even after 40 years. The niepoort, fonseca, croft all have a perfectly clear red hue with very little signs of bricking.
You want a bevy of fruit? The croft 1945 almost has no peers for a 65 year old wine.
Regarding the burn, are you just not decanting the wines long enough? Wine makers from most of the major houses typically will recommend even a 30 minute open air decant for the alcohol to blow off. I mean, it has been sitting in bottle for over 40 years.
I don’t disagree with your other statements, but I find your port statement to be lacking with details.

8. Marco San Francisco, CA May 25th, 2011 9:34 pm

As a reformed ex-Parkerite (~10 years of subscribing to Wine Advocate and drinker of his Kool-aid and similarly-raved-upon wines), I have to applaud Mr. Gilman’s willingness to swim against the current, as it were. I’ve revisited many of the wines in my cellar that carried outsized Parker scores years ago, and find that these “20-30 year wines” often more closely resemble 750ml bottles of Robitussin now. Bob Parker likes what he likes, style-wise, and he’s certainly been consistent about it over the years – but I find it hard to believe that he can genuinely derive the same pleasure from some of these steroidal monsters masquerading as wine that he did when tasting upon release or en primeur.

I let my WA subscription lapse a few years ago, and apart from the fact that this deprives me of access to the German riesling reviews of David Schildknecht (whose palate I heartily respect, and whose notes I enjoy reading as much as anyone’s aside from Terry Theise), I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

9. vimpressionniste France May 25th, 2011 11:00 pm

I haven’t tried ’10 Pavie, but reading both Parker and Gilman’s reviews, I am clearly reminded me of some overly jammy, oaked wines.. too clearly perhaps as I’m starting to feel slightly nautious.

Whether it’s from Bordeaux, or typically riper regions like the Cotes du Rhone or Priorat, which are *supposed* to taste like that, these reds probably appeal to certain palates, while making others sick. Pure and simple. I don’t think it’s fair to always lay the blame on *traditionalists* and their expectations. They can be hedonists too (they just splurge on oysters rather than chocolate cake)

10. James Swann London May 26th, 2011 5:26 pm

I thought it may be of interest to compare British wine writer Jancis Robinson MW’s notes on Pavie 2010 (source jancisrobinson.com)

17/20
Very dark crimson. Much more lift and savour than its stablemates. Much more obvious fruit than the rest of the Perse stable so it can stand up to all that late picking and structure that bit more, though I’d love to know how it would have tasted if picked a week or two earlier. Still pretty demanding in terms of all those painfully dry minerals on the finish. But it has been miraculously sculpted so that it has a certain smoothness on the mid palate, even if it dries out terribly on the end. Strictly for modernists, with a hint of dark chocolate powder. Very much a long distance runner.  James Swann http://www.dittonwinetraders.co.uk/blog/

11. Kelman Cohen, MD Richmond, Virginia May 30th, 2011 2:45 pm

Perhaps the difference in reviews of Pavie by Parker and Gilman, the answer may be quite simple. TThe ability to discern changes in smell and taste are diminished with age. This is a physiologic fact and as a 76 year old enophile I sadly note this loss of sensitivity in my own palate. How wonderful it would be to subject these experts to smell and taste testing and see where they stand. Perhaps this should be done to all “expert ” tasters

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