Catching up with Robert Parker Jr

Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr is the creator of ‘Wine Advocate’. — Handout via TODAY
Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr is the creator of ‘Wine Advocate’. — Handout via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Nov 21 — To say that the value of a good bottle of wine is a matter of taste is both an accurate and incomplete assessment. I have often lamented how little I knew about the prized Margaux vintages I have had the privilege of sampling early in my career as a professional gluten and wino (read: middle-income food and wine journalist).

And while it gives me no pleasure or reprieve to ask myself, ‘If only I knew then what I know now’, the thought remains a constant reminder to be more vested in the foods and drinks I love.

For many, though, such perspicacity is often left to the professionals, the sommeliers and wine critics who are invaluable sources of inspiration to the less discerning. We’d like to think, as we are often told, that it comes down to what we like or don’t like.

But as even the world’s most recognised critic, Robert M. Parker Jr, will tell you, it is also possible for a novice and relatively inexperienced young consumer to become too dependent on scoring systems or wine critics.

It was a brief catch-up via email, but the creator of Wine Advocate — the widely trusted bi-monthly wine publication he established in 1978 (which boasts more than 50,000 subscribers) — did add that “it is also important that, if they keep their minds open, they can also learn about the diversity of good wine values that exist and the wide array of quality wines that exist in the world today”.

This is particularly important in a market like Singapore, which boasts such a wide and favoured variety across a range of prices. “By using a critic’s scoring system, they can learn about their own tastes, develop their palates in terms of what they enjoy most, and possibly even understand why that is happening,” explained the 69-year-old, who also believes Singapore has become one of the most sophisticated cities in the world in both wine appreciation and culinary excellence.

“This has happened quickly, and I see no signs that it’s going to slow down, but only hasten, given the beauty of the city and the fact that it is becoming a locomotive for fine wine and food in South-east Asia.”

And it is not only about our penchant for the Bordeaux’s most desired or Napa’s cult vintages. Parker affirmed that there are plenty of superb wines under S$50 (RM200) to be found here — the kind of wines you would brag to your friends about. “Consumers need to be looking in areas like Spain, southern France, especially the Rhone Valley and Languedoc Roussillon, southern Italy from Rome south, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia,” he said, adding that the island of Corsica, as well as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all merit equally serious attention where fine wines are concerned.

What are some of the best wines you had in the last year that did not cost the price of dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant?

The best wines I’ve had in the past year — that I bought and put in my cellar, at prices between US$40 and US$75 — were mostly 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009 Gigondas and Chateauneuf du Papes from the Rhone Valley in France. These wines have an open window for drinkability, they rarely improve much beyond 15 or so years, and offer complex, medium- to full-bodied drinking at a very realistic price.

Your list of 100-pointers is one of the most scrutinised. But what defines a 100-pointer wine, and how much does personal taste have to do with it?

100-point wines are usually distinguishable by their intensity and complexity of aromas, even before they hit your palate. However, once on the palate, I’m always looking for perfect equilibrium between fruit extracts, the tannins and any wood if the wine is aged in oak, the acidity, the alcohol as well as an incredible purity, a multi-layered texture and a finish of at least 40 to 45-plus seconds. Personal taste certainly has something to do with it, but I think we all agree that while wine tasting is subjective, for the great wines of the world and the greatest vintages, there’s always a consensus on those particular wines and years among experts.

While useful, even indispensable to both novices and avid drinkers, ratings such as yours inevitably allow producers and retailers to raise their prices. Is this a good thing in an increasingly competitive market?

One of the inevitable downsides for a wine critic who has considerable influence and a worldwide following is that giving limited-production wines high grades and positive reviews often dramatically increases the prices of those wines. It’s certainly easier to ask for a higher price for 500 cases of a vintage than 50,000 cases of a vintage, but there’s no doubt this happens and there’s nothing, really, that can be done to stop it, as it is a free and open market.

How important is it to cleanse your palate during wine tasting, and what is the best way to do so?

The best way to cleanse your palate is by using a great mineral water such as Badoit. As you feel the palate developing a build-up of tannins or acid, drinking a half-ounce or an ounce of Badoit in between wines and sloshing it around on your palate before swallowing does a wonderful job of not only cleansing the palate, but giving the palate uplift and vibrancy, making it very fresh for the next wine you taste. You don’t want a mineral water that is salty, too earthy or too aggressively effervescent, and that is where Badoit comes into the picture. It has very fine, restrained and delicate bubbles. It is extraordinarily pure, with no hints of saltiness or earthiness.

If I were a betting wine drinker, how closely should I be looking at Bordeaux’s 2015 harvest?

As good as 2015 Bordeaux is, prices are high and the vintage overall is not at the level of 2010, 2009 or 2005. It is certainly a high quality vintage, but I wouldn’t be looking at those wines until they are in bottle and released, which will be in the spring of 2017. The most recent vintage, 2016, looks like another interesting year that started off very poorly, but a dry, warm summer followed by almost flawless harvest conditions has given many producers considerable optimism. Certainly an abundant high quality vintage will keep prices stable, which will be good for consumers. — TODAY