Cult Insider

EDITION 008 | JUNE 2023

Critic score inflation and Bordeaux – do higher scores equal better wines?

Written by - Aaron Rowlands, Research Editor - Cult Wines

“Chateau XY’s 2022 wine has netted the highest ever critic score for the estate.”

This phrase or some variation of it has come up a lot during the 2022 En Primeur campaign. It’s well-publicised now that 2022, for the most part, will rank as one of Bordeaux’s better vintages with many high and highest-ever scores from estates across the region.

Talk of a great vintage in Bordeaux has been common in recent years – 2016 and then the ‘trilogy’ of 2018-2020 are also considered excellent by most. Some might wonder how much of this down to marketing and hype rather than actual improvements in the wines. Does the quality of individual wines merit this high-level label?

To start to answer this question, let’s look at The Wine Advocate’s average scores across a fixed selection of 50 wines in Cult Wines’ target list since the beginning of the 21st century. Indeed, recent vintages do feature a bevy of higher score averages than those pre-2015.

The Wine Advocate – Average scores per vintage
The Wine Advocate – Average scores per vintage
Source: Vintage scores based on a fixed basket of 50 wines.

Sceptics might point to the issue of so-called ‘score inflation’. For years now, some industry observers have raised concern about critics handing out ever-higher scores to Bordeaux and other regions’ wines. Some charge that critics are compromising their integrity by buying into the Bordeaux hype and handing out higher scores in return for access or publicity. Others might think score inflation stems from a more subconscious gradual elevation by critics - the great wine in your glass can seem better than the great wine in your memory.

But these narratives don’t fully explain the higher scores, in our view. Looking closer at the data indicates that average scores aren’t so much getting higher as becoming more consistently high. In other words, average scores for good vintages are staying around the same but we’re just seeing more of them in recent years. It appears the floor has been raised more than the peak has been pushed higher. This suggests the quality or value of top score hasn’t been eroded. Indeed, the recent top vintages aren’t producing excess amounts of ‘top’ scores (99-100pts).

Years with 10 or more scores of 99 or 100 points (The Wine Advocate):

  • • 2005 (10 wines)
  • • 2009 (14 wines)
  • • 2010 (13 wines)
  • • 2016 (11 wines)

Although this doesn’t completely negate the possibility of score inflation, it fits with the narrative that the quality of Bordeaux wine is better and more consistent than ever. Great producers have always delivered exceptional wines when conditions are ideal, but now more producers boast first class facilities and winemaking teams. The improved technology and knowledge are enhancing precision and consistency even during recent ‘down’ vintages (2017, 2021), leading to more scores in the mid-90s and a higher average. Additionally, the warmer climate has overall (so far) been a positive for the wine quality in Bordeaux even if it brings challenges for winemaking teams. ‘Off’ vintages are now the exception.

Ultimately, comparing wine is far from an exact science and some score inflation, whatever the cause, should not necessarily be viewed as a major problem. You cannot drink a young 99-point Chateau Haut-Brion 2000 anymore to compare it side-by-side to the estate’s 99-point 2020 vintage. They’re different wines from different eras with two decades of ageing in between. What matters is that they were both judged as one of the best wines of their respective vintages and the vintages one of the best of the eras.


News in brief

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Drouhin expands Burgundy empire

Maison Joseph Drouhin has expanded its vineyards holdings in Burgundy with two new acquisitions. One new is Château de Chasselas in Saint-Véran, which helps expand Drouhin’s presence outside the Cote de Beaune. The estate now covers 60 appellations from the north to the south of Burgundy. The first release of Saint-Véran Joseph Drouhin Château de Chasselas is reportedly planned for next year. The other new acquisition is the Rapet estate in Saint Romain within the Cote de Beaune.

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Rapper Ja Rule enters fine wine space

A new celebrity entry in the world of premium wine comes in the form of Ja Rule’s Rose Vine Cellars. The artist will release two wines – Red Rose Cabernet Sauvignon and Autograph Limited Edition – for a package price of USD250. The wines hail from Alexander Valley, an up-and-coming California AVA along the banks of the Russian River. The project is in partnership with marketing company Wines That Rock and Ross Reedy, director of winemaking at Truett Hurst winery and VML Wines.

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Which restaurants have the best wine lists?

The annual Star Wine List of the Year awards announced this year’s top restaurant wine lists in mid-June. Alchemist, a two Michelin starred Copenhagen restaurant, won the top prize for large wine list (600+ wines) while London’s Trivet claimed best medium-sized list (200-600 wines). Another London venue St. Bart’s shared the prize for best ‘short’ list with Babette in Stockholm. Prism in Berlin landed the award for best by-the-glass list.


Pierre Anderson, Logistics Manager - Cult Wines - 2020 Blanc de Blancs, London Cru Winery

What we’re drinking

2020 Blanc de Blancs, London Cru Winery

Pierre Anderson, Logistics Manager - Cult Wines

  • • In celebration of English Wine Week, I attended a tasting exploring the Urban Wineries of London and was blown away by this wine!

  • • Made from 100% Sussex grown Chardonnay, this wine is produced in the Big Smoke. It involves a mix of steel tank and barrel fermentation and ageing with it undergoing full malolactic fermentation and lees ageing.

  • • The wine is sumptuously textured, with rich brioche and baked orchard fruit notes, candied lemon peel, but still present a strong minerality from the Sussex clay soils persists on the finish.

  • • Seeing English vineyards and wineries grow in quality over the years is one of my greatest joys working in wine and a perfect reminder to explore what is on our doorstep.


Our fine wine feature

Cotes de Bourg: Innovation in Bordeaux’s northern AOC

Written by - Aaron Rowlands, Research Editor - Cult Wines

Some of Bordeaux’s most enchanting landscapes are the undulating hillocks and small estates of the Right Bank’s northern appellation of Cotes de Bourg.

And Bourg is much more than just a pretty face. Sitting next to the Dordogne River as it joins the Garonne to form the Gironde estuary, the 3,800+hectare appellation is sometimes overlooked due to its distance from the Right Bank’s famous appellations Saint Emilion and Pomerol. But it has produced wine since Roman times and, more recently, has been part of a trend emerging from several of the ‘lesser known’ Right Bank regions:

“The Right Bank, in particular, however, has long been a hotbed of innovation and audacity, serving as a testing ground for producers, winemakers, consultants and enologists eager to push the boundaries,” said Yohan Castaing in The Wine Advocate.

This reputation for innovation is helping pull in new winemaking talent to Bourg. Alex Gibson started a new life as a winemaker in 2018 when he bought Chateau Civrac, a 10-hectare estate. I had the opportunity to work a vintage at Civrac in 2020 and recently caught up with Alex to discuss the Cotes de Bourg and his reasons for choosing the area.

Cotes de Bourg: Innovation in Bordeaux’s northern AOC

Why did you choose Cotes de Bourg?

"The Cotes de Bourg name came up frequently during my two years studying vineyard management in Bordeaux. Informed opinion is that this is a historically underrated terroir, of similar potential to its senior Right Bank cousins. There was also a certain reputation for younger winemakers setting up shop, unafraid to innovate, take risks, do things their own way.

The Cotes de Bourg community consists mostly of traditional family-owned and operated properties with a few hands-on expat winemakers too. Most neighbours are full-time residents and are not above tending the vines and driving tractors themselves and always seem happy to advise and support one another whenever necessary.

There was also the matter of pricing. It was within budget to purchase a full-scale family farm (around 10 ha) in Côtes de Bourg. Premium St Emilion, Pomerol and Pauilliac appellations are well beyond the reach of your average independent winemaker."

This point about Cotes de Bourg’s price accessibility is also evident for consumers. The lower international profile of the AOC means prices remain significantly lower than its bigger profile peers.

Bourg also boasts a high-profile fine wine in the form of Roc de Cambes. The estate next to the tranquil medieval village of Bourg caught the attention François Mitjavile, owner of the renowned Tertre Roteboeuf in St Emilion, back in 1988. It now produces Merlot-led wines that regularly gain favourable critic attention and fetch around £50-£60 per bottle.

Roc de Cambes shows what the region’s best terroirs can deliver when winemakers take risks in the name of seeking out the best quality and the nuance of this unique side of Bordeaux.

What are your objectives as a Cotes de Bourg winemaker?

"We aim to make a range of small batch, single vineyard wines that balance our priorities of honouring traditional practices and contemporary customer tastes. Our Grand Vin is a Merlot-led blend, but we also make a varietal Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon and an amphorae Merlot-Cabernet Franc wine. We also produce a Crement and a Rose.

Above all else, we want to achieve a natural expression of our great hillside terroir and have introduced many new practices. In 2020 we eliminated the use of herbicides and other known carcinogens and began introducing free-range chickens to forage in the vines. We’ve since added a flock of resident sheep and implemented a no-till policy to encourage natural soil health and recovery.

We are encouraging the system to come into a natural balance, reducing the need for green harvests and accepting lower, higher quality yields. This aligns with our low-intervention approach that will hopefully boost the quality and character of the wine as well as improve sustainability."

Do you think Bourg wines have a particular style or calling card?

"The most well-known Bourg calling card is the predominance of Malbec with a higher surface area percentage dedicated to the variety than any other Bordeaux appellation.

Lesser known is the small volume of quality white wines. Due to Cotes de Bourg’s proximity to Cognac, many vineyards were planted with Ugni Blanc and Colombard to supply nearby Cognac houses at a time when the geographical appellation boundaries were looser. To this day, Cotes de Bourg is the only Bordeaux AOC where Colombard is authorised.

Here at Civrac, we plan to plant white varieties – Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino, the latter of which has recently been authorised on an experimental basis in Bordeaux in response to climate change pressures.

Overall, I believe there is a dynamic, diverse community of winemakers here. People can still afford to take risks, sometimes make mistakes, and at best present a fresh and unique take on classic Bordeaux wine.

We experimented with indigenous yeasts in 2020 in our terracotta amphorae wines. We liked the results and now aim to transition to all-indigenous yeast production in 2023, aided by cultivating starter batches prior to the main harvest.

Cotes de Bourg is fairly well known among regional consumers for its quality and affordability. Restaurants in Bordeaux like to have at least one Bourg wine on their lists. But we aren’t widely recognised internationally. Hopefully our reputation for quality will grow internationally and, even better, will one day start losing the expectation of lower price points!"


Explore & travel

Discovering da Vinci’s vineyard

Written by - Yue Chow, Client Account Manager Singapore - Cult Wines

Brad Pitt and Château Miraval, Jay-Z and Armand de Brignac. It's no surprise that an estate or wine can gain widespread recognition through its association with a public figure. But the biggest name associated with a vineyard may be Leonardo da Vinci!

My excitement reached new heights when I discovered a museum that exhibits a vineyard that the great Renaissance polymath not only owned but also meticulously cared for himself. The mere thought filled me with pure euphoria, prompting an immediate decision to embark on a trip to visit the traces he left in the heart of Milan.

I initially discovered Leonardo's story as a viticulturist through the book "Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories" by Attilio Scienza and Serena Imazio. I felt a strong connection with this remarkable polymath, simply through our mutual passion for wine. Wine brings people together as wine writer Hugh Johnson OBE says: "it weaves in with human history from its very beginning as few, if any, other products do."

Discovering da Vinci’s vineyard

I embarked on a trip to Milan just after an intensive five days obtaining my certification as an Italian Wine Ambassador in Verona. The journey began with a delightful 15-minute stroll from Duomo di Milano, followed by a quick pit stop at the renowned gelato shop Fatto Con Amore (meaning 'Made with Love').

Finally, I arrived at The Museum La Vigna di Leonardo (Leonardo's Vineyard), conveniently located just across from the church of Santa Maria della Grazie, where Leonardo painted his masterpiece, 'The Last Supper'. While on my way to the vineyard, I passed by Casa degli Atellani, a historical residence bestowed upon Leonardo by Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, along with the vineyard in 1498.

Stepping into the heart of the house, I found myself in La Sala dei Ritratti (Hall of Portraits) viewing one of the 330 bottles of wine produced from the vineyard in 2018. Continuing my journey, I meandered through the garden until I finally arrived at the vineyard itself - a small parcel of land, approximately 59 meters wide and 175 meters long.

This small green space had witnessed the Renaissance era and the ravages of the Second World War. Although the vines were destroyed during the war, the roots survived. Manual excavation, DNA analysis, and extensive lab tests beginning in 2007 ultimately led to the revelation that these roots once belonged to the Malvasia di Candia Aromatica grape variety, which was then replanted in 2015. Malvasia di Candia Aromatica is known for its exceptional quality and delicate aromatic notes of tropical fruits and spices, particularly prominent in sweet wines. It's safe to assume that Leonardo da Vinci had a fondness for sweet wine!

The vineyard has withstood the test of time, surviving centuries after Leonardo's passing. And now, 500 years after the genius's departure, the ultimate wine of contemplation is ready to be savoured, bringing together history, art, and the timeless allure of Leonardo da Vinci himself.


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