Guides and ratings

Jay Miller, the Wine Advocate specialist covering the wines of Oregon, Washington, Spain, Australia, South America, Greece and Vintage Ports, is in Catalonia for a much awaited tasting visit. In ten days he will sample some 1.300 wines, mainly red and Cava.

Given the Wine Advocate’s influence, this visit has stirred considerable excitement in winemaking circles. Up to now, Catalan wines reviewed by Robert Parker or Jay Miller had been tasted mainly in the US, without first hand knowledge of vineyards, wineries and winemakers. It is to be expected that this year’s ratings will benefit from this deeper evaluation, which is the same used for other leading winemaking regions.

Oriol Guevara, head of INCAVI, the Catalan winegrowing official Institute, Jay Miller and Pancho Campo MW

What do I expect from a wine guide? Apart from the baseline, independence and tasting competence, there are other things: 
  • An evaluation based solely on the wine quality as evaluated in the tasting 
  • A clear description, in the book or in the webpage, of the rating criteria: what is included and what not, and what weight is given to each part 
  • Some kind of description (this might be the toughest point) of what is the ideal wine or gold standard of the tasting panel.
 Let us elaborate on these points.
Why this focus on tasting quality? What I want from a guide is to tell me what I cannot see, smell or taste unless I buy the bottle. There are some features of the wine that are readily available, mainly its price, appearance, overall data about the terroir. Others, like the grape varieties used, are normally not difficult to find. It is good to have this info next to the rating of a wine, but this should not influence the ratings. To include in the ratings other items like bottle type or label design is contentious, as a given label design may be loved by some and loathed by others.

It follows easily that well explained rating criteria must be available. What are the factors that have greater weight? Color? Aroma? Taste? Complexity of aromas? Intensity of aromas? Bottle color?

The third point is more difficult to explain. Most professional wine tasters, due to place of birth, personal and professional experience, and personal taste, will probably have, maybe unconsciously, a mental model of what the perfect wine should be like. For instance, there are many mentions of “parkerised wines”. It is indeed difficult, but some kind of open, honest self analysis may yield a description of the mental model used and so enable readers to decide whether it fits with their own.

This can explain some ratings that otherwise may look surprising. An example was when, some years ago, a tasting in Paris of two groups of similarly priced Rioja and Penedès reds showed a clear advantage for the Penedès wines, opposed to ratings in Spanish guides. The general explanation was that, as most Penedès reds include French grape varieties, they were closer to the gold standard of French critics involved in the tastings, while Spanish guides have the Rioja gold standard.

All this is relevant because some weeks ago the third edition of the Guide to Catalonia Wines (Guia de Vins de Catalunya) reached the bookshops.

The GCW is based on blind tasting panels and gives a lot of info for every wine rated: winery, grape varieties, method of grape harvest and winemaking details, price range, main commercial channel (supermarkets, wine shops, restaurants; there is in Catalonia limited overlap between the offerings of supermarkets and wine shops), a small picture of the bottle, suggested food pairings, and highlights of the tasting notes.

More than 2200 wines have been evaluated; in spite of the absence of a handful of significant wineries, the GCW gives a good overview of the diversity of the Catalan wine range. Wines are arranged by DO, and further organized by type (young white, oaked white, young red, oaked red, young sparkling,…), ordered by descending rating. Most of the information is with icons, so the language barrier is not an issue.

One of the most interesting parts is a general comment on Catalan wine under the name L’ull de l’ocell, the bird’s eye; the guide authors, Silvia Naranjo and Jordi Alcover, discuss the main risks and opportunities in a very open and constructive way; alas, it is in Catalan (or Spanish), as the rest of the guide.

What about the ratings? Although some complain that in several cases the lesser wines of some wineries get more points than their older and supposedly better siblings, I tend to consider that as part of the error inherent to the blind tasting processes and the comparatively short track record of the tasting panels as a team, although I would advise the user to be aware of this fact.

My main concern about this guide is that the rating rules are not published anywhere I can see, and sometimes it appears as if price and grapes used influence the ratings. As explained above, I need to know the rules and the standard against which wines are rated to get full benefits from a wine guide.

All in all, the GCW gives a fair and quite comprehensive view of Catalan wines, and can be an excellent introduction tool. Let us see, in some months’ time, how the ratings compare with those of the Wine Advocate.


  1. M'agrada que es valori en positiu l'esforç de la Guia de Vins de Catalunya, que com tot projecte pot millorar, però cal agrair el servei que fa i farà. salut!.

  2. In Facebook you can read some lengthy discussions I've had with Jordi and Silvia.