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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What role do grape varietals play in Wine Spectator's reviews? Is there a view that some varietals (such as Sauvignon Blanc), even in their very best examples, can never achieve 100 points because it can never be as complex as Cabernet Sauvignon? Is a 90-point Viognier supposed to be theoretically as good as a 90-point Bordeaux, even when the rating ceiling for a Viognier appears to be 93 points and dozens of Bordeaux wines achieve 90+ points every year?
This question seems to be popping up a lot lately, so I checked in with executive editor Thomas Matthews for a response:
"Wine Spectator's 100-point scale attempts to be universal—that is, all wines are judged against each other, on the same criteria. So theoretically, any wine could score 100 points, if it meets the criteria for a 'perfect' wine. (And two 90-point wines should be equivalent in quality no matter what their origin.)
"It's not easy to define 'perfection' in wine, nor are 100-point scores frequent at Wine Spectator; fewer than 50 wines, out of more than 170,000 reviewed, have earned 100-point scores in blind tastings on release. (For more information, see "Portraits of Perfection," by James Suckling, in the April 30, 2005, issue.)
"In summary, though, a 100-point wine would be concentrated and complex in flavor, yet perfectly balanced, with the structure to improve over a long aging period. It would show the distinctive character of its grape(s) and its vineyard, while reflecting the specific conditions of its vintage. It would both embody the typicity of its category, and reveal a unique personality of its own. And it would deliver something extra: an excitement, a surprise, a 'message in the bottle' that convinced the taster that this wine was truly something special, something so good that it can only be described as 'perfect.'
"None of us get to taste such wines very often. Long history and wide consensus lead us to conclude that certain grapes, from certain regions, are more likely to achieve this quality than others. But the most optimistic among us believe that any grape or region may one day create a 'perfect' wine."
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