How do wine critics review wines that aren’t ready to drink?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

How do wine critics review wines that aren’t ready to drink? For instance, a traditional Barolo is very closed on release or from barrel. Doesn’t that make rewarding it a score speculative? Is this practiced extrapolation?

—Charlie, Reading, Mass.

Dear Charlie,

"Practiced extrapolation" is an excellent way to conceive of our editors' approach to tasting young wines, especially barrel samples. Almost any wine drinker will sense that a Barolo from barrel does not reveal its full character. But an experienced critic, who has tasted many Barolos from barrel and then the same wines again from bottle at different stages in its development, can begin to understand the arc of its evolution. So if the components are awkward or unbalanced when the wine is young, the critic can extrapolate that even with age the wine will not achieve the harmony and grace of a great Barolo. Or if the wine is delicious right out of the barrel, extrapolation can warn that it might not have the structure to age and develop over the long term.

Because most wines are made to be enjoyable in their youth, critics are not called upon to exercise extrapolation all that often. But when tasting a young wine of a type that has traditionally been intended to reach its peak after some time in the bottle, extrapolation is necessary, and practice helps improve its accuracy. Still, practiced extrapolation is art as well as science; that's why our scores for barrel samples are expressed as ranges. And of course, wine drinkers enjoy wines at different stages of their development—some prefer youthful fruit, others the harmony of age. So every serious wine drinker has to learn to extrapolate based on their own practice, and their own preferences.

—Dr. Vinny

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