The kind of wine that should get 100 points from the critics, but doesn't

The following is reprinted from my blog, so please forgive that it’s not in board-post style (and the embedded links don’t work on this board), but I just wanted to share a truly outstanding wine experience I had recently:

Many people have observed that today’s major wine critics seem to award their highest scores to wines of a certain profile. If a wine gets, say, 95 points or more on a 100-point scale, it seems like certain words tend to pop up in the tasting note: “massive”, “concentrated”, “powerful”, “hedonistic”, and “opulent” leap to mind, usually embellished with exclamations about “gobs and gobs of fruit” or “a finish that goes on and on for over 60 seconds!”

I like big wines as much as the next guy, but the wines that really scramble my brain are the ones that don’t have to knock you backwards with power to impress you - they’re the ones with a sense of dynamics, subtlety, complexity - wines with more than one gear. The ones where you judge it with your palate and not a stopwatch - based on the quality and beauty of the flavors, not on how many seconds that the overextracted fruit flavors register for in your mouth. Let’s take wine appreciation away from the realm of competitive sport, shall we?

I recently came across a wine that could be the poster child for my argument. I hesitated to write about this wine, because I recently did an episode on this blog about a wine from the same producer. But some wines just demand attention, and at a recent Polaner tasting in New York, this wine stood head and shoulders above not only the many fine wines poured that day, but also above almost every other wine I’ve ever tasted.

The wine I’m talking about: the 1991 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva, a classic rioja rendered as flawlessly as I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. Right out of the gate, the nose has so much going on - an airy openness, an oxidative note, a hint of a savory element, spice, leather, tobacco - all anchored by a pleasing sweetness to the fruit that is not powerful, but incredibly impactful. The nose is just thrilling and sets up so much anticipation for tasting the wine, which is just what the nose of a wine should do in my book.

The palate, thankfully, lives up to the pleasure given off by the bouquet of the wine. The drinker is treated to the very picture of balance and harmony - beautiful acidity, pleasing sweet fruit, exotic spice for complexity, notions of dried herbs and flowers. All of these elements meld seamlessly like a well-conducted orchestra - this is just a thrilling, thrilling wine, performing at its peak. The wine doesn’t knock you over with its power, but instead insinuates itself throughout your mouth, charming you with its beauty, then continues to tell its evolving story right through to the finish. I haven’t found many critics’ ratings for this actual wine (the Tondonia gran reserva is only released periodically, in exceptional years), but reaching for the same era, Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate gave the 1987 Tondonia Gran Reserva 90 points (all other vintages listed on the WA site ranged from 90 to 92 points), describing it as “light, feeble-looking” in color, “medium-bodied and gentle” and “an acquired taste.” Of course Mr. Parker is one of the preeminent wine critics out there, but in my opinion this completely misses the point about Lopez de Heredia’s style - the light touch, the gentleness, the uniqueness of the flavors expressing the wine’s one-of-a-kind terroir through subtle beauty and harmony are exactly the kinds of elements that should define a truly exceptional wine - unless the critic believes that only intensity and power are the traits deserving of a stratospheric score? Kind of makes you wonder. To be fair to the critics though, Eric Asimov (who I took to task for his take on some blaufrankisches in this post from Feb 9) has written indispensable pieces about the virtues of Lopez de Heredia wines here and here, for which I will give him credit.

The Wine Advocate’s lukewarm reception of Tondonia Gran Reservas aside (90-92 points are good scores, but they also hand out 90-92 points to completely nondistinctive oak bombs from Spain with regularity), trust me on this one - the 1991 Tondonia GR is one of the most truly memorable wines I have ever had, out of a few thousand that I’ve had the pleasure to taste. If the critics won’t give this a super-high score, then I will. 96-100 points for this wine (I don’t believe in giving a straight 100 points, because it implies that the score is a precise and immutable characteristic of the wine- which it is not. In my experience, once you get above a certain level, whether a wine feels like it deserves 94 points or 97 or 100 is purely a personal thing.) Fans of Lopez de Heredia will recognize all of the elements here, but as much of a fan as I’ve been over the years, this rendition of the house style surpasses all others I’ve had, which includes the 1976 Bosconia Gran Reserva, and various bottlings from the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. At $80+, it’s an expensive wine for sure, but whether you’re a Lopez de Heredia fan, or someone who wants to know what their wines are all about, this one is not to be missed.

Elmundovino is pretty high on the stuff. My first bottle was quite good but I thought the aged oak influence was competing with the delicate aged fruit. I’m no fan of monster Spaniards and don’t typically score wines, but it seemed well shy of 100 points. Luckily, there’re a couple more in the cellar.


OK, Alan, I am sold. Just got a bottle from K&L to try.

Fair enough Richard- perhaps it hasn’t reached the right balance point for you yet, or perhaps we just disagree on this wine somewhat. But to my larger point, doing you think wines of delicacy, as you put it, get their proper due from the mainstream critics, especially vis a vis wines of intensity?

By the way, envious that you have several bottles. I’m on a buying freeze, but would gladly trade one of my ‘hedonistic’ wines for the Tondonia. 05 Lascombes anyone? :slight_smile:

Great, please share your thoughts when you have it- if you find it anywhere close to as moving as I did, I think you will be happy. (Or I’ll put on my flak jacket!) :slight_smile:


The explanatioon you are seeking is easily found by simply noting who the WA critic in charge of Spain is. LdH bottles will never make that individual salivate the way his super-duper Grenache behemoths do. The nuances are just too subtle for a palate as awesome as “his”. Don’t fret for “traditional” Riojas, they have their supporters.

I kinda see what you are getting at. A few years ago I opened one of the basic Bosconia reservas and I remember thinking it was not only seriously good wine but one of the most comforting wines I’d had in many a moon. And it’s true that they are under-appreciated and not the usual profile that gives Parker and his ilk a boner. (Although I think Parker actually has given high ratings to many Lopez wines, as have Tanzer and the Spectator, so the general rule might not hold up in this particular case.) Still, I get the sense you’re fixated a little too much on the whole points aspect. Who cares whether those guys give these wines a 93 or 94 instead of a 99 or 100? I get the general point that the fact that this wine doesn’t seem to move them the same way some piece of shit from Toro does says something sad about the critics, but I guess I just don’t get the point of framing it in points.

Anyway, if you loved this wine, you should really try the '85 Tondonia or '81 Bosconia… those are better still!

Thanks for the various responses, I will reply to them in a bit. First things first- Antonio Galloni has pointed out to me that I have attributed the passages I quoted from Wine Advocate to him in error. The note is actually Robert Parker’s; there are two entries for the 1987 GR on the eBob site, and Galloni’s is the other one. So my first order of business is to make corrections with my iPhone, but in the meanwhile please take note of the error, which is completely mine. Apologies to Antonio Galloni.

I’m a long time fan of Lopez de Heredia and I think these are definitely underappreciated wines. I have a ton of them, drink them regularly and love them all around. The 81 Tondonia is a definite winner, no doubt!

That said, two points:

  • I do not think these wines show much terroir. The oxidative winemaking and the long aging, to me, yield wines that show a house style more than terroir. Not saying it’s a bad thing, just saying it is what it is.

  • I think that great Nebbiolo and great Burgundy reaches, honestly, much greater heights than Lopez de Heredia. Perhaps they can be the pinnacle of Rioja (though I’ve had some amazing CVNE and Ygay wines) but, for my tastes, I’ll take RSV and Cascina Francia over Tondonia if you want to pick winners!

I get your drift, Josh, but I think that’s a little bit of an excessive fetishization of terroir. The important point is that traditional Rioja offers a totally unique profile that doesn’t resemble any other wine in the world. Who cares if the uniqueness comes from the dirt or from a cultural tradition? (In any event, the obvious difference in personality between Bosconia and Tondonia would suggest the terroir is a big factor, after all.)

Thanks for the insights, Keith, Josh and others. And for the recs on other LdHs to try! I’m not sure my heart can take it if they get better! I’m an avowed burg lover but this one LdH anyway reached those same heights for me.

Keith, re ‘why quibble over a few points’ can I point you to my followup post on ebob for now? Quickly running out of batteries.

…or it was just that particular bottle… I’m a fan of the style in general.

LOL. As a consumer, I kind of prefer it that way. [wink.gif]

Although the pendulum may be swinging back a bit (see the recent WFW article), I suspect the qualities of many subtle wines will be lost too legions of WA and WS influenced buyers.


Keith I have wondered before where the real Bosconia / Tondonia differences originate. Unfortunately I don’t know the exact winemaking details and if the clonal material and elevage are identical or how they might differ.

It does not bother me that these wines show house style more than terroir, I like a lot of other wines that are about winemaking and not about terroir, just being a bit pedantic.

Okay Keith, now that I’m back in front of a computer, my answer to ‘why quibble over a few points’ in a nutshell (which you may have read from my post on eBob):

Whether we like it or not, points shape consumer behavior hugely. I’m further reminded of this by seeing that my post today that raises the specter of a 100 point wine has gotten several times the traffic I normally get to my site, has elicited many more Twitter responses including one from Randall Grahm, a response here from Antonio Galloni (if even just to make a clarification). More than I even realized before today, points attract attention, and from what I’ve heard from readers, shape a surprising (to me) percentage of purchase decisions. So, it isn’t about my vanity of wanting to like a 100 point wine vs. a 90 or a 94 - its about the attention that the wines deserve, helping consumers realize that there are wines that are just as good as the 100 pointers that they’re not hearing about as much from the critics, etc.

This is a bit of a side point, but I think it’s relevant and interesting. In World of Fine Wine issue 27, Mike Steinberger says there is debate over whether the “modern” and “traditional” labels have been correctly designated in Rioja, and that LdH’s style is traditional only for them and a couple of other producers (whose wines are no longer quite like those of LdH – my words here, not his). He mentions the argument against these labels citing the Riojas of the early 20th century being more like those now branded as “modern” (I’m sure they would have been somewhere in between, but I doubt that they were like the wines of LdH). This point makes sense to me given that the real beginning of the Rioja we know was spurred by the Bordelais moving to the area to make wine where phylloxera had not yet destroyed the vineyards. Bordeaux of that time did not, to my knowledge, resemble the wines of LdH. I have been taught that the Bordelais took the techniques they used at home and applied them to the wines of Rioja, and that beforehand Rioja had not been producing wines considered world class.

Does anyone have any thoughts or other insight into those ideas? I am not claiming to be an expert on the subject, but I do think the opposition to the LdH mantra of “we’re the only traditionalists left” have some valid points. I will say also that I love the wines of LdH, so don’t think I’m trashing them here.

Alan, you have me confused. You think a wine should get 100 pts because it deserves attention? I’m sure that’s not what you mean, but that’s what it sounds like in your post. You also say

there are wines that are just as good as the 100 pointers that they’re not hearing about as much from the critics

, but if they were as good as the 100 pointers, wouldn’t they also get 100 pts? I can understand if you’re talking about 1 critic, but the wine in your example has been tasted by at least 4 critics that I can find, and I haven’t seen a score greater than 94. It’s also averaging 90.8 on CT, so I don’t think the average person (as opposed to a critic) considers it a 100 pointer, which I also thought might be what you meant. So, I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say it should be a 100 pointer?

You’re taking a literal view of scores where “I rate Wine X 100 points and Wine Z 90 points” means “I enjoyed Wine X more than I enjoyed Wine Z.” But in fact we live in a strange universe where someone might actually like Wine Z more than Wine X but give Wine X a higher point rating because it has more of those characteristics of other wines with high point ratings.

Pardon my pot stirring, but why are some of us so hung up on whether one or two critics (who unfortunately have overweening influence on the market) bless a wine with the mythical 100 rating? The whole concept of a “perfect wine” is completely absurd IMO (tho the idea of a bottle being perfect for a particular moment in time is reasonable, but that’s as much about the moment as the wine itself).

Personally I’m happy to have a winery to have enough fans to exist profitably, but not so much as to make grape juice into an absurdly-overpriced lifestyle accessory.


You can take “mythical” out of your sentence. I remember first getting into wine and seeing “100” once or twice a year (think the first time I saw it was for either the 95 Margaux or 94 Fonseca & Taylor…all three in WS). These days, a month doesn’t go by where a couple of Benjamins aren’t handed out.

Thanks Udo, for your questions. To clarify:

I didn’t score the wine the way I did because I felt it deserved more attention. Better two think of it as two separate events:

  1. I tasted a wonderful wine, that delivered everything that I want from a wine - great nose, delicious flavors, distinctiveness, complexity, grace and balance. Thus the high score, scored in real time at the tasting.

  2. I decide to write about the wine, and in preparing to do so, I find that the critics’ ratings are surprisingly low to me. In writing my post, I describe both my experience with the wine, and try to alert readers to the fact that I feel that it is underrated. I also pose the question as to whether it is underrated because of its understated style.

As to why isn’t it rated 100 points, I’d say, “that’s exactly what I’d like to know!” I am, in essence, saying that I believe that the major critics are undervaluing this wine in their ratings. I don’t claim to know why - perhaps they have fallen into a certain orthodoxy of what deserves 100 points, and perhaps it has to do with the style of the wine. Why doesn’t this rate at the highest level for them, as it certainly does for me? It delivered to me, on of the best wines experiences I’ve had among many, many highly rated wines. The critics preach balance and harmony, but it seems to me they reserve the highest scores for wines that also deliver intensity (which may or may not include balance, depending on who you ask) so I pose the question as to whether critics underrate wines that deliver all of the wonderful things I describe, in a less-than-powerful style. I’m not stating that I’ve done any rigorous empirical study- but I don’t happen to see many reviews that say “gobs and gobs of subtlety and nuance! 100 points!” (Query whether this is so because intensity (“a finish of over 60 seconds!”, as if the quality of that finish is captured by a single factor - time) is less debatable than a judgment of beauty)

I would also note that the CT ratings, to some extent, are affected by the hierarchy of wine scores that are set out by the critics. My post was written to alert people to a wine that I feel is undervalued by many, and hopefully spur us all to re-examine our definitions of what a wine rated at the very highest level should be. Can a wine that moves you with its beauty deserve a crazy high score even if it’s not the type of wine that ‘blows you away’?