tasting wines at Vintages in Ontario during 2017
If you are a frequent reader of WineDiscovery, you will know that a large part of my focus in the past two years has been improving and fine-tuning our coverage of the frequent wine releases from the Vintages section of the LCBO in Ontario, and this is a report on those activities over the past year.
To give some background, the Vintages offerings are spread over 25 bi-weekly releases throughout the year. I am fortunate to be part of a small group of wine writers who have the privilege of tasting these wines prior to their release, in a calm, neutral tasting “lab” setting. In 2017, l was able to cover all of the releases, although I could only taste a very small portion of two releases late in April and early in May, due to travel commitments.
While there is an improving core of wines on the LCBO “general list”, the part of each store that has a stable inventory of larger-volume wines and spirits, the Vintages arm of the LCBO offers an ever-changing list of lower-volume products. Purchases are often in the range of 100 to 600 cases, although that can vary. These products are not distributed evenly across all 660 Vintages/LCBO stores in the province: some have very small and limited Vintages sections, with just a few shelves of wines, while others are much larger, with more comprehensive and varied selections. For example, if you use our Find recommendations at Ontario stores tool, you will observe that some stores in larger cities have more than 100 of our recommended selections at any one time, while others might have just one or two.
The table on the right summarizes the 2017 product releases by major category. It should be noted that of the 3,163 products released, a small number of these are repeat offerings of the same item during the year. It is also worth noting that this number does not include an additional category of approximately 100 or more larger volume “Vintages Essentials”, products that are expected to be stocked continuously throughout the year, with very wide distribution across stores. While there are small numbers of spirits and related products, almost 60% of the offerings were red table wine, with 25.3% white wine, 5.8% sparkling and 3.5% rosé, for a total of 2,990 items or 94.5% of the Vintages purchase. Those are the wines I focus on, although I also try to sample the fortified and dessert wines when I can.
The second table on the left breaks down the purchases by country, across all categories. The Vintages Products column lists the number of product items from each country, with the percentage of the total in parentheses. The Items Scored column indicates the number of products that I was able to taste, with enough time to at least make rough tasting notes and generate a score. The Reviews Published column indicates the number of products that I have turned into finished reviews for publication on WineDiscovery.
To begin with the first column, notice the predominance of products from France, with Italy and the United States almost tied for second place, and then Canada following in fourth place. These four countries alone compose almost 65% of products listed.
I was able to make notes on and score 1,459 wines or 46.1% of the items offered. I published reviews for 613 of these, or 19.4% of Vintages products. The table on the right shows that my average score was 88.3 with a median value of 88, while my average score of wines whose reviews I published was 89.3 with a median score of 89.
The chart on the left compares the distribution of my scores in general, with the scores of my published reviews. I seldom publish reviews with scores of less than 88, unless the wines are of an exceptional value, so the red bars that represent my published reviews start at 88, while the total distribution of wines tasted actually starts at 79 (my default low), with the wines scored from 79 to 84 grouped under the category “< 85”.
There are many reasons why I don’t publish reviews of all the wines that I taste and score. Starting from the widest perspective, when I began systematically reviewing Vintages wines in 2015, I immediately realized that it would be impossible to provide information and reviews for all wines that were released — the volume was just too large. A service that tries to provide a comprehensive lookup and evaluation function for all Ontario wines, would have an obligation to rate them all, and hence would publish many negative and less positive reviews. But here at WineDiscovery, I chose the more limited (and frankly more satisfying) mission of helping consumers find and buy good and interesting wines — those that we recommend.
But even limiting our reviews to the positive leaves far too many choices. While I normally only post recommendations for wines that I’ve scored at 88 or higher, with a few exceptions as mentioned earlier, you can also see from the last chart that I have only published about one-third of my 88 point wines and a little over two-thirds of my 89 point wines. This is still a function of the limits of time and energy that it takes to turn tasting notes into readable reviews that are not pure cookie-cutter content. So I choose a subset of wines that I think will appeal to readers, focusing on what I find to be the most interesting, diverse, and stylish wines. And while I try to judge wine quality without reference to price, I generally avoid publishing reviews of wines where I think that the price isn’t justified, or is definitely outside the range that I believe my readers will find acceptable.
One final point about the general distribution of my scores: a median score of 88 might seem high, given the oceans of bad, or at least commercial and uninteresting, wine that is made around the world. But think of it this way. The LCBO generally purchases its wines from a much broader selection of potential products brought forward by more than 100 wine agents who work in Ontario. Thus the wine agents are the first funnel of quality, scouring the world for good wines to bring to Ontario, and winnowing out a large portion of the poorer wines. Of course, they miss many good wines and impose their own biases and perspectives, but in the process they remove a huge portion of the less good. Then the LCBO buyers select a small percentage of the offerings from agents. Again they bring their biases to bear, perhaps make some mistakes, and so on — but in the end, the average quality is high. So I believe that my median score of 88 reflects the results of the process, and is a realistic evaluation of the average quality, but of course does not speak to any issues about the breadth, diversity and interest of the selections.