The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Comparing Apples and Oranges

Posted on | May 27, 2010 | Written by Francesco Vigorito | No Comments

When we use the simile that comparing two things is like comparing apples and oranges, we’re saying that there’s too much similarity between two entities to make a fair comparison. It comes down not to the individual merits of a nice Fuji apple and a lovely blood orange; it comes down to taste. And thus it often seems to be the case when we talk about wine. Yet unlike apples or oranges, people often ascribe a numerical value to wine. And, more importantly, many of us base our wine buying decisions on that number.

Red Bordeaux and Muscadet from the Loire are like apples and oranges.  Only when we look at these fruits from an objective standpoint can we then determine which one is “better.”  In an ideal world, we could use a known set of standards to analyze each type of wine, and then we could make an overall assessment of quality.  Of course, we then get the thorny issue of what makes a wine “quality,” but this kind of assessment is exactly the activity of wine critics who ascribe numbers to indicate the success of a wine.

For example, we constantly see first growth Bordeauxs getting scores of 100, but why don’t we ever see a Muscadet receiving a score of 100?   Scoring systems aim to be as objective as possible, but invariably they are not.  The first growths of Bordeaux are an expression of the finest wines the region has to offer, so in that respect they should receive a high score. However, why can’t the best Muscadet or Cabernet Franc achieve a score of 100 if it too is the best its class? Scoring should be expressed in terms of “varietal” or “regional” expression, if you will—especially if scoring is really objective and not merely an empirical fantasy.

Let’s return to the comparison of apples and oranges. You have a perfectly round, sumptuous Navel orange and next to it a gleaming, mouth-watering Delicious apple. Which one is better? It’s a hard question to answer, but now consider this situation. The apple contains unripe spots and is bruised in some places. When you bite into it, you discover that it’s soft and pulpy and lacks crispness. The orange, however, is uniformly sweet, plump and flavorful with a perfect tinge of acid. Now which is better? Clearly the orange is better because it lacks qualitative faults. If the situation was reversed and the orange was dull, dry and shriveled, and the apple was perfectly sweet and crisp, then the apple would be better. Both fruits have certain characteristics that ascertain their quality: their color and physical presence, the texture and feeling in your mouth, and their acid/sugar balance.

Wine is no different. It’s possible to rate wine from an objective standpoint, but only when you compare the qualitative factors, not the elements that make the wines different. Of course, you may choose the blemished and pulpy apple over the world’s greatest orange, but you should realize objectively that the orange is of better quality.  This is the reason why a less-than-perfect Bordeaux can receive a better score than a top-notch Musacdet.  Clearly, sometimes the blemished apple is being chosen. And other times, the perfect orange doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s not a fair world of apples and oranges, or Bordeaux and Muscadet. But it should be.

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