A wine’s character and personality changes regularly throughout its life. Taste is subjective, so is giving a wine a score out of 100 - so can this be consistent or even possible. Wine ranking became known to the wine industry back in 1855 with the Bordeaux Wine Classification - though at the time this was influenced by price over a long period of time.
This article is not looking at price - that is completely a whole other topic of discussion. We are briefly talking about giving a wine a score on quality of winemaking and varietal typicity. The 100-point wine-scoring scale was popularized in the 80's by Robert Parker Jr. in his Wine Advocate newsletter and then Wine Spectator magazine. The effect of a high score from either publication is hard to understate, and can make or break a wine brand.
The 100-point wine scoring system has become a standard of quality in the wine industry. Typically most wines evaluated (as winemakers only show wines they feel are of good quality) fall within a narrow band between 85 and 100 points. The system is based on the American high-school marking system, so the scale starts at 50 (rather than 0), which has led to further criticism. Despite this the 100-point scale is used by more and more critics - amateur and professional each year. And as for tasting the same wine at different stages in its life, this is even less likely to yield identical scores. Quite apart from bottle variation there are differences in tasters' moods and vast differences in how wines mature in bottle.
Though it must be made clear that wine scores don’t necessarily indicate how delicious and enjoyable a wine is. Instead, wines are scored theoretically based on production quality and varietal typicity. Typicity is how much the traits of a particular wine typifies its true varietal self and the region it is from.
One of the issues with giving a wine a score is that critics have different opinions, depending upon experience, knowledge and understanding of wine, varietal, region and winemaking techniques. While experienced critics can more easily agree on production quality of a wine, they start to disagree with each other when wines get into the 90+ score range. It has been said over the past 2 decades that basically there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to grading wines in the 90+ range. There are critics who prefer wines which are complex and bold - and those who prefer wines which have character and elegance.
Another issue to be aware of when reading equally scored wines - which come from different regions within for from other countries - they will taste very different. Example: if you enjoy the style of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and then look to buy an equally scored Pouilly-Fumé - a Sauvignon Blanc from France - the score does not guarantee you will like it. This is because each region tastes, interpretation and expressions are remarkably different.
So how best to use these score scales - I would suggest to only use them for the wines styles and regions you know and have tasted before. Then you have a personal point of reference to compare against. For new wine and regions I suggest you get more information before buying. As you will have heard before - drink what you like - but it is extremely important to learn and understand why you like a particular wine or style. You will need to start if you haven’t already to learn more about the region from which the wine comes from, then learn about the winemakers style of winemaking and then you can be confident to go beyond the scores - and make more informed buying decisions that you will enjoy.
Also be aware that there are more unrated wines than there are scored, it is simply impossible to review and print all the wines from every region and from each vintage. So don’t worry too much if a wine you are looking at is not rated. If you are trying to decide between two equal looking wines and one is rated and the other is not, this does not mean the rated wine is better or you will like it more.
I encourage you to use a number of alternative resources for opinions to help make your wine buying decisions more enjoyable. As you will have noticed - I have never used a scoring system when reviewing wine. How can you give a wine an exact score, points out of 100 - as for most of the time you are reviewing new, youthful wines and for many they still need time to show themselves at their best, harmonious and balanced.
So I prefer to give you more background on the winemaker, the region, growing conditions, vineyards, the style of winemaking used to best interpret and express the varietal and terroir. Then give you its individual personality, flavour profile at the time I am drinking the wine so you can see if it is a style you might like, plus I try to give a wide selection of cuisine that will complement the wine - so that they bring out the best in each other.
I am sure that you have noticed that each magazine or wine critic’s website rating - scoring scales are all slightly different. If you actually look at the major wine rating sites, you will see that the numbers are not all standard. Each reviewer weighs their points scale slightly differently - an example of this is:
• Wine & Spirits Magazine: 86 to 89 pts - Highly Recommended.
• Wine Enthusiast: 85 to 89 pts - Very Good. May offer outstanding value if the price is right.
• Wine Advocate: 80 to 89 - Barely above average to v-good, with various degrees of flavour.
• International Wine Cellar: 85 to 89 pts - Very Good to Excellent.
‘Highly Recommended’ sounds more interesting than ‘Very Good, …if the price is right'. Who would have thought that an 89 point wine scored by W&S to have more perceived value than an 89 point wine scored by W.E. Whereas IWC would describe the same wine nearly excellent - (and here is another level of confusion for the wine reader, what is better than excellent…?) Wine magazines resort to having to use words like: Outstanding - Extraordinary - Classic - Superlative - Superior - Humdinger and Truly Exceptional.
There never will be a standard rating system - where you have a human palate with different experience, knowledge and confidence with wine, when tasting the same wine. Especially in a large line-up of wines - we will always get a different score and interpretation.
But if you are new to wine and you have no knowledge of the wine in front of you on a retail wine shelf or a wine-list - I encourage you to ask the staff questions about the wine. If there are no knowledgeable staff - you end up limiting your wine purchases to wines you know and you simply miss out on so much that the world of wine has to offer.
So ask more questions and try to buy wine from retail stores and wine-lists where the staff can grow your wine appreciation and enjoyment. Buying wine only by a number - might sound like an easy way to cut through the noise. But in the end it is lazy and you risk not enjoying the wine with the occasion and cuisine you have chosen to pair it with. Find a wine writer that gives you more of a complete picture, so that you can make a more informed decision and improve your own future decisions and enjoyment of wine.
The numerical wine rating system has been criticized for more than a decade. As it has been said to be a driving force in the globalization of wine and the toning down of the influence of terroir and individuality in winemaking. It is recognised that the economic and marketing power of receiving high scores by influential critics has steered global winemaking towards producing a homogeneous style that is perceived as appealing to the critics in question.
This also brings an inherent flaw in sampling a wide variety and number of wines at once in a short space of time. When compared together, wines (particularly red) which have a deep colour, full bodied, rich, concentrated flavours and smooth mouth-feel tend to stand out from the rest, more than wines with more subtle characteristics. These wines tend to receive more favourable scores which has led to an increase in the number of these styles of wines.
There is no simple answer - wine scores can be useful when paired with your ability to be curious and seek more knowledge and believe in your own tasted buds and what you like as you grow in your wine experience. Unlike an imperial unit of weight or a degree in centigrade; giving a score to a wine is not as categorical.
I'm not a supporter of the conjunction of numbers with wine. Once numbers are involved, it is all too easy to reduce wine to a financial commodity rather than retaining its importance in culture as a uniquely stimulating source of sensory pleasure and hospitality - which is best when sipped, savoured and shared with good food and friends.