What does it mean to drink a 90-point wine? Can you really taste the difference between that and a wine that scores 95 points? Who comes up with these numbers? And more importantly, why should you really care?
You’ve heard this from me before. If you like the wine, then it’s a good wine. So if it happens to score 95 points, does that make it any more palatable? The answer is definitely maybe. It really has to do with what you like. I have tasted a couple of high scoring wines and I didn’t necessarily care for them. The number can be irrelevant. But it also can be a valuable tool.
Let’s get real about this. If you happen to be in your wine shop and you see a sign that has a wine scored at 91 points you hadn’t had before, chances are you will give it a second look… and possibly might even purchase it because it was highly ranked. But what are you really buying here? What makes that wine score to be 91 points?
There are several highly respected publications that use the 100-point scale. But where did this grading system come from? Well, we do know that world-renowned wine critic Robert Parker made it popular with his friend Victor Morgenroth. They designed the system to combat what he believed to be inflated ratings by other wine critics – some of whom he suspected of having a conflict of interest in that they had a financial interest in the wines they were rating.
THE WINE ADVOCATE – Robert Parker is the man behind this publication and the wine ratings. Factors for scoring include tasting from an entire bottle of wine with properly sized and cleaned professional tasting glasses. Also the temperature of the wine must be correct.
• 96-100 / Extraordinary: a classic wine of its variety
• 90-95 / Outstanding: exceptional complexity and character
• 80-89 / Barely above average to very good: wine with various degrees of flavor
• 70-79 / Average: little distinction beyond being soundly made
• 60-69 / Below average: drinkable, but containing noticeable deficiencies
• 50-59 / Poor: unacceptable, not recommended
Tastings are conducted in peer group, single-blind conditions, which means the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the wineries’ names are not revealed. Neither price nor the reputation of the winery influences the rating in any way. If tasted several times, the scores represent a cumulative average. Overall, the score assigned to a specific wine reflects the quality of the wine at its best.
Robert Parker created a newsletter that elevated him to become the world’s most influential wine critic. On Dec. 10th 2012, Mr. Parker stepped down as editor in chief of the Wine Advocate.
• 95-100 / Classic: a great wine
• 90-94 / Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
• 85-89 / Very good: a wine with special qualities
• 80-84 / Good: a solid, well-made wine
• 75-79 / Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
• 50-74 / Not recommended
Finished wines, reviewed from bottle in blind tastings, are given a single score. A score given as a range (e.g., 90-94) indicates a preliminary score, usually based on a barrel tasting of an unfinished wine. As of March 2008, the system was changed to rolling four-point spreads for unfinished wines. One wine may be scored 85-88, another 87-90, and another 89-92. This tends to reflect the subtle differences between wines, and give readers better information for their buying decisions. Most barrel tastings are blind; when they are not blind, this is specifically noted. Wine ratings are based on how good a wine will be when it reaches its peak, regardless of how soon that will be.
• 95-100 / Superb: one of the greats
• 90-94 / Excellent: extremely well made and highly recommended
• 85-89 / Very good: may offer outstanding value if the price is right
• 80-84 / Good: solid wine, suitable for everyday consumption
Tastings are conducted blind or in accordance with accepted industry practices. The magazine’s editors and other qualified tasters base scores on tastings, either in a group setting or individually. Price is not a factor in assigning scores to wines. Only wines scoring 80 points or higher are published. When possible, wines considered flawed or uncustomary are re-tasted.
• 95 to 100 / Superlative, rare finds
• 90 to 94 / Exceptional examples of their type
• 86 to 89 / Highly recommended
• 80 to 85 / Good examples of their variety or region
All wine evaluations for tastings section are conducted under controlled, blind conditions. Tastings are done in two steps. All wines are tasted by screening panels composed of retailers, sommeliers, winemakers and other invited wine professionals. The wines recommended by the screening panels are then presented at a later date to the magazine’s critic, who scores each wine and writes the reviews. The critic’s ratings are based on how well a wine performs within its category as labeled by varietal or region.
• Color / Up to 15 points
• Aromas / Up to 25 points
• Body Structure / Up to 25 points
• Overall impression / Up to 35 points
Other resources that score wines using the 100-point scale include Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, James Halliday’s Wine Companion, Pinot Report and Connoisseurs Guide.
By the way, if you shop at BevMo, you may be notice that Wilfred Wong is the “wine expert” who rates the wines at that store. He is actually an employee of BevMo whose job it is to help sell the wine. So be mindful of some of those ratings. It has been stated that there seems to be a number of wines rated higher than the comparative experts from Wine Spectator and the other publications.
If you really want to get into this system of wine ratings, find wines that have been rated from the various resources and compare your own palate to how they score. As you do this more, you will see just where your taste buds align themselves. But scores really don’t tell you much about the wine other than how it was perceived by a professional. Written commentary that comes with ratings will help inform you as to the wine’s attributes, personality, aging potential and value.
Of course, you can just open the bottle and enjoy everything about the wine and forget the scoring. These systems were created to help inform consumers on what they might be buying before pulling out the cork. But in the end, it’s some wine expert’s opinion on what’s inside the bottle. Ultimately, no one else’s opinion matters except yours.
To quote Robert Parker – “There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.” (enjoy more famous excerpts by visiting our wine quotes page.)