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UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

UNDERSTANDING WINE SCORES

Robert Parker, for many years the world’s leading wine critic, explains on his website that “scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic’s overall qualitative placement of a wine.” He goes on to say that “no scoring system is perfect” and “there can never be any substitute for your own palate.”

And that just about sums it up. The bottom line is that wine buyers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choice and it is useful to get some guidance from a professional critic. A wine that scores 95-100 points is a classic, 90-94 points is outstanding, 85-89 is very good, and 80-84 points is just considered to be good. Beyond that, well, you don’t want to know.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the point scoring system is very controversial. Some major critics refuse to use it. They think it’s impossible to give a numeric score to something likened to art. Giving points to wine is like giving scores to Picasso’s great works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Another important reason for not using the 100 point system is because even professional tasters can be inconsistent in their ratings. Dr. Vino, a wine critic, attended a tasting of top flight Bordeaux with Parker himself where all of the wines were tasted blind. The result? Parker’s gave the highest score to a wine that he had scored the lowest in his most recent publication.

Dr. Vino’s published article does give weight to the argument that there is inconsistency even amongst the top critic’s. At the same tasting, Parker identified several Medoc wines as coming from the Right Bank.

The 100 point system also causes confusion amongst the more inquisitive consumers. It’s perplexing that a wine costing hundreds of dollars per bottle can be rated the same as one costing just $15 or $20 dollars. The major critics state that they taste wines within their peer groups. But where exactly does a peer group start and stop?

Take New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as an example. Would you class wines costing between $15-$20 as a peer group, or is it more like $15-$30 as a price range? The latter price range would be more advantageous to the more expensive wines, at least in theory.

Another argument against the 100 point system is that every wine seems to get at least 85 points. In fact, the ratings start at 50 points and if a wine is particularly poor then the review may not get published. Today, a score between 85 and 88 isn’t worth much to a winery or the trade. It’s the 90 pointers that make an impact.

But there’s also the related issue of how tough the scorer is relative to another critic. Some wine critics rarely give over 90 points to a wine, whereas others seem to be running out of points.

The “anti-point” contingent argues that the major critics, who make markets with their scores, have become so powerful that producers are making wines just to suit their palates. There is some truth to this claim. This can result in homogeneity of wine styles, where all red wines look very dark in color, have gobs of sweet fruit, and no shortage of power and concentration. This is a shame, because part of the richness of wine is the celebration of its diversity.

But the bottom line is that the 100 point system is the most consumer-friendly and it helps the wine industry too. If a winery scores highly then the cash register will start ringing. The major trade buyers are more inclined to list it because they know it will help sell wine. And sales representatives, Sommeliers, and retailers love it because it gives third party endorsement to what they are saying.

Keep in mind that it’s usually only the better quality wines that get scored. The wines that sell massive volumes at inexpensive prices are not usually rated, and this seems wrong, given that this is where the majority of consumers are looking for advice.

I believe that the major wine critics act in the best interest of the consumer, and are trying to simply give some guidance to the best of their ability. A score is easier to understand than a flowery tasting note. Numeric scores immediately give an indication of the relative quality of the wine. And essentially it’s that, an indication of quality, but it’s not a perfect system.

But finally, I would caution the consumer. Tasting wine and scoring wine is tricky business. The critics can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The actual tasting skills of some critics is debatable. And lastly, they may be tasting and scoring wines in very challenging conditions. At some of the major competitions a critic is often asked to score 100 wines before lunch. Absurd…