What’s all the fuss about listening to “wine experts” telling us how good or bad a wine is? Do they really know more than the average wine drinker, and should we let them influence us in choosing wines to buy? Can wine competitions and tastings tell us anything about specific labels and varieties? How should we really pick and choose?
Wine Rating Scales
First lets explore how the “experts” rate wine.
Wine “Experts” conduct tastings 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. Therefore, neither price nor the reputation of the winery influences the rating in any way. As many of the wines rated have been tasted several times, the scores represent a cumulative average of the wine’s performance in tastings to date. Overall, the score assigned to a specific wine reflects the quality of the wine at its best.
Most scoring systems use a 50-100 point range. The scoring is based on general color and appearance, aroma and bouquet, flavor and finish, and the potential for further evolution and aging. Scores do not reveal the important facts about a wine. A written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality to its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.
Here is a general guide to interpreting typical numerical ratings:
90-100 is equivalent to an A and is given only for an outstanding or special effort. Wines in this category are the very best produced of their type. There is a big difference between a 90 and 99, but both are top marks. There are few wines that actually make it into this top category because there are not many great wines.
80-89 is equivalent to a B and such a wine, particularly in the 85-89 range, is very, very good; many of the wines that fall into this range often are great values as well.
70-79 represents a C, or average mark, but obviously 79 is a much more desirable score than 70. Wines that receive scores between 75 and 79 are generally pleasant, straightforward wines that lack complexity, character, or depth. If inexpensive, they may be ideal for everyday enjoyment.
Below 70 is an F. For wine, it is a sign of an imbalanced, flawed, or terribly dull or diluted product that will be of little interest to almost everyone.
Wine Magazines use either of these methods:
1) Ratings are based on tastings by the magazine’s editors and other qualified tasting panelists, either individually or in a group setting. Tastings are conducted blind or in accordance with accepted industry practices. Price is not a factor in assigning scores to wines. Only wines scoring 80 points or higher are rated, but wines considered flawed or uncustomary are sometimes re-tasted to confirm the intitial impressions.
2) Each wine region is the sole jurisdiction of one Editor who has, after much time and research, developed an expertise in that region’s offerings. During a tasting, other editors are on hand and can offer opinions, but the final say is had by that main Editor. All tastings are conducted “blind.” and tasters are told only the general type of wine (varietal or region) and the vintage. If a wine tastes corky or flawed in a major way, or if it scores below 70, a new bottle of the same wine is tasted again. By the same token, wines that score very highly are re-tasted to confirm such favorable first impressions. European wines are tasted in the districts that yield them, where fresher, perfectly stored examples will be readily available. Ratings are based on how good a wine will be when it reaches its peak, regardless of how soon that will be. If barrel samples are being rated rather than finished wines, that is revealed, since a world of difference can exist between these two stages of a wine’s life.
Wine Magazines typically use a 100-Point Scale:
95-100 — Classic; a great wine.
90-94 — Outstanding; superior character and style.
80-89 — Good to very good; wine with special qualities.
70-79 — Average; drinkable wine that may have minor flaws.
60-69 — Below average; drinkable but not recommended.
50-59 — Poor; undrinkable, not recommended.
Wine tasting events and competitions and held all over the world and throughout the year. Try searching the Internet for “events” and you’ll be overwhelmed with the number and variety of tasting events just about everywhere. Many are sponsored by individual wineries so products may be selected and limited. Large wine shows, like VinItaly, also have extensive competitions, but again might be slanted to certain regions and varietals.
Most tasting events and competitions follow the general scoring systems, and use the same level of “expert” as presented above. However, some localized events rely on scores from ordinary wine lovers like us. These are the type of tastings we really seek out.
There can never be any substitute for your own palate or tasting a wine yourself.
Who Cares if a wine is rated highly or if an expert likes it. It’s what you like that’s important. A good wine is one that you like, whether it’s a white zinfandel, a cheap Chianti, a bargain Chardonnay, a box wine, or an expensive Bordeaux.
When using any rating system, whether its from an “expert” or a magazine, keep in mind the following concepts. Then maybe you can make an educated choice in choosing and enjoying wine.
> Palates vary, not only from person to person, but from country to country. For example, fruit and vegetables grown in the USA taste vastly different than those grown in Europe. If you are used to European flavors your palate senses different things. Therefore, you will probably notice a big difference between French grapes, Italian grapes, and California grapes. Culture and local customs matter.
> Can you really train or re-train a palate? Are Sommeliers better at tasting subtle hints of berries, fruit, and spices? Is that ability in-born and can it be taught? Is it important to you to be able to pick out such nuances, and is overall flavor all that counts?
> Can you really taste Cassis, oak, etc.? Most people can barely distinguish sweet, sour, spicy, tart, and bitter. How you taste a wine, and where you put it in your mouth, affects what you actually taste. Plus, the smell or aroma (bouquet) color your sense of taste as well.
> Price & value do matter to the average consumer. Assuming “good” wines range from 80-89 points as rated by “experts”, there might be a large price difference for similar tasting wines. Who’s to say a $20 bottle rated at 80 points is worse than one costing $50 and rated 89? If the taste is acceptable for either wine, the huge price difference makes the $20 bottle a real value.
> There are many factors making up a wine’s flavor. Not only the grape variety, but the soil conditions, climate, harvest techniques, and wine making process all affect the final product. The same vine planted in California and southern France will yield a very different wine, as will one planted in different locations within a region. Keeping in mind we all have unique palates, you might consider only Italian, French, or US wines the best. Its the overall flavor in your mouth that counts.
> The Bottom line is: use ratings & competitions as guidelines, but make sure you read available tasting notes, and always have your own rules.