Scoring Wines

How can we possibly compare these two wines?

How can we possibly compare these two wines?

Wines are a hodgepodge of numbers: the alcohol content, the volume of the bottle, the barcode number, the vintage. The price. Geekier wine producers might put on additional technical information about the wine making on their labels, such as harvest dates, bottling dates, acidity levels, residual sugar content, elevation of the vineyard. But when you come to look at buying a bottle of wine, you might also come across another number associated with the wine. Often printed on a sticker beside the wine on a shop shelf or with the reviews on a website, this number is a ‘score’ typically out of 20 or 100. It is supposed to inform us, the wine buyers, not so much about whether we should buy this wine or not (as you never see low scores appended to wine advertising!) but how much we should want to buy this wine.

Where does this number come from? Who has come up with it and why have they done this?

The scorer is a wine critic with an (assumed) expertise in tasting – specifically in assessing a wine’s quality – and some skill in communicating that quality in words. Wine, with its many aromas, flavours and cultural baggage, is a complicated beverage and can seem intimidating to many people. It is the role of wine critics and journalists is to break down these walls of intimidation and to communicate the magic of wine to new audiences. Ostensibly, the wine scorer should deliver meaningful information to the consumer so that we can make educated choices about the wines we buy, and thus become just a little bit more knowledgeable ourselves.

Wine, with its many aromas, flavours and cultural baggage, is a complicated beverage and can seem intimidating to many people. It is the role of wine critics and journalists is to break down these walls of intimidation and to communicate the magic of wine to new audiences.

This is the ‘why’ part of this equation and, in general, I don’t have a problem with wine scoring and reviewing. I see it as a valuable exercise in an attempt to communicate something useful to the wine buying public. However, I do have an issue with the way this information is typically delivered. Really, how much useful information can we, the wine buyer, derive from a single number? What does 18.5/20 written beside a Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra actually mean to you and how does that compare to the 88/100 written beside a Riesling from Kremstal?

Let’s have a closer look at these systems. The 100-point score originated in the United States (taking inspiration from the high school grading system). The 20-point scale is more common in Europe, although a number of institutions favour the 100-point scale now – notably the Decanter and International Wine Challenge judging panels. Various newspapers and wine stores employ star ratings too, where a wine might have four-and-a-half cute stars coloured in to indicate ‘goodness’ (or purchaseability).

Decanter's handy comparison chart allows us to navigate between the various scoring systems employed by wine journalists.

Decanter's handy comparison chart allows us to navigate between the various scoring systems employed by wine journalists.

I have two main concerns with these numerical rating systems. Firstly: there is so much wasted space! Have a look at this table on the right issued by Decanter magazine, which converts between their 100-point scale, their old 20-point scale and a ‘star rating’.

Out of 100 points, anything below 70 is faulty and you need to get up to 83 before a wine is actually commended. To my mind that’s not a 100-point scale, that’s marking out of 18! The 20-point scale has similar flaws in that the majority of the scale is absolutely worthless. Why have so many points at your disposal if you can’t use them to give meaningful information to the customer? It’s here where I have more sympathy for the star rating system. In Decanter’s system, a ‘one star wine’ would be ‘fair’; two stars ‘commended’, and so on up to a five-star wine at the top of the scale. (Although as this illuminating chart on Jancis shows, the Decanter two-star ‘Quite Good’ is a very British faux-polite way of saying ‘rubbish’!)

My second concern is to do with the amount of information delivered by a single number. We are not tasting machines and nor is a wine a multiple-choice examination. It’s an extraordinarily complex mixture of biochemicals created by microorganisms from the fruits of a living plant, guided by the hand of a human winemaker and informed by thousands of years of cultural practices. I find it difficult to resolve all of this into a single number that actually conveys meaning to me.

If you need to get up to 83/100 before a wine is actually commended to my mind that’s not a 100-point scale, that’s marking out of 18!
Really? How useful is this to you on a wine store's shelf?

Really? How useful is this to you on a wine store's shelf?

In order to find meaning in this number, we need to know about the person who assigned the number. What their background is, how good a taster they are, what their particular preferences are, whether they had a cold when they gave the wine that number, was there a financial incentive for them to score this wine, and so on. We need to know something about their thought processes that allowed them to arrive at a single number: was it a carefully considered, systematic breakdown of the various components of the tasting experience – the aromas, the palate, the structure & length of the wine, with each being given a score which are all summed at the end? Or is it an instinctive response based on years of tasting similar wines to the point where the analysis is no longer a conscious though process: “This just feels like an 18 to me.” Or did they just copy the score sheet of their neighbour at the en primeur tasting?

Additionally, when they rated this wine, what did they have in mind for it? Is it to be drunk now or laid down for cellaring? Does an ‘outstanding’ wine also represent good value to the consumer or is the judgement independent of price? And what is the critic’s own particular style? If we follow critics – of any sort, the same rules apply to critics of film, theatre, restaurants, hotels, politics, smartphones, etc. – we end up getting to know their styles, their preferences, their opinions, and comparing those to our own. I may come to know that Critic A aligns with my own taste for racy, acidic white wines, for instance, but their preference for full-bodied reds isn’t really my thing. However, we’re not always in a position to get to know our critics and how they arrive at their scores – this takes considerable time investment and mental capital – and more often than not we fall into the habit of associating “91/100” printed on a sticker beside a wine with “good, therefore buy”, thus putting blind faith in someone else’s judgement.

Having thought about this issue for a while now, I’ve come up with a proposal of my own tasting system. Here are the basic principles:

  1. Each wine gets a number out of 10. Like it or loath it, I don’t feel we can get away entirely from the numerical association with a wine. A number doesn’t tell the full story but it does allow for swift comparisons.
  2. The full ten points of the scale are used! No wasted space here. A 1/10 might not be a wine you buy but it will tell you something useful about the wine.
  3. These 10 points are a summation of three components that I feel are important to know when we consider buying a wine. Quality is important but only part of the story. I feel value for money and the excitement a wine brings are also important.
  4. Each number is associated with a comment. While a number doesn’t tell me much about the wine at all, a number with a reason for that number can impart a lot of information. Ideally the comments are kept to one to two short sentences and provide a context for the score.

And here’s how the scoring system would look in practice. Out of 10 points available for a wine:

Four points are for quality:

  • 0 = faulty
  • 1 = fair; probably a generic supermarket, bulk-produced wine
  • 2 = decent wine, well made with some level of interest; I’d happily drink a glass or two
  • 3 = extremely good; let me buy a bottle or two
  • 4 = outstanding; I’m off to stock up on a case

Quality for me is the most important factor, which is why it gets four points (which are all used!) and this is the least subjective of my categories. Yes, I am basing this score on my own personal experience, but it is a trained experience, and when it comes to wine styles I am not familiar with, I am more than happy to defer to the judgment of other more experienced tasters.

Three points are for value:

  • 0 = I wouldn’t pay money for this
  • 1 = overpriced
  • 2 = a fair price
  • 3 = bargain of the year

There’s more subjectivity here as my idea of good value probably won’t correlate to that of a billionaire’s, but hopefully it broadly correlates with yours. It’s worth noting that value for money does not correlate directly with price. A poorly-made, generic wine that costs £5 could still be overpriced and an outstanding, absolutely singular wine weighing in at £40 could (admittedly on rare occasions) still represent value for money. It’s also important to normalise the cost of a wine throughout different outlets: for instance, a good value wine found in a wine store might not be the same value for money in a restaurant due to excessive mark-ups.

Three points are for the x-factor:

  • 0 = zzzzzz; this wine puts me to sleep
  • 1 = decent; I’m not enthralled by this wine, but at least I'm still awake
  • 2 = a classic example or a wine with a bit of attitude
  • 3 = absolutely stand-out example of the place this wine comes from, or a fascinating example of a weird and wonderful grape/wine style/location

A wine could be technically very well made, and good value for money, but if it’s just a little bit…boring then is it something I really want to drink? The 'x-factor' – or how exciting a wine is – is the most subjective component of my score, but this is where the contextual comments come in to help out. My thoughts on ‘exciting’ wine extend to a wine’s typicity as well as its novelty. Typicity is how well does this wine represent its terroir: the nature of the land the grapes grow in plus the weather of the vintage and the heritage of the place. Novelty doesn’t have to be weird and crazy stuff, but it could involve winemakers reviving long-forgotten grape varieties, or making non-traditional wines in old regions (something we will need to get used to increasingly as climate change affects wine regions all around the world).

I accept that like all rating systems, it is a function of the person doing the rating. For instance, my idea of value for money might not correlate with yours, and the sorts of wine I get an enormous kick out of might simply not do it for you. There are also cases where my system is not appropriate to be used – for instance at a trade tasting where you are comparing flights of wines all from the same region and of broadly similar quality. Here you are looking for subtle differences between wines, which requires a more nuanced approach. However, the aim with my rating system is to convey a little more information from a wine consumer’s point of view, than the single number associated with the 100- and 20-point rating systems, and to do this in an easy to read manner. But it’s definitely a work in progress! Let me know what you think and how my system might be improved. Next post I’ll put my system to the test and compare different from across the spectrum.