Wine Rating Systems
On The Grapevine, Aug 2011
Wine is a highly complex product but in an effort to simplify matters for the consumers many wine judges, writers and retailers adopt a variety of ranking systems. Unfortunately these wine ratings can cause more confusion than enlightenment. This article looks at differing systems and points out the problems with popular ratings systems.
Can a simple one dimensional scale describe a complex wine? I don’t believe so, however the commercial reality is that ratings sell wine, so we are stuck with them. Wine ratings by Robert Parker, in the US and James Halliday, in Australia have a significant influence on wine sales. So it is worthwhile to know a little about what it all means.
The first point to make is that some wine scoring systems attempt just to score the wine in terms of quality, others try to incorporate the value for money factor, thus giving higher scores to less expensive wines judged to be equal in quality to their higher priced competitors.
The wine rating scales
There seem to be three common numerical scales for wine rating:
· Scores out of 100
· Scores out of 20
· Scores out of 5, often expressed as stars or "glasses"
In fact none of these scales are what they first seem. They are convenient measures which allow the rater and the reader to think they are talking about the same thing.
Ratings out of 100
This is a popular system of scoring wine, especially in the U.S. where Robert Parker and Wine Spectator use this system, and although it is called a 100 point system it really rates wines from 50 to a hundred, so it is really a fifty point system.
In Australia it is used by many writers including James Halliday in his Australian Wine Companion and by Rob Geddes in his Australian Wine Vintages. Halliday's system ranges from 75 to 100, so it is really a 25 point system. Does this mean that a Halliday point tastes twice as good as a Parker point?
It is NOT a 100 point scale. Some writers use a system rates wines from 50 to 100. I have rarely seen a wine score less than 80. I assume that some of the judges do score wines less than 80, but they are probably so faulty as to be undrinkable at that level. It is hard to imagine a wine which scored 67 being any more palatable than one that scored 57. So it's really a 20 point scale, from 80 to 100. The advantage is that the number 100 does have the implication of perfection and the rating shows how close to perfection the wine is, at least in the mind of the scorer. For example, Seppeltsfield 100 Year Old Para Liqueur is the only wine that scores 100 by James Halliday.
Generally wines 87 and above are recommended with wines scoring 94 and above outstanding (equivalent to a show gold medal) in the tasters opinion.
Ratings out of 20
This is the scale used in many Australian wine shows. Half points are allowed and so it is a really a 40 point score, but in practice wines don't get less than 10 so it may work out to be a 20 point scale. The twenty points are arrived at by awarding three points for the appearance of the wine, seven for the nose and ten for the palate.
The common way of show judging wine is for each of three judges to give the wines scores out of 20 and the points are added up for a score out of (a theoretical 60) Medals are then awarded the basis of 55.5 and over get a gold, 51-55 get silver and 46.5-50.5 get a bronze medal. Medals in wine are totally different to Olympic medals. If 20 wines are competing in a class at a wine show zero or all or any number in between can win a gold medal. In wine judging a trophy is analogous to a gold medal in the Olympics; usually only one wine will get a trophy. The wines are tasted blind (no label) and are averaged across at least 3 tasters so it is probably the best of all systems. Whilst all wine tasters have some bias (eg preferences to a regional style etc) these are minimized if the wine judging panel has a good cross section of wine industry participants from around Australia.
However, many wines are not entered in wine shows especially if they have a secure position in the market place. There is only downside if the wine does not score as well as expected.
Ratings out of 5
These systems are also more complex than they seem. There are many users of 'out of five' ranges, particularly retailers. James Halliday also uses such a system in his Australian Wine Companion, expressed as glasses. So wines get a rating 'out of 100' and 'out of five'. Again half points are usually allowed, making a possible 10 points, but the bottom is often truncated, bringing it back to say a six point scale. Ah, but that's too simple, wines can also get 5 stars (or glasses) printed in red, and they can also get another notation saying they are good value for money. It sometimes seems the rating systems are more complex than the wine itself.
Even if the above doesn't confuse you need to remember you are relying on the partly subjective judgement of someone else's palate and you will probably be drinking the wine in entirely different circumstances ie. with food etc.
My advice is to use the ratings as a guide only, read some notes on the wine to see if it is a style you generally like, but most of all trust your own palate, if possible try before you buy or buy one bottle to sample.