When dealing with a subject as complicated and nuanced as wine, it’s reasonable to seek out ways to expedite the learning process – especially when you’re in the market for bottles. Wine ratings are immensely helpful in providing us with a quick and painless answer to the question “What should I drink,” but keep in mind that it’s possible to overlook valuable insight when we rely solely on scores without context. This article will examine the importance of wine ratings, as well as the meaning behind them.
Background: A Brief History of Wine Ratings
The most popular system currently used to judge the quality of wines is the 100-point scale, invented by the American critic Robert Parker in 1978 and adapted by many wine professionals throughout the world. Before this, other scales employed included the 20-point scale and star ratings, both of which are sometimes still implemented. Today, these systems assist many wine drinkers, from novice to expert, with making informed buying, selling, and drinking decisions.
Navigating the Different Rating Systems
According to Parker, the 100-point system should be perceived like grades in school, where a 90 to 100 represents an A, an 80 to 89 represents a B, and so forth. The following explains the breakdown further:
Most wine rating publications using this system tend to focus on wines ranging from 80 to 100 points, as these are usually the most desirable to consumers. Barrel tasting scores are usually given in a range (i.e. 90 – 93) since the wines are not finished yet. Other symbols, such as +, -, or ? may appear in order to convey even more precision.
The 20-point system, on the other hand, has been adopted by other renowned critics, including the British wine authority Jancis Robinson. While it might occur to you to simply multiply these scores by 5 to arrive at a number out of 100, this system is a bit more intricate. On her scale out of 20 points, Robinson has defined the meaning of each point as shown here:
It should also be noted that while in school, the accumulation of points on a multiple choice test is based entirely on how many correct and incorrect answers there are, wine can often be more subjective. For example, you may prefer a wine with a 91-point score to another with 92 points. Both wines may be of outstanding quality, but the higher score is not necessarily a guarantee that you will like that wine more than the one with a lower score. Be aware, too, of the relationship between scores and price. A bottle with an 89-point rating that costs $10 could be an especially fine value to enjoy now, whereas a wine with 96 points may require extensive cellaring to perform at its peak.
Reviews: More Specific Information and Advice
Regarding specific wine criticism, the most useful portion of these judgments can be found in the written reviews themselves. These reviews typically describe the sensory properties of a wine, along with advice for when to drink it and other relevant information, like production methods, vintage notes, and background or historical context about the winery or producer. Reading reviews also gives you the opportunities to become familiar with the writing styles of critics and compare their opinions.
While many wines have ratings and reviews, others do not. Be sure to remember, though, no rating is not the same as a bad rating. Fortunately, there are lots of other fun ways to learn about wines, such as visiting wineries (or their websites), talking with wine professionals, reading books, and of course, tasting as much as possible. As for wines that have been reviewed, try to follow critics that share your tastes and, even moreso, those whose writing truly speaks to you.