Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do Wine Ratings Matter?

Wine ratings are scores assigned by wine critics to a wine they have evaluated.  You may have noticed these numbers on the shelf talkers at your local liquor store or wine shop.  At first, the number looks impressive – anywhere from 82 to 100 points! But keep in mind there is no one set of rules for wine ratings.  So what do these numbers mean?  Who is critiquing these wines and what criteria do they use?  And does it really matter to the average wine drinker?

The 100 Point System
Most U.S. wine critics use a 100 point wine rating system.  All wines begin the process with 50 points automatically. Each wine is then allotted points for the following elements:
Color & Clarity (up to 5 points)
Aroma (up to 15 points)
Taste (up to 10 points)
Finish (up to 10 points)
Ability to age well (up to 5 points)
Overall quality of the wine (up to 5 points)

The Wine Advocate
There are several critics who evaluate wine in the U.S.  The best known, and considered by many to be the most influential, is Robert Parker.  He critiques for his publication, The Wine Advocate  He began The Wine Advocate as a wine newsletter in 1978 and now publishes over 7,500 reviews a year. The Wine Advocate accepts no advertising.

Parker has been criticized by some for judging a wine based on how much pleasure it gives him and assigning ratings numbers based on his emotions.

Parker holds wine tastings in single-blind conditions, which according to his web site means, “that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known). There are exceptions to this policy with respect to (1) all barrel tastings, (2) all specific appellation tastings where at least 25 of the best estates will not submit samples for group tastings and (3) for all wines under $25. The ratings reflect an independent, critical look at the wine.”   His main areas of interest concern wines from Bordeaux, California and the Rhone Valley. 

Parker uses a 100 point system to score the wines. For The Wine Advocate the ratings are given as follows:
50 – 59 points  - Unacceptable
60 – 60 points -  Below average with noticeable flaws
70 to 79 points – Average, but nothing special
80 - 89 points – Barely above average to very good
90 – 95 points – Outstanding, exceptional
96 – 100 points – Extraordinary wine. A classic; highly sought after

(Note: U.S. wine critics use a 100 point system while wine critics in Europe prefer a 20 point system. Each are based on that regions school grading system.) 

Wine Spectator

Wine Spectator is considered to be the “wine bible” for wine lovers.  The magazine began in 1978 in the U.S.  Each issue has between 400 and 1,000 wine reviews with detailed tasting notes.  The magazine’s editors review over 16,000 wines each year.

Wine Spectator has also received criticism about its wine ratings.  In 2008, a college student entered a fictional restaurant and its wine list for evaluation and received an Award of Excellence (Wine Spectator’s basic award for restaurants with well chosen wines.)  The wines listed were actually some of the lowest rated Italian wines in history.

Wines are reviewed from the bottle in blind tastings – i.e.: no one knows who the wine maker is or anything about the wine other than type of grape.  Wine Spectator also uses a 100 point system when rating a wine:
Again, the first 50 points awarded for the wine showing up.
50 – 74 points  - Not recommended
75 to 79 points – Mediocre; drinkable with minor flaws
80 – 84 points – Good wine, well made
85 – 89 points – Very good wine with special qualities
90 – 94 points – Outstanding wine, superior character
95 – 100 points – A classic wine - great

Wine Enthusiast
Wine Enthusiast magazine is more about the wine lifestyle and travel.  First published in 1988 in the U.S., Wine Enthusiast may hold blind tastings “or in accordance with accepted industry practices.  

Wine Enthusiast uses a scoring system from 80 to 100 points:
80 – 82 points – Acceptable – a casual wine
83 – 86 points – A good, everyday wine, often a good value
87 – 89 points – Very good, well recommended
90 – 93 points – Excellent, highly recommended
94 – 97 points – Superb wine, highly recommended
98 – 100 points – A classic – the pinnacle of quality

Decanter magazine began in 1975 in the United Kingdom and is published in over 90 countries.  Decanter holds blind wine tastings within specific wine regions and price ranges. This ensures that terroir is considered, and ‘like is compared to like’ when critiquing.  The magazine recommends over 4,000 wines each year. 

Decanter uses a five star scoring system:
1 Star  – Acceptable
2 Stars – Moderately good
3 Stars – Good
4 Stars – Very Good
5 Stars – Outstanding 

Concerns About the Rating System:
There are several concerns about the wine rating system including the fact that assigning wine ratings has an amazing effect on the wine market.  These numbers encourage or discourage specific grape and wine purchases, and can have a major effect on a wine’s price.

The wine rating system has also been criticized for creating a uniform sameness in wines throughout the world.  Since certain styles appeal to the wine critics, more and more winemakers are adjusting their methods to create wines that will receive a high wine ratings score.  The wine then becomes sought after and can be marketed and sold for a higher price.  Unfortunately, other than Decanter magazine, no magazine or wine critic mentioned that individualized style, and crafting to enhance the flavors of the terroir - the environmental conditions such as soil and climate that affect the grapes grown there and give the wine it’s exclusive flavors and characteristics - was looked favorably upon or encouraged.

Concerns have also been raised in the industry as to whether advertising dollars in these magazines could have some unintentional influence on wine ratings.

In the end, it is up to the consumer to decide if these numbers have relevance.  Just remember they are subjective to the critic – based on his or her individual palate and personal preferences.  Best bet is to use these scores as a guide.  Try some of the rated wines, in all point ranges, and see what you think.  After all – it should be about what YOU like and can afford to drink – and not a critic’s preference.

So what if a wine only scored 75 points?  If you like it – Enjoy!

~ Joy