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7 Things you need to know about wine ratings
June 7, 2012

Wine ratings are everywhere

– magazine advertisements, those little “shelf tags” at every wine shop, and even in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal.  But have you ever wondered how wines are rated and what the ratings mean?  We dove into the world of wine tasting and reviews, and have developed this list of seven things you need to know about wine ratings.

1)  Many good wines are never rated.  The Wine Web boasts 38,000 wineries in their database and the actual number is probably closer to 50,000.  If each winery produces 5 different wines each year, that's a quarter of a million wines to taste and review.  Nice work if you can get it, but a daunting task to say the least.  There are many reasons that a wine may never be reviewed by one of the leading reviewers (primarily wine publications).  Many publications require that wine be submitted for review, and give reasons why not all wine reviews will be included (space limitations in the publication, inferior quality, etc.).  Many of the best wines are produced in very small quantities and the entire inventory sold directly from the winery – there is no need for a review.  What this means is that the best reviewers may receive thousands of wines to taste yet the results never make it into the publication.  How do they decide which wines to review?  Well there is much speculation and few facts, but regardless it is safe to say that there are tens of thousands of wines that may be very good, and never reviewed and rated.  Never assume that because a wine isn't rated, it must be inferior.

2)   Rating systems differ.  There is no uniform way to represent wine ratings, although the most widely adopted is a numerical system from 50-100.  Some rating systems will award stars (Decanter, New York Times) while others, like the former reviewers Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher from the Wall Street Journal, simply describe them in the categories of Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious!

To complicate matters further, in the 50-100 point rating system there is no systematic methodology for awarding points to various components of the wine.  Many of the rating systems will outline their process – but uniformity across systems is absent.  One example of a rating methodology is from the Wine Advocate (Robert Parker).  Each wine starts with a basis of 50 points.  Additional points are added for color and appearance (5 points), aroma and bouquet (15 points), flavor and finish (20 points) and overall quality and aging potential, e.g. length of finish, depth of color, aromas characteristic of the grape variety, etc., (10 points). 

Some well-known rating systems and their scales are listed below.

Wine Spectator

95-100 Classic: a great wine
90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
50-74 Not recommended

Wine Advocate

96-100 An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.
90-95 An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.
80-89  A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.
70-79  An average wine with little distinction except that it is soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
60-69  A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.
50-59 A wine deemed to be unacceptable.

Wine Enthusiast

98-100 - Classic  The pinnacle of quality.
94-97 - Superb  A great achievement.
90-93 - Excellent Highly recommended.
87-89 - Very good Often good value; well recommended.
83-86 - Good Suitable for everyday consumption; often good value.
80-82 - Acceptable Can be employed in casual, less-critical circumstances.
Wines receiving a rating below 80 are not reviewed.

Other well-known ratings are provided by Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, Wines & Spirits Magazine, The New York Times, and Decanter.


3)   A high rating does not mean you will like the wine.  Wine ratings reflect the palate of the person or persons doing the tasting and rating.  Most tastings are done blind, under controlled conditions.  Learn the palate of the rater and compare it to yours to calibrate their ratings (or ignore them all together).

4)   Highly rated wine may be hard to find.  Wine ratings can move the market for wine.  An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that “According to a 2001 study of Bordeaux wines, a one-point bump in Robert Parker's wine ratings averages equates to a 7% increase in price”.  As soon as a wine is highly rated, there is frequently a run on it, and your wine shop's shelves will be empty.  Some wines may not be available in your state due to the geographic reach of the distributor, and still other wines are simply not produced in large enough quantities to meet the demand.


5)   Ratings are not without controversy.  While rating systems are numerous and well established, there is a healthy amount of skepticism about the science behind them.  In the last several years research highlighted in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times suggests that some of the claims made by reviewers are not substantiated.  Regardless of your view, wine ratings are too important of a marketing tool to be abandoned anytime soon.

6)   Wine ratings are misused.  Wine ratings are without doubt a powerful marketing tool.  A 95 must be better than a 90, and a 90 must be better than an 88 right?  The power of the number is all too frequently abused by wine merchants.  Many times you will go to a wine shop and see a 90 point rating for a particular wine.  Read the label carefully and make sure the vintage of the rating matches the vintage for sale on the rack – all too often it will not.  The worst offenders will place pseudo reviews with ratings and leave the vintage completely out.

7)   The only score that matters is yours.  Virtually all of the rating guides are quick to point out that ratings are very subjective, and reflect the opinions of the taster(s).  This is good advice and you should heed it.  Wine ratings can be a useful guide, but only a guide.  The human palate is amazingly complex, probably why professional wine tasters can often disagree on the rating for any single wine.  As the final statement in Robert Parker's rating system description reads, “However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate, nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself”. 

I'll drink to that!

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·  Tasting Terminology - Sound like a Pro Part 3
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