What does it mean when a cellar door salesperson says that the wine we are tasting is rated at 96 points?
Over the years a number of systems have been tried and tested in an attempt to rate a wine in a way that will inform consumers about the quality of a wine. Ratings are used to compare wines and also helpful as a method of describing the characteristics and cellaring potential of a wine. Creating a score for a wine is a way of communicating to consumers the critic’s perceived quality of a wine.
So how exactly is your favourite drop rated and who are these critics?
Dr. Maynard Amerine, developed the UC Davis system back in the 1950s where points were given for appearance, colour, aroma and bouquet, volatile acidity, total acidity, sugar, body, flavour, astringency, and general quality. Although it is still used by some, the system is now regarded by many as unhelpful as it focuses on the presence or absence of defects which means that a fairly average wine can easily score 17 points out of 20 – which would be the equivalent of 85 points if it were scaled up to the more commonly used 100 point system.
The 100 point system is favoured by Australian wine critics and was formulated by one of the world’s most influential wine critic Robert Parker, of the Wine Advocate, in 1978. This system has since become a mainstream method of rating wine, increasingly adopted and refined, since it was first used by the Wine Spectator and later adopted by other reputable international wine publications including the Wine Enthusiast. While other systems such as the Broadbent, Davis and Decanter rating systems still exist, the 100 point system has become the most popular and indeed the default choice for many wine critics and wine shows.
The 100 point system, generally employs a 15/35/50 split that assesses a wine’s colour and clarity, aroma or bouquet and palate, respectively. This method prioritises the characteristics of flavour, mouth feel and length of wines and essentially the reason this method is considered so useful is because these qualities are very important to consumers, most of who just want their wine to ‘taste good’.
In Australia there are two highly reputable wine critics, Ray Jordan and James Halliday, both of who use the 100 point system to rate the wines submitted to them. Both of these critics are highly regarded and trusted by local and international wine consumers and therefore the opinions of critics such as Halliday and Jordan are revered and, to a degree, feared by winemakers. A lot of importance is placed on the outcome of these ratings which can boost or plummet sales once the scores have been revealed, however the common market will ultimately determine a wine’s popularity and marketability regardless of how it is rated.
In theory, the 100 point system deems that a rating of 60 or above makes a wine acceptable for consumption, however a rating of less than 80 often means a wine is unsuitable for a marketplace that is usually saturated with an abundance of higher rated wines which it must compete with.
According to James Halliday, wine ratings are very carefully considered before they are concluded upon. “When there is controversy about the qualities or faults in a wine, every judge on a panel must be ready to defend their intellectual position. Even if you have not previously had much experience with a particular varietal, concentrating on the balance, intensity, mouth feel and length of the wines on show can go a long way to inform your ranking of the entries. When calling for scores and critique from his or her fellow judges, a panel chair will ask a different person to give their verdict first each time so as to limit the opportunity for them to sway or pre-empt each other’s thinking. This also demands that individuals record their own conclusions about every wine in detail. In Australia, wine show panels tend to be highly focused on questions of technical prowess, whereas questions about stylistic decisions tend to take centre stage at wine shows in the US. In either case, being confident enough to share your rapidly formed assessment and not simply defer to a more experienced taster – even if he or she is a winemaker themselves – is central to your progress as a critic.,” says Halliday. (you can read more about James Halliday’s comments and up to date wine ratings at www.winecompanion.com.au)
Wines that score 70 or below are deemed to be unacceptable and are judged as having what are termed wine ‘faults’. These undesirable characteristics include volatile acidity, bacterial spoilage, dilution, oxidation or cork taint.
Wines scoring between 71 and 84 points are still deemed to be soundly made but are nonetheless considered to be quite average. The wine may well be free of overt faults but perhaps it lacks character, cellaring potential or distinctive characteristics. If you find a wine rated at 82-84 then that is going to be the perfect choice for a drink now quaffer, table or barbecue wine.
For wines scoring 85 and above, these top performers are then further segregated into gold, silver or bronze medal status.
The following cut off marks are employed within the Australian Wine Show system to help sort the men from the boys, so to speak.
A score of 85 – 89 equates to a bronze medal for the wine and is considered by the critic to be soundly made and balanced. Halliday describes these wines as Recommended and says that these wines are on the cusp of silver medal standard. By his own definition, Halliday cites the difference between a bronze and a silver awarded wine as defined by a judgement call on the part of the critic.
Wines of bronze medal standard are considered to be well produced, flavoursome wines, usually not requiring cellaring and having no discernible faults.
A score of 90 – 94 equates to silver medal status and is deemed to be a high quality wine with excellent balance and character by the critic.
Scores of 95-99 and above are equivalent to gold medal status and are reserved for exemplary wines of the highest quality.
Scores of 95-96 are described by Halliday as
Outstanding wines of a gold medal standard, usually with a great pedigree.
Scores of 96 or higher are classed by James Halliday to be Exceptional and these wines that have won major trophies in important wine shows, or are of a standard that makes them highly sought after by wine enthusiasts.
So, next time someone tells you what a wine is rated, by all means take that into consideration. When you are buying wine without tasting from a bottle shop or wine supplier, the rating gives you a good indication of what the experts think of it and this can be really helpful, particularly if you plan to cellar the wine for some time. Of course what really matters is what you think of think of a wine. The rating is just one factor to consider alongside what your budget allows for and which food you are planning to match it with. At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal taste which is why taking a wine tour and sampling the wines before you buy them makes great sense, particularly if you are planning to buy a case or two to take home.