As wine media has begun reaching the consumer and wine critics are becoming rock stars… You have to ask yourself, just exactly how does this rating system work? On many websites, you will find an attempt at an explanation that reflects how the major critics SEEM to interpret it, but… does anyone really know definitively? There are no hard and fast rules. So hear is a quick look under the hood from the perspective of using the ratings as a method of selecting wines for your cellar.
As you walk through wine websites, you begin to notice there are virtually no ratings under 80, or over 95. I think the worst rating I have ever given a wine is 82. Of course this seems absurd, but regardless, if this is the standard… what do the ratings really mean? If you are the type that needs to make sense of this mess, follow me on my journey.
Criteria for the System
What exactly do the ratings evaluate: drinkability, age-worthiness, structure, balance? How do you compare entirely different styles using the scale: red, white, old-world, new world, sweet, fortified, etc. I am sure you get my drift here. Every critic’s wine notes and evaluation process is based on a different standard, therefore there is no frame of reference for the consumer. So, do the ratings have any real value, or are they just marketing ploys? Well, perhaps the intent is entirely marketing-focused, but I believe I have found ways the ratings can assist me in my wine purchasing decisions:
The majority of wine critics (AND fine wines collectors) have developed an educated palate. This assumption is important and I think largely true. I know for myself, I may not like a wine that others view as enjoyable, but that does not mean I cannot appreciate its quality. If the winemaker has produced a quality wine in its structure, balance and extracted flavors/aromas… I will not give it a poor score, even when I do not care for the wine personally. Again, I think this to be largely the case with the most (but not all) professional/semi-professional critics. the breaking point here for me is at 90. If the wine is rated 90, or over from several sources, odds are – it is a quality wine… but that does not guarantee that YOU will enjoy it. It is simply a place to start weeding out bottles not worth the investment. In my case, I know, I am missing many wines I might enjoy in the 85-89 range, but I try to visit wineries to sample what I can of those.
Callibrating Your Palate
Calibrate a particular critic’s palate to yours. Take a few minutes to taste wine and compare your impressions to the critics ratings and find one that generally matches your impressions. In my case, of the major critics, I think Stephen Tanzer is the closest to my palate. It is worth the time to find your match. I place a little more weight on an evaluation, when ST writes the note. Again that is just me personally.
Should the System be Changed?
I have read and many have explained to me that winemaking technology has improved tremendously over the last two decades and therefore there truly is no more “bad” wine… which is the reason why ratings do not drop below 80 any longer. I am willing to accept that, but if that is the case, then we MUST move to another system. I also believe a criteria for a new ratings system needs to be established. When I choose to purchase wines I have not tasted, here is my criteria:
- Structure and balance: acidity, tannins, all the parts work together? Fuller, rounder wine with a mid-palate?
- Fruit: fruit-forward, or not
- Texture: wine coats your mouth, or crisp and clean
- Terroir: the wine includes an expression of the local terroir?
- Finish: flavors linger?
IMHO, if we rated each of these categories 1-10, that would provide a useful wine rating and evaluation!