Everyone has seen those numbers associated with a bottle and vintage, but what exactly does an 88 mean? There are many different rating systems that dish out various numbers based on their stated criteria. And while a high score indicates that someone has tried it and ranked it for aroma and finish, it doesn't exactly tell the story of the wine. Ultimately, wine ratings are just a subjective number and there is a lot more to the puzzle.
Understanding Wine Scores
Old school ratings where white male sommeliers are swirling their wine glass, using unapproachable language, and publishing scores in wine magazines is becoming a thing of the past. But there was a time when, for many, the number associated with the bottle dictated a whole lot. Nowadays, increased communication via the web paired with accessibility to online bottle shops gives the entire public a voice to review any given bottle on various digital platforms. Taking a wholistic approach to understanding all forms of wine scores can leave you informed to make your own decisions, while guiding you in the right direction.
Parker Points, The Wine Advocate, and How It Started
Once considered one of the world's most influential wine critics, Robert Parker is credited with popularizing the 100-point wine rating system in the late'70's. These 'Parker points' were published in The Wine Advocate and range from 50-100. On the low end of the scale, a 50 is an unacceptable wine. This means that wines that are tasted but rank below a 50 are not included at all. On the high end of the scale, a wine may receive 90-95 points. In Parker language, this would be an outstanding wine. Wines receiving a score between 96-100 are considered extraordinary; this high rating would be quite rare to see. So how do these numbers come to be? Peer groups blind taste and assess for appearance, aroma, flavor, finish, balance, and the potential for ageing, and then a score is assigned to the wine.
In the 80's and 90's, Robert Parker was one of the few big voices in wine and what he said went. Parker is known for having a particular taste for big, ripe wines. His reviews and scores had such influence that they started heavily driving prices and wine sales to the point that winemakers around the world started creating particular styles to please his palate. This homogenization of wine in an industrialized approach became known as Parkerization. Today, these types of blown-out Parker wines have lost favor with many, while more and more people are placing value on the intricacies and nuances of authentic wines that truly expresses their terroir, changing vintage to vintage.
Additional Rating Systems
Other wine rating systems were developed in time, and they all consider very similar criteria as what was originally outlined by The Wine Advocate. Wine Spectator uses the 100-point system, yet doesn't seem to judge quite as harshly as The Wine Advocate does. Wine Enthusiast has developed a rating system between 80-100, where a wine that ranks between 90-93 points is considered excellent and is highly recommended by the magazine. In the Wine Enthusiast system, a score below 80 wouldn't be included at all. Then there is Decanter. They have transitioned to the 100-point scale to play the game with everyone else, and they follow a very similar structure for criteria and rating.
Alternative Wine Reviews; For the Public, By the Public
Beyond the main 100-point system, there are additional platforms, like Vivino and Celler Tracker, where the world-wide community of wine drinkers gives a rating and can also leave their personal tasting notes and thoughts as well. This is a much more casual and inclusive approach to reviewing and ranking wine where anyone and everyone can rate a bottle, not just the professionals. Vivino breaks their system down, suggesting a wine rated 4 on their site is the equivalent to a 90 on Wine Enthusiast.
Wine Ratings Beyond the Number
While professional sommeliers do have a lot of experience tasting wine, no one palate rules all, and just because a wine received a 92 doesn't mean you have to love it. All scores are subjective and very with personal preference. Furthermore, reducing a wine to a number and ruling out those unnumbered bottles in the world just doesn't do it justice. There is a whole story behind a wine, the cool spring temperatures the grapes experienced that vintage; the seventh-generation winemaker experimenting with skin-contact in the cellar; the acacia barrels being used for maturation. A wine's story is an important piece, and it informs the appearance, aromas, mouthfeel, and flavors.
Don't Rely Solely on Wine Ratings
Don't get so swept up in the score; rather, use them as a guideline to help you navigate wines as you get started and learn what you like. There is a big world of wine out there to discover, so if you can't find a rating for one you are eyeing, don't worry about it! Try reading about the producer or region instead and give it a try yourself. No one will know better than you if you like it or not.