What are wine scores?

Posted by Christopher Gifford on

Scores at the ready: Craig Revel Horwood, Dame Darcey Bussell, Shirley Ballas, Bruno Tonioli / BBC/Guy Levy

While they lack nuance, a wine score is the easiest way for a wine critic to tell us whether a wine is any good. Some are obsessed by them, quoting the score first rather than describe any of the characteristics of the wine, and you see them everywhere, even in Lidl!

They should be found coupled with tasting notes, of course. 

The Big Ideas is that with an infinitude of wines to choose from, wine scores help buyers and investors/collectors decide which wines to pay attention to.

To make things a little more complex, there are two main scoring schemes, the 100 point scale and the 20 point scale.

The 100 Point Scale

First, we have the increasingly dominant 100 point rating scheme. You'll see scale used to rate wines in Wine Spectator magazine.

Robert Parker, James Suckling et al. use this. In fact, Parker has probably been the driver for a lot of it, originating in his Wine Advocate newsletter, and with "Parker Points" entering wine marketing lexicon.

This has become the benchmark scale for assessing wines, almost everywhere, with Decanter magazine shifting from a 20-point scale to this one back in 2012.

A high score in any good wine publication can have a profound impact on the success of the wine, and the company behind it, while a poor score can be devastating. 

So much so, that many really good winemakers, who make really good wines, have simply said "Sod that", and refuse to play the ratings game. Others have gone the other way, and tried to make wines which they know will score highly.

The funny thing about the 100 point rating system, is that you'll rarely, if ever, see a wine score below 85. One reason is that it's based on the impenetrable US high-school marking system, which starts at 50, not zero! 

This, of course, will be lost on almost everyone. According to Wine Spectator, here's what the different scoring bands actually mean.

  • 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

Robert Parker uses this scale but describes it as follows.

  • 95-100: 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.
  • 90-94: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.
  • 80-89: 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 a soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
  • 60-69: 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.

Tell us what you really think, Rob!

For a very useful critique on wine scores, check out this video from Jamie Goode, where he said he hated it, but still has/had to use it back in 2014.

The 20 Point Scale

The 20-point scale has its origins in academia, from UC Davis in California. It may as well be called the Jancis Robinson Scale, as she seems to be one of the last to use it.

On this 20 point scale, points were given based on some objective characteristics like colour, aroma and flavour, as well as more objectively measurable qualities like sugars, acids, tannins and acidity.

  • 20 Truly exceptional
  • 19 A humdinger
  • 18 A cut above superior
  • 17 Superior
  • 16 Distinguished
  • 15 Average
  • 14 Deadly dull
  • 13 Borderline faulty or unbalanced
  • 12 Faulty or unbalanced

Signals & Noise

For us, points, or scores, regardless of rating system used are just signals. Sure, we look at them, but we prefer the nuance of the wines, the places, the soil, the characters who make them, and all the stories they have to tell.

That's what we're really about and you can't put a number on that.

Photo credit: BBC/Guy Levy


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