Ξ February 22nd, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine History, Wine News |
It is not difficult to understand why some form of rating wine is necessary – the vagaries of winemaking, grape varieties and terroir are such that each producer, and each vintage, can be different from the next. Most wine drinkers do not have the experience to know for themselves what each is meant to offer, but how did we get to the situation we seem to be in now where a numerical score can dictate wine styles and make or break businesses?
Thousands of years ago ancient Greek poets were the first wine critics espousing the delights, or faults in the wines available to them . Over the centuries little changed, words were used to describe a wine and more often the wine being described was generic of a region, as opposed to a single producer that we are familiar with today. Of course there have always been producers, but outside of their local area this meant nothing. As my colleague Donna wrote in one of the early posts on Reign of Terroir, “Ho Bryan”, Haut Brion is one of the earliest examples of a specific producer, as opposed to the region, being singled out for particular (favourable) criticism – but at that time the thought of trying to encapsulate all that is in a glass of wine into a numerical score was unthinkable, wine quality, as befits something subjective, was described in words.
In 1663, a young Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about “…a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste that I ever met with.” Nearly 150 years later Napoleon Bonaparte was noted for his love of Champagne and Burgundy, a glass of Chambertin a day is accredited to him along with the quote, ”Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin”.
As we moved from the 19th to the 20th Century the situations changed somewhat. Industrialisation in Western Europe and the U.S. resulted in more even distribution of wealth and the rise of the middle-class, along with an increase in demand for luxury items. Faster international communication and cheaper shipping costs meant that wine consumer and producers alike had access to expanding international markets. The net result was that there were more people looking to buy wine, the media infrastructure to market and sell wine further afield than ever before along with the shipping and distribution channels to link producer and buyer. However there was an obvious downside to this expansion of the market – a relatively inexperienced consumer base was presented with a far larger choice of wines than at any time in history. A few poetic lines and fancies of the rich and famous could only go so far, for the rest choosing what to buy needed more standardization.
International Wine Competitions semi-formalised the scoring of wine with medal awards for the best quality entrants – as far back as 1889 Napa Valley wine (the famous Finnish sea-captain, Gustave Niebaum’s Ingelnook winery) was winning Gold at the Paris World Fair. By the 1950s numerical scoring was here to stay with the British Wine Trade using a 20 point scale while at the same time in Australia winemaker and writer Daniel Francis Murphy was using a 100 point scale for his wine tasting notes. When Napa wine again won in France, in the famous 1976 “Judgement of Paris”, the British influence was clear with scores as low as 2 recorded on a 20 point scale.
However it was Robert Parker Jr. and his friend Victor Morgenroth that have probably had the biggest impact on wine scoring in recent history with their reworking of a 100 point scale to appeal to the American consumer. Hugh Johnson, in his autobiography “A Life Uncorked” sums up the instantaneous appeal Parker and his “percentages of perfection” had – “100 is an eye catching figure. Everyone is accustomed to percentages”. Scoring had well and truly arrived, and Parker was its Champion.
Of course some critics decry the use of scores. Jamie Goode and Jancis Robinson to name but two – however, whether out of acceptance that the masses demand them, or realization that they are the only way to compare the volumes of wines now available, they still end up using them. Today there are several scoring systems routinely in use in addition to the (U.S. influenced) 100 point scale and the (British influenced) 20 point scale. Even these scores are misleading, as in reality there is a minimum score all wines get regardless of quality (50/100 or 10/20 in most instances, although for certain proponents of the 20 point scale, such as Jancis Robinson, 12 is as low as you go).
Rather than try and detail them all I entreat you to check out the following links;
- Steve de Longs excellent scoring comparison table, available as a PDF download on his De Long’s Wine Info site which touches on the 4 and 5 star scales used by some critics and favoured by many Wine Bloggers.
- New Zealand wine-guru Geoff Kelly covers the modified 20 point scale on his wine review site but also offers some sage advice on understanding what wine scores can and do tell us.
- insight into the Emperor of Wine’s 100pt scale is found on the eRobertParker site.
- for more zany scoring schemes (tongue firmly implanted in cheek) that have been invented, such as the 1000 point scores, see Worlds of Wine and Vinography!
But even when you’ve got a handle on what a score is meant to tell you we get to the conundrum; how reliable are these scores, and how applicable are the critic’s tastes to the people who end up buying the bottles on their recommendation? Remember the judges are only human with their own tastes and preferences, a fact highlighted to the extreme by the 2003 Château Pavie “incident” between Parker and Robinson.
These types of question have been doing the rounds for decades, just go to any of the major wine forum sites and do a search on the various topics of scores and critics, such as WineLibrary TV, eRobertParker and Wine Spectator.
The idea that many people have is that a judge was able to give their full attention and use years of experience to analyse in fine detail the wine they tasted. Whilst this may happen on occasion, for the very best wines or small and prestigious tastings, the reality is that most regular wines that you or I are able to buy will have had a few seconds of consideration on a table surrounded by dozens of similar examples and influenced by effects such as how good the previous wine was to whether it is the end of a palate-fatiguing day, plus a thousand other little factors in-between.
The 2006 NYTimes article “Wine Ratings Might Not Pass the Sobriety Test” and the SFGate article from 2007 “Are ratings pointless?”, cover in great depth the contradictions of the scoring systems, to which Tom Wark of Fermentation followed up with his thoughts on varieties that never seem to get close to that magic 100 score.
Even if we are generous and assume the professionals do analyze all the constituent components in the glass they are tasting, for the amateur wine taster the obvious problem is that of calibration – until you know the expanse of the best, and worst, on offer your own scale is likely to be askew, at either or both ends. I myself feel when using a 100pts score that I may be over-scoring poorer wines and under-scoring the really good ones, but until I have tried more examples including both 50pt and 100pt wines I’ll never be completely sure (samples gratefully accepted!).
Although I still use the 100pt scale at home and when posting on forums I am leaning towards a 5 point scale for Reign of Terroir, similar to the Broadbent/Decanter system, but with half points. My attempts to reconcile it with the 100pt scale are still ongoing, but for the moment are along the lines of;
5* - None better, 99-100pts.
5 - Outstanding & Exceptional, 96-99pts
4+ - Wonderful wines with a range of qualities, 93-96pts
4 - Very good with some special singular quality, 90 -93pts
3+ - Very good in all aspects, 87-90pts
3 - Good, well made wine, 83-87pts.
2+ - Average with some character, although generally dull, 78-83pts.
2 - Plain-average, 70-78pts
1 - Poor, 60-70pts
<1 - Undrinkable, <60pts
However my scoring is intended for my own reference and to be viewed in context with accompanying tasting notes. Rather than specifically giving points to the individual components such as colour, nose etc. I tend use a more holistic approach to reach the final score and I suspect many amateurs do something similar. What is clear is that at some point when you have moved on from “it is a goodly wine” or “I like reds” then you do start to look at the specific components in the glass and judge if the qualities match what you prefer. This is when the oft repeated adage comes in - wine enjoyment is subjective, what tastes good to me may not to you and a texture or taste component I like may not be a favourite of yours. This subjectivity is moulded by experience, genetics and by other people’s opinions, and therein lies the crux of the matter – most people are easily swayed by ”expert” opinions that it is not hard to understand why so many listen so much to so few.
As with all forms of subjective appreciation finding a critic who matches your style and preferences is the best way to make sense of scores, whatever format they’re given in, but also to understand that a score often is a snap-shot of a particular bottle of wine taken under specific circumstances which may not reflect how another bottle of that wine will taste at a different time with a different person, such as you, doing the tasting.