Exactly How Do Professional Critics Rate and Rank Wine?

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Four tasting glasses with wine on a barrel

While many people enjoy wine, there is a very select group who enjoy it professionally. If you’re an aficionado looking to elevate your wine drinking experience, there is no shortage of resources on the best practices for tasting wine and helpful tips for creating the illusion of understanding what wine tasting is all about. While these are noble endeavors in their own right and excellent ways to appreciate the nuances of a quality glass of wine, amateur or hobby wine critics are no replacement for the real thing.

There is a devoted band of professionals who have dedicated their lives to the craft of critiquing wine and sharing that information with the masses. These wine critics' expert opinions have immense value — their discerning palates and ability to articulate that information to an audience of laymen wine drinkers improves the wine drinking experience for all.

Professional critics can tell you what to drink and what to avoid. They can guide you with recommendations backed by professional expertise and proven wisdom. They can even provide compelling talking points when you simply disagree with them. After all, wine critics are providing their educated opinions, not a scientific ruling. This is part of the joy of wine rating and tasting!

What Is Wine Tasting?

Wine tasting is the often reverent process of evaluating wine that began as early as the 14th century. Sommeliers and wine critics are examples of the modern, professional wine taster. Wine tasters examine wine and articulate qualities, including flavor, aroma, and visual characteristics.

If you are a consumer of wine — even an avid and knowledgeable one — you are probably a passive drinker. Passive wine drinkers consume wine for pleasure and socialization. While you might appreciate the finer nuances of your wine, you might not dissect every attribute of your drink as you sip.

Wine critics are generally active drinkers. They thoroughly analyze every attribute of the wines they taste. Every detail — from the aroma to color — provides information about the wine they are tasting.

Active, professional wine drinkers will partake in five steps of wine tasting and assessment:

  • Color: Wine glasses should be placed at an angle to view the colors properly. Coloring can provide details that reveal grape variety and aging processes.
  • Swirling: Swirling releases the bouquet, or total aromatic experience, of the wine by exposing it to an increase in oxygen. A professional wine taster will swirl sparkling wine, but not to the point of releasing bubbles.
  • Smell: Swirling can reveal flaws that can be smelled — such as oxidation due to age, overexposure to oxygen, lack of preservatives, or excess yeast. It can also help the taster anticipate the wine’s flavor before tasting. The wine’s “nose” aids in flavor perception.
  • Taste: Tasting wine involves a complex interaction between flavor and mouthfeel. Once tasted, the aromatics of the wine are enhanced by body heat and come into contact with the olfactory receptor site, where the wine taster can perceive complex taste qualities.
  • Savoring: After appreciating the olfactory characteristics of the wine, the professional taster holds the wine in their mouth. Tasters purse their lips and breathe in additional oxygen to release more aromatic qualities. Professional tasters experience the most complete palate possible by slowly savoring the wine within their mouths.

These five steps are also known as the “Five S’s” of wine tasting. These essential steps allow the taster to evaluate qualities such as connectedness, complexity, expressiveness, integration, varietal character, and clarity.

How Do Wine Critics Assess Wine?

Professional wine critics have their own methods for assessing wine. They often evaluate a wine’s overall quality by observing its qualities and comparing them to recognized standards. These standards are based on other wines within the price range, as well as other factors such as vintage, region, aging process, or any remarkable characteristics.

Wine can be tasted in isolation, but it is often tasted in “flights” for more objective evaluation. Flights are usually arranged based on a wine's vintage for horizontal tasting or from a single winery for a vertical tasting.

Some wine tasting and critiquing calls for blind tasting, which obscures the label and shape of the bottle. Studies show that a taster’s judgment can be influenced by being aware of details such as varietal, geographic origin, reputation, and price.

What Are Wine Ratings?

Wine ratings were developed in the 1980s by a prolific wine writer you may have heard of, the famous Robert Parker. Parker is credited with inventing the 100-point system that defines modern wine rating.

Wine ratings were designed to standardize the way a wine’s quality is communicated to consumers. Wine ratings are not used to depict the flavor of a wine. Rather, they express a wine’s production quality and typicity, which specifies how many traits of a specific wine align with its style and region.

Wine ratings are allocated via a typical 100-point wine rating system. The wine rating system is broken down like this:

  • 50 points to start: To round out the 100-point system, all wines are given 50 automatic points — no matter what their quality or condition.
  • Zero to 5 points for appearance: Wine critics award points based on color, intensity, and brightness. Most wines earn at least three points in this category.
  • Zero to 15 points for aroma: Wines earn aroma points for the appeal, complexity, correctness, and absence of flaws revealed from their bouquet.
  • Zero to 20 points for the palate: Points for palate are awarded for quality of texture, balance, flavor, intensity, and length.
  • Zero to 10 points for other qualities: If a wine presents any other exceptional qualities, they will be rewarded here.

Making Sense of Wine Critiques

While wine critics and wine magazines make use of their own unique methods, you can be sure that — no matter what their process — the true work of wine critics is to improve the wine drinking experience for all. Reading the work of wine critics can help you discern what wines you might enjoy most, what to look for when shopping for wine, and what wines you should try next.

Using this knowledge can help you select your next wine purchase from JJ Buckley’s extensive stock of fine wines. You can take enjoying your wine to the next level with the quality services of a Wine Specialist at JJ Buckley, who can help you decode the wine critiques, ratings, and other content. Using our Wine Specialist’s accessible expert knowledge in tandem with the collective wisdom and opinions of wine critics can help you enjoy your wine experience as fully as possible.