Wine Ratings: Judging Appearance

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

judging appearance in wine ratingsIn my previous article, Wine Ratings: What Do They Mean and How Do I Use Them, I briefly showed how points are allocated in a 100-points wine rating system. And I said I’d explain each of the rating components further in future articles. This is the first of those articles and is primarily focused on appearance.

Wine Rating Categories

  • 50 points for just being wine: People like 100 point systems, but there aren’t 100 points of difference. The worst wine in the world would get 50 points.
  • 0-5 points for appearance: Color, intensity, brightness. Awarding less than 3 appearance points is uncommon.
  • 0-15 points for aroma: Appeal, complexity, correctness and absence of flaws
  • 0-20 points for the palate: Texture, balance, flavor, intensity and length
  • 0-10 points for additional indicators of quality: Is it clearly exceptional in certain ways, is it uniquely attractive, will it improve with age?

50 Points for Just Showing Up

The first 50 points in the 100-point system are freebies. They are just a cheat to get to a total of 100 points. People are familiar and comfortable with 100-points scales in other areas, from school grades to the metric system. When Robert Parker created his rating system for wine, he wanted something that every consumer could relate to immediately. So he went with 100 points.

As a reviewer of wine who tastes thousands of wines every year, I sometimes wish those 50 free points were used more effectively. It’s very common to see critics rate an excellent wine with a score that’s not strictly numerical, like “95+.” In my own notes, I write scores such as “91+” and “/89,” meaning “better than 91 and could be 92 on a different day” and “virtually an 89.” If we had the extra 50 points, the plus signs could go away.

On the other hand, that extra precision would be misleading. In reality, a given wine can easily vary by a couple of points—even with the current rating structure—from day to day, based on tasting conditions, bottle variation, wine temperature and how the evaluator is feeling. Anyway, forget about the first 50 points.

Rating Appearance in Wine

The way a wine looks can tell you a lot, including how old it may be, whether it’s from a cool or warm climate and if it may have been aged in oak. That’s all useful to identifying wines when blind tasting, but not relevant to scores. The factors critics do consider are clarity, color depth, color, uniformity and brightness.


Clarity in wine doesn’t refer to transparency per se. A wine can be opaque and still be “clear.” A "clear" wine is like a clear sky or a diamond with perfect clarity. It means it's not cloudy and there are no particles floating in it. Consumers instinctively expect clarity, so wineries are usually careful to deliver that.

In the past, lack of clarity usually indicated a faulty or poorly made wine. Today, many high-end and “minimal intervention” wineries pride themselves on wines that are “neither fined nor filtered.” They believe those processes may strip out important aromatic and flavor components. As a result, some of today's best wines are a bit hazy or have suspended particles.

Still, the vast majority of wines made these days are clear. That is especially true for mainstream wines. And even those wines that are not fined or filtered are rarely so turbid as to lose points for clarity.

How Darkly Colored is the Wine?

Consumers generally prefer intensely colored wines, especially when it comes to reds and rosés. We associate deep color with greater flavor. That association usually proves true, because much of the flavor in red and rosé wine comes from the skins and that is also where the color comes from. Extraction of flavor tends to be synchronized with extraction of color.

There is a psychological aspect to color depth also. We drink with our eyes first. If, even subliminally, we expect a wine to lack flavor because it is pale, our brain will tend to confirm that when we taste it.

Is the color depth appropriate for the variety and region?

Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape and that means the wine should usually have transparency. If you tilt the glass and look down through the wine at a book, the text should be visible and maybe even legible. On the other hand, in regions with very long growing seasons and plenty of sun, such as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, darker color is appropriate.

The opposite is true of thick-skinned grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Red wine made from those grapes should be dark. If it isn’t, we can expect the flavor and structure to be lacking.

Is the hue appropriate to the grape variety and region?

New releases of Chablis should be lemon yellow or lemon green. That indicates cool climate, low alcohol, low sugar, limited oak aging and no oxidation. If a young Chablis is gold, that probably means the wine is oxidized. At the very least, it’s atypical.

The Riverbench wine, below left, is the correct color for a young Chardonnay from a cool climate region. But the wine on the right is also a correct color for Chardonnay, because this Stony Hill wine was 25 years old.

Stony Hill Chardonnay

Grenache is a thin-skinned red wine grape that oxidizes very easily. Wine made from Grenache should be ruby-colored, but hints of garnet/orange aren’t inappropriate if the wine has been seen extended oak aging at the winery. If Grenache is purple, it may have been blended or colored with additives. Or it was simply grown in a very warm region. So a purple Grenache from Paso Robles or McClaren Vale is acceptable, not so much if it's from Cariñena.

Is the color uniform from the core to the rim?

If a young, red wine shows garnet (orange) tones at the edges—or, shudder, in the core—that could indicate premature age or oxidation. If the wine is from a thin-skinned grapes, a hint of garnet might be okay. 

Note that Variation in hue from core to rim is an illusion. The wine is actually the same color throughout, but nuances in color are more obvious at the rim because there's less wine and light passes through more easily. For the same reason, most wine will be lighter at the rim than at the core.

If a young red wine is deeply colored overall but totally colorless at the rim, that can indicate some of the alcohol is separating out. This is not an illusion and is not ideal because it can indicate very high alcohol.

Is the wine bright?

Brightness may be better understood as “shiny.” Does light bounce off the wine? Can you see reflections in it or does the wine have a dull, matte finish? Generally, a dull finish indicates a fault. The same is true of an opalescent sheen sitting atop the wine like an oil slick. There are exceptions to every rule but, to get maximum points—and make consumers happy—the top surface of a wine should be bright.

But Appearance is Only Five Points

Reviewers consider appearance carefully, but it isn’t nearly as important as the attributes of aroma and palate. That’s because, aside from sheer visual appeal, the way a wine looks just hints at what our nose and palate will find. And, of course, the greatest pleasures of wine coming from smelling and tasting it. I'll cover those factors in upcoming articles.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.