Wine Ratings: What Do They Mean and How Do I Use Them?

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

In part one of my two-part series, “Wine Ratings: What's the Point and Should You Pay Attention?”, I explained why rating systems were created, how various types of publications approach tastings differently, and why reviewers don’t always agree with each other. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the 100-point scoring system and how to evaluate wine ratings in the context of your own palate and wine preferences.

Wine Ratings: What Goes into a Score and What Do They Mean?

Here’s how points are allocated in a typical 100-point wine rating system:

  • 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?

I’ll cover each of these categories fully in a future article on analytical tasting.

Wine Ratings Have Been on the Rise

Your average wine is much better today than it was in the 70’s and 80’s. There were great, classic wines made then and some still drink well today. But the normal, everyday wine made back then—whether it be from California, Italy, France, Chile, Spain, etc.—would have a hard time getting on grocery store shelves today.

There have been countless improvements in grape growing, winemaking and winery cleanliness. This is true for small artisanal wineries and for huge industrial ones. As a result, average wine ratings have risen over the past 30 years.

I still find wines which merit less than 80 points. But they are typically from small wineries in unsung areas and are still trying to figure things out and find their way. Because ratings are so important to sales and to brand reputation now, most wineries would never release such a wine for review.

At the other extreme, I know winemakers who consider any wine below 95 points an abject failure. But typically those wines come with pretty high price tags, and a lower score might make for difficulty in selling through a vintage.

The Pursuit of 100 Points

Anytime there is a measure of “perfection,” people will strive to attain it. Wine is no different. With all those improvements and, in some cases, nearly unlimited budgets, 100 point ratings have become more common. (So much so, you can even purchase your own 100-point wine glass, crafted by Lalique and wine critic James Suckling.)

While important to the collectors’ resale market, 100 points doesn’t drink much different than 98 points. In my opinion, anything from 96 points and up “should” be a rocking wine if you intend to eventually open and enjoy it yourself.

The “best” of anything always comes at a premium, but doesn’t necessarily equate to a qualitative difference in personal enjoyment. If I had the luxury of choosing between spending $1,000 on a single 100-point wine to drink or four 97-pointers for the same money, I’d take the latter.

Is 93 Point Wine Always Better than 88 Point Wine?

Yes and no.

Qualitatively, a Robert Parker 93-point Bordeaux is quite a bit better to his palate than a Bordeaux he gives 88 points. However, his preferences may not be yours. To your palate, that 88-point Bordeaux, which based on Parker's palate, is likely lighter and more savory, may taste better.

Furthermore, points are based on the innate qualities of a wine: complexity, intensity, typicity, ability to improve with age, etc. Not all of those factors are relevant every time we buy or drink wine. If you are having a casual meal by the pool or in front of the TV, you may not focus enough to enjoy a super complex wine. Whereas an age-worthy wine won’t be at its best if you drink it right away. And an expensive Burgundy probably won’t pair as well with your pizza as would a much less expensive, lower-scoring Zinfandel.

To put it another way, you might consider that a Ferrari is better than a pickup truck. Unless you have a lot of cargo, want to drive off-road, or need to pull a trailer. Then a pickup is much better than a Ferrari. Similarly, wine ratings are useful, but they aren’t everything.

How to Use Wine Ratings

Know the Reviewers
First, figure out which critics your palate agrees with. Buy a few wines with decent ratings from various reviewers to see how your taste aligns with theirs. Bear in mind that each publication, whether online or print, has several different reviewers. Try and get a feel for the palate of the individual reviewer rather than the publication as a whole.

The good news is, professional wine reviewers are pretty consistent. If you like Stephen Tanzer’s choices on 5 or 10 wines, you’ll probably agree with him most all the time. If you dislike wines that Robert Parker gave 94 points, then you know his palate is not a good match for your preferences.

Go with the Group
You can also look for clusters of ratings. If a wine is rated 91 to 93 by four different reviewers but one person gives that wine an 88, see who gave the 88. Unless it’s your favorite reviewer, you’ll probably be very happy with that wine.

Look for Key Words
Even on shelf tags with ratings, there are usually at least a few descriptive words too. If you like intense New World-style wines, look for words like ripe, jammy, as well as rich, full-bodied, luxurious, extracted and concentrated. If you prefer leaner, more savory wines, look for descriptors such as elegant, refined, fresh, firm, mineral, earth, leather, herbal etc.

Keep an Open Mind
Every now and then, you’re going to buy a highly-touted wine and find you don’t care for it. Look at the reviewer’s notes on that wine. See if you can understand what he or she liked about it and how they described it. This will help you avoid similar wines going forward.

Dive Deeper
The tips above will help you make best use of scores when you’re looking to make decisions quickly. But, if you have the time, there’s no substitute for learning more about your favorite varieties, regions and wineries. It’s also undeniably enjoyable!

As you become more knowledgeable and taste more wine, you will likely find that wine ratings make even more sense to you in the context of your educated palate.

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.