What are Wine Ratings and Should You Pay Attention to Them?
Anish Patel @ 2022-05-22 23:50:50 -0700
Take a stroll down the wine aisle of any major retailer and you might notice numbers assigned to certain wine bottles on display. 91 points, 100 points—what does it mean? These numbers are scores from wine rating systems, and they can make or break a wine producer. But a new generation of winemakers and enthusiasts are putting less weight on point systems and turning to other factors to determine whether or not they should buy a bottle of wine.
So how do wine ratings work? Why are they there? Who rates them? And are they still relevant or have their shortcomings outweighed their benefits? This guide is designed to answer these questions and give you everything you need to know to decide if you should pay attention to scoring points or march to the beat of your own palate.
What are wine ratings?
In the 1980s, Robert Parker was the most widely respected wine critic. His opinion on wine had a big impact, and he decided to create a 100-point scoring system that his audience could use to follow his recommendations easily.
Until then, there was no standardized system of rating the quality of a wine. A lot of good came out of this move and from Robert Parker's ability to turn his audience into lovers of lesser-known wine regions. If he awarded a high score to a wine producer from a certain region, neighboring wine producers would also benefit from the spotlight.
It also helped average wine drinkers find wines they wouldn’t otherwise try. Wine is difficult to understand, and unless you study the subject, the labels don’t do much good clearing things up. Sometimes they act as more of a language barrier, deterring consumers from regions they don’t understand. But a point system was simple—people could make sense of it. So for a time, wine ratings helped the wine industry flourish and reach the mainstream palate.
The 100-point system quickly became an industry standard. But after almost half a century later, new generations are hesitant to place any value on point systems. Let’s take a look at what happened to cause this shift.
How wines are rated.
Robert Parker’s point system rated wines based on production quality and how well the wine demonstrated attributes that are classic to the region it’s made in. Even though it’s a 100-point scale, the wines are rated from 50 to 100. We don’t really know why he chose 50 to 100 over 1 to 50 or even 1 to 100. Perhaps 50 to 100 has a certain appeal that other ranges don’t.
Regardless, here’s how the 100-point wine rating system works:
- 50-59 these wines are considered flawed to the point of being unacceptable for drinking.
- 60-69 these wines are below average and have significant flaws but aren’t undrinkable.
- 70-79 these are average with nothing distinctive or significantly flawed.
- 80-89 these wines are above average with no flaws.
- 90-95 these are outstanding, complex wines.
- 96-100 these wines are exceptional, complex, and are perfect expressions of how they “should” taste according to classic standards.
Eventually, other wine rating systems began popping up, and today, there are many. Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits Magazine, and Decanter all have 100-point systems. But Wine Enthusiast doesn’t include any wine that scores below 80. And Vivino has a 5-star rating system.
Wines are rated by a single person and sometimes a team of critics. Some critics taste the wine blind, and sometimes the wines are tasted at the winery with the winemaker. There is a consensus that tasting a wine onsite can lead to a critic being swayed by the overall ambiance and lack of control in the environment, and so some wine rating critics will argue that scores that aren’t made blind aren’t reliable.
The drawbacks of wine ratings.
The most significant drawback of wine ratings is that the wines are subject to one person’s opinion. And as in all things, art is subjective. Everyone has different preferences when it comes to what wines they prefer, and we even interpret the same wines differently simply because our brains are wired differently.
For example, about one-fifth of the population can’t detect the compound responsible for the peppery aroma found in Syrah.
Robert Parker had a preference for full-bodied, high alcohol red wine from Bordeaux and Napa Valley. He had such a strong influence on the taste of consumers that after about twenty years, winemakers began producing wines for his palate.
They knew that if they received a high score, their profits would skyrocket. And they weren’t wrong.
Unfortunately, this was bad for creativity and innovation. It left little room for the brilliant complexity of light-bodied reds, and regions known for producing red wine that veered from Parker’s preference suffered as the mainstream palate became obsessed with big, bold red wine.
It’s important to remember that there are more wines in the world than one critic is capable of tasting. Some of the most interesting, fantastic wines are made from small producers in lesser-known regions. And many winemakers simply don’t bother submitting their wine to be scored, because they know that because their wines are different, even though they might be great, won’t be scored favorably.
This is especially true for natural wines.
Why natural winemakers don’t bother with wine ratings.
The biggest shortcoming of wine ratings is that there are many schools of thought when it comes to natural wines and wine faults. You can make a valid argument for many of the varying opinions, and this division points to the fact wine is first and foremost, a sensory experience, and that means that, to an extent, quality is up for interpretation.
A perfect example of this is the presence of an aromatic compound called methoxypyrazines. Pyrazines, for short, are also found in green bell pepper and asparagus, and they present as these aromas in wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. How ripe the grape is during harvest determines how high or low the concentration of pyrazines is in the grape.
An overwhelming green note is usually due to a high concentration of pyrazines, and these wines are generally considered to be faulty. A lower amount, however, makes an acceptable, balanced wine. But how much is too much? That’s up to whoever is drinking it.
Another great example is the case of Brettanomyces, a type of yeast found in wineries that multiplies very easily. At low concentrations, the presence of Brett gives wine spicy, leathery, or earthy aromas. At higher concentrations, it can overwhelm a wine with barnyard, sweaty saddle, and even band-aid aromas.
The question of Brett is pretty divisive. Some people consider any presence at all to be a fault. Others find that a small amount adds complexity. And others don’t consider it a fault at all, rather, a natural expression of the wine itself.
Natural wines used to tend to express more of what is considered by convention to be “faulty.” Brettanomyces can be present in natural wine because it survives in unfiltered wines. And while it's an acquired taste, it has won the hearts of many drinkers and is to thank for the trend of sour beer as well.
But because it’s traditionally considered a fault, some natural winemakers don’t bother submitting their wines to wine rating systems. Does this mean their wine is bad? Not at all. Some may not meet conventional standards.
On the flip side natural wines, today, are proving to be flawless even by conventional standards but natural winemakers often just don't put as much into trying to satisfy the traditional wine institutions.
Should you pay attention to wine ratings?
Everyone has different taste in wine. And you can’t completely remove bias from critics and writers. Even though wine ratings go a long way in simplifying wine for people who need it, the truth is that wine isn’t simple.
You may find that identifying someone, either internationally or locally, whose wine recommendations you always love is your ticket to finding great wine easily. Follow their lead if it makes your life easier. Just make sure that the person you’re following has a similar palate to yours.
But there’s no one leading authority on wine, so don’t let wine ratings deter you from buying something with a lower rating or without a rating at all. If you do, you’ll definitely miss out on some gems. Instead, find a writer or a local wine shop who has great taste, in your opinion, and explore their suggestions.
At the end of the day, be sure you’re drinking what you like and not what someone tells you you should like.
Check out our natural wine shop to browse some of our personal favorites. Our wines have minimal sulfites and are certified organic.