Do wine scores matter?

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If your regular $10 Tuesday night wine scored 98 points in the wine ratings, would it taste better? Let’s examine that question.

Tasting notes and descriptions of wine have existed from the beginning of winemaking history. When the vintage is selected, bottled and available for sale or distribution, the winemaker creates tasting notes as a guide to the buyer, denoting the varietal, blend, vineyard location, alcohol percentage, nuances in oak, fruit and complexity. Food pairing suggestions may even be included. These notes will always be helpful to wine enthusiasts regardless of the rating or score of the particular wine.

It became a little controversial when the rating systems evolved to a numerical scoring system that purists believe removed the individuality from the wine ratings, creating an open road to globalizing wine rather than supporting the nuances of individual locality, style and terroir.

What’s the big deal? Critics would argue that the introduction and implementation of the numerical rating system encouraged wine producers to strive for the best score instead of the best wine. Higher-scoring wine may sell more in volume, thus increasing the bottom line as a result of marketing the coveted higher score. Before the numerical rating systems, consumers might have relied on publications such as Consumer Reports, with reviews and ratings based on objective sets of classifications. But now that communication, marketing and business move at the speed of light, it’s critical that wine producers strive for market share, edging out competition.

Rating systems come in all shapes, sizes and formats. But how can the judges tell a 95 from a 75? Just as we experienced a grading system of A through F in elementary school, with set criteria for each grade, wine judges and critics have guidelines and specific criteria when they embark on a wine tasting. The venue may determine more specific criteria, but regardless of the credentials wine critics possess, three basic guidelines are in place each time.

The judges use clear stemware on white linen tablecloths to better frame the color and appearance of the wine being judged. All white wines are not the same colo and actually will have a golden, green or tan hue, whereas red wines can range from pink to deep purple or brown. This visual helps determine age.

As the glass is swirled, the wine’s aroma and body are opened up for the nose to take in the first impressions and display how much sugar may be in the wine as it clings to the glass. Even after only a moment, the trained nose can pick up where the vineyard may be located and what nuances are specific to the type of wine.

Most critics look for balance in the wine with several sips in succession, swirling the wine in the mouth and noting acid, sweetness, alcohol, specific flavors to the wine and overall flavor compared to mouth feel. Did it linger on the palate or disappear after a flat entrance onto the tongue?

You’ll find wines rated from participation in international wine competitions, state fair wine competitions, wine publications and retailer suggestions, and even rated by the wine team at your local market. In each case, the wine that receives a favorable rating will be promoted accordingly. With so many rating scales to choose from, how do consumers make sense of it all?

100 point scale
Achieving 95 to 100 qualifies the wine as “classic great wine,” and this is the most common rating scale seen today on supermarket shelves, in tasting notes and on wine lists. The 100-point scale derived from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate is similar to the educational grading system and is a much-sought-after recognition by many wine producers. For many of us, even the low score of 75 would be a drinkable wine and would not stop me from buying or sharing a bottle of wine that resonated with me.

20 point scale
With 20 being “truly exceptional” and 12 being “faulty,” this system was developed in 1959 for academic wine evaluation based on traditionally technical qualities such as color, aroma, flavor and balance. Dr. Maynard Amerine of UC Davis Viticulture remains a highly respected authority in this area and Jancis Robinson is a current proponent of this system.

5 point scale
With 5 Stars indicating superlative, this scale is sometimes viewed as too simple and unaccommodating to wines’ complexities. This rating system usually appears as stars or asterisks and has been very user friendly since its 1980 introduction in many wine guides, notably John and Erica Platter’s first South African wine guidebook.

You are by far the best wine judge for your palate, with the unique food and life pairings you enjoy. Develop your own rating system! In truth, some folks happily use the beauty and design of the label to decide their wine purchase; that’s a story for another day!

Enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with all things delicious, including wine! HLM

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