Friday, October 21, 2011

What do Wine Ratings Really Mean?


Have you ever stood in front of the wine rack at your favorite purveyor of wine and scratched your head while thinking “what do the wine ratings on those little white tags really mean?”  Whether you care to admit to having this thought or not, I will raise my hand.  The relationship between the rating on that little white tag is important to your next wine pairing you are planning.  But if you are not familiar with the meaning of the rating, the relationship may not be what you expected.

When it comes to wine, my clear focus is understanding why pairing a wine with a particular dish works and the never ending pursuit of palate bending flavor combinations.  This is distinct from enjoying wine for the qualities embodied by the wine alone.  This is an important difference.  For instance, if you were to purchase a highly rated wine, you are selecting a wine judged by some “expert” as a good representation of the varietal and the region.  This rating tells you something about the quality of the wine.  However, it provides none of the information you need to ensure a good wine pairing.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy wine for the simple pleasure of tasting something enjoyable.  Wine ratings are a good aid to help you select a quality wine.  However, the numbers alone are insufficient to make a judgment on pairing wine with your favorite dish.  I am dedicated to the mind expanding pleasure of food and wine pairing, and therefore the number is just one in a long line of discriminators (see my food and wine pairing decision model).


There are several reputable sources for wine rating including The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits Magazine.  Each conduct blind tastings under controlled conditions by seasoned experts (I clearly picked the wrong career!).  The specific process followed by each varies slightly, but is not sufficiently diverse to draw a distinction.  The ratings are similarly consistent with most variation in assessment falling on wines that dip below a score of 80.  But really, why would you select a wine rated as average or less? 

On to the nuts and bolts.  Following are the ratings and associated definitions used by each of the noted wine critics:

The Wine Advocate

95-100: Classic; a great wine
90-94: Outstanding; superior character and style
80-89: Good to very good; wine with special qualities
70-79: Average; drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
60-69: Below average; drinkable but not recommended
50-59: Poor; undrinkable, not recommended

Wine Spectator

96-100: Extraordinary; a classic wine of its variety
90-95: Outstanding; exceptional complexity and character
80-89: Barely above average to very good; wine with various degrees of flavor
70-79: Average; little distinction beyond being soundly made
60-69: Below average; drinkable, but containing noticeable deficiencies
50-59: Poor; unacceptable, not recommended

Wine Enthusiast

95-100 -- Superb. One of the greats.
90-94 -- Excellent. Extremely well made and highly recommended.
85-89 -- Very good. May offer outstanding value if the price is right.
80-84 -- Good. Solid wine, suitable for everyday consumption.

Note:  Only wines scoring 80 or better are published.

Wine & Spirits Magazine

95-100 -- Extraordinary
90-94 -- Outstanding
85-89 -- Very Good to Excellent
80-84 -- Good
75-79 -- Average
70-74 -- Below Average
<70 – Avoid

And now we draw back the curtain and reveal the true Oz.  Back in my naïve days (yesterday), I expected to find a formula that miraculously summed to the rating numbers.  In other words, I expected to find a scale or system that assigned 5 points for one characteristic, 10 points for another, and so on.  It doesn’t exist.  The rating scales you just read represent a big picture assessment by the taster and are not the result of some elegant distribution of points among characteristics.  Like the professionals, you have full license to taste a wine and proclaim “88!”  And you would be right.  Who is a better judge of your taste than you?

You should now have a reasonably good understanding of what the numbers mean.  However, here comes the bottom line when it comes to pairing a wine with food; these numbers are simply a discriminator for those wines you should avoid.  The numbers say nothing about the appropriateness of the pairing selection.  Don’t lose hope just yet.  Each of these wine critics also provide tasting notes – the real meat and potatoes of wine pairing.  The tasting notes discuss aromas, body, flavors, acidity, complexity, maturity, mouth feel and all the things you need to know to make a good selection for your next creation.

In the wine industry however, emphasis is clearly laid at the feet of the holy score.  Less attention is given to the tasting notes.  I understand why.  With a highly favorable score, a wine can become a star and lead to profits.  The same is not true for tasting notes.  Well crafted tasting notes contain the information we need to construct a successful pairing, but they do not sell wine.


In most cases, wine shops rarely provide tasting notes – they try to extract the contents of your wallet by highlighting the points awarded by one of the critics.  Unfortunately this means more research on your part if you intend to take care in composing your food and wine paring.  Tasting notes can be had from the critics we have discussed, a well informed wine merchant (like my favorite - Schneiders of Capitol Hill), the back label on a bottle, the website for the winery, or simply tasting the wine before constructing the pairing.

Once you have narrowed the wine field to those wines that are rated at good or better, you can then begin to look at the tasting notes and the specific characters of the wine that will appropriately complement your hard work in the kitchen.  If you want to enjoy wine of a particular varietal and region, you can trust the numbers.  If you want to construct a memorable paring, look deeper.

In vino veritas, buen provecho.


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