Rolf Glass Matchstick All Purpose Wine Glass (Set of 2)
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Holly Shaw, DipWSet, ReserveBar Wine Contributor
A friend calls me in a state of trepidation from the wine store: Which wine is better – the one with the 88 RP score or the one with an 88 WE score? As the "wine expert" in my circle of friends, I get this call at least once a week, and I absolutely get it—the anxiety is real! Wine ratings can be dizzying. How many times have you stood in the store and looked down the aisle of brightly colored tags with big, bold numbers and wondered how this is at all helpful in making a choice. . . and is this just a marketing ploy?
Wine ratings can be confusing, but they can also help you feel confident about buying wine online or in a store when you have a grasp on how to interpret them. Ratings also mean a great deal to winemakers, as a 100-point score can change the trajectory of a winery. On the flip side, a high rating can make purchasing that 99-point wine expensive and or near impossible. But picking up a bottle with a 95 score can help you feel confident in bringing the bottle to a friend's house.
There are so many players in the wine ratings world, which raises several questions for the consumer standing in the aisle. Is Wine Spectator (WS) better than Robert Parker (RP) – and what about Decanter? What if a wine isn't rated; does that mean it's not worthy to drink? Who are the people making these judgments? These are all valid questions and ones that should be answered, and I'm here to take a stab at them for you, my friends!
Most wine ratings are based on the 100-point scale, popularized by Robert Parker, an influential wine critic (now retired) who wanted to create a system where wines that relied on their reputation for popularity would be tasted and compared to other wines using a similar criterion. Parker did that by applying a 100-point rubric to wine, with all wine scores starting with 50 points. Parker's rise to respectability started with the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. At the time, he was a lawyer but was writing a wine newsletter on the side. He praised the 1982 vintage, which made other critics assume he didn't know what he was doing because they had (mostly) dismissed the vintage.
The style of the 1982 wine reflected a rich, ripe, and opulent wine, which many critics didn't think reflected Bordeaux's typical austerity and longevity. His newsletter eventually became Wine Advocate, and the rest is history. Decanter and Wine Spectator soon followed with their own rubric systems. While Parker's 100-point-based system is still the most common, a few rating systems use a 20-point scale (e.g., Jancis Robinson and Vinum magazine).
Typically, a group of peers will taste in what's called "single-blind" conditions. These tasters are experts within a particular country or region. For example, a group of people will taste around 60-100 South American Chardonnays in one sitting. Not surprisingly, this process of blind wine tasting can be exhausting. Some magazines allow the judges to be provided criteria such as price, region, and technical details, while others allow the judges to know the varietal, such as Chardonnay.
As a wine judge, you are not "drinking" the wine – you are simply tasting it, which means you are taking a sip, swirling it in your mouth, and spitting it out. In this process, you are looking for typicity. All wine regions or grape varietals generally have a style or taste known as typicity, which expresses the authenticity of the wine, reflecting the soil, climate, and grape varietal. If your South American Chardonnay had an aroma of petrol, as a taster, you would mark that wine with lower points because it's not a 'typical' expression of Chardonnay. You'd wonder if it was due to bad winemaking or had a structural issue. You would also address the structure, which includes aromatics, the body of wine, acid, tannins, and alcohol. Does one stand out, leading the wine to be unbalanced or too 'hot' (high in alcohol)? Does this wine have the usual aromatics of Chardonnay? The list goes on. A single sip needs a lot of evaluation. Then you do this over and over again.
Amanda Barnes, wine judge for Decanter, told me that "blind tasting is actually a great way to identify incredible wines because they do really stand out in a flight – usually for their complexity, balance or precision. But when blind tasting over 50 wines a day, it's also really important to give enough time to each glass to let those shy wines open up and tell you what they are about – that's the risk, that you will pass over a good wine too quickly and not give it it's dues. A great wine usually sings, though!"
Maybe you didn't even realize that more than one system existed, which isn't unusual. The leading wine score systems are as follows, and each has initials, which is what you will see on display, designating which system is used: Wine Spectator (WS), Robert Parker (RP)/Wine Advocate (WA), Wine Enthusiast (WE), Decanter (D) and James Suckling/JamesSuckling.com (JS). You also have Tre Bicchieri, International Wine Review (IRW)/Vinous (V), Burghound, James Halliday, and Jeb Dunnuck (JD).
All of the ratings are given in different conditions with various adjectives and cut-offs for excellent, good, or great wines. Wine Spectator's 80-89 designates a good to very good wine, while Wine Advocate's 80-89 is a barely above average to very good wine. This makes it difficult to compare different ratings across the board. It is important that you understand how and why each wine arrived at its rating. When you see multiple 100 points assigned to the same wine, such as Château d'Yquem Sauternes 2009, which was rated 100 by WE and RP, it might give you great comfort in paying the money for that wine. My advice: if you tend to agree with the ratings from a specific system like Wine Spectator, then your tastes are aligned with those critics, and you can trust them. If your tastes don't align with a particular magazine or critic, try another one.
Let's take a quick glimpse at the major ratings.
Wine Spectator reviews more than 15,000 wines a year in blind-tasting conditions. Editors taste the same region year to year, and the "lead taster" has the final say on the score of the wine. Barrel tastings are preliminary, and unofficial tastings are noted. Tasters are informed about varietal, region, and vintage.
Wine Advocate is now officially named Robert Parker Wine Advocate, a magazine with nine full-time reviewers reviewing up to 30,000 wines. They publish one rating: RPWA (Robert Parker Wine Advocate). To confuse matters, you will see RPWA, RP, and WA ratings. Technically, they are all the same. (I know, I know). RP is, in fact, short for Robert Parker Wine Advocate, the umbrella company, and therefore the score may have been given by any member of the official team. RP no longer indicates that Robert Parker himself reviewed the wines, as it has in the past.
Wine Advocate conducts large-scale tastings with peer groups. They do NOT taste blind. The tasters will be given the region, vintage, and grape varietal.
Tastings are performed blind in peer groups. The critics are given vintage, variety, or appellation but never price or producer. Wine Enthusiast tastes around 25,000 wines per year.
Tastings are performed blind in peer groups. The critics are given some criteria on the wine, such as region, varietal and vintage. They also assign "medals," which refers to the score a wine needs to achieve at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the Decanter Asia Wine Awards in order to gain a commended, bronze, silver, or gold Medal. Some gold medal winners will go on to achieve platinum medals, or "best in class" awards, when pitted against their gold medal-winning peers in a particular category – such as red Bordeaux blend.
Mr. Suckling reviews about 6,000-10,000 wines per year, and the website (jamessuckling.com) reviews about 18,000 per year. In 2020, 133 wines scored 99 or 100. Mr. Suckling is a wine critic and former European editor for Wine Spectator magazine. He reviews what he calls "the best wines of the world." He and his team use a rating system based on color, aromas, body, structure, and overall impression. He performs mostly blind tastings.
Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar became part of Vinous (vinous.com) in 2014. All IWC ratings are Vinous ratings and should be displayed at Vinous (but this writer still sees IWC listed in places). Tastings are conducted in various conditions (wineries or private tastings). They do not conduct blind tastings.
A former reviewer for Wine Advocate, Jeb left that post in 2017 and started JebDunnuck.com. He prides himself on being 100% independent and subscriber funded, accepting no advertising as a way to guarantee objectivity as a "wine critic." He scores on overall quality. The wines are NOT tasted blind.
Gambero Rosso magazine produces "Tre Bicchieri" wine ratings. This is a very respected Italian wine rating. Last year, they tasted 24,638 wines from all over Italy (usually about 60 people taste), and instead of the 100-point system, they use "bicchieri," or wine glasses, from one glass, "un bicchiere," to 3 glasses, "tre bicchiere."
Wine is subjective, which is why wine scores will vary with different sources. As you continue to explore different wines, you will begin to settle into one of the rating systems as you begin to identify with it over the other systems. To give you another way to think about the various systems, consider this: most of us will favor reading or watching one particular news channel for our daily news gathering.
Our news outlet choice is based on many things, but you tend to choose one that is pertinent to your worldview and personal preferences. In the same way, you should begin to develop an affiliation with one of the wine rating systems based on your own experience, tastes, and opinions. Taste, aroma, and flavor are all judged by a particular critic, and you will begin to affiliate with one or more if you are paying attention. However, don't get too overwhelmed with ratings because, as you know, all points are not equal, and points are, after all, opinions.
At the end of the day, drinking wine should be fun, and it doesn't need to be complicated. But if studying wine ratings is your brand of fun, then dive right in there! Take time to figure out which critics you align with, and don't get fixated on the ratings as a whole. Additionally, while points are important and will give you an idea of where the wine ranks with certain critics, it is important to realize that 75% of wine globally is not rated. And that, my friends, leaves room for you to explore and judge for yourself from the exceptional wines at ReserveBar.com.
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