THE wine world still abounds with mystery. Picking the right wine and the art and science of rating wines remains an enigma to many consumers in Shanghai and elsewhere. By default, many wine buyers simply choose a highly rated wine or an award-winning wine prominently adorned with a gold, silver or bronze medal sticker. By doing so, they’re trusting people, organizations and systems about whom they may know very little. The admittedly ambitious goal of this week’s column is to demystify how wines are rated and judged.
The advent of wines rated by numbers, stars or other icons is a relatively recent development. Classifications like the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classe and other systems were some of the earliest attempts to rate wines. In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III asked for the top Bordeaux chateaux to be rated as part of the festivities of the Exposition Universelle de Paris. As imperfect as the 1855 and other classifications were, they still played an early role in helping people understand the quality of wines and are remarkably influential today.
Over four decades ago, some wine lovers started to rate wines in specific vintages using numbers. Most prominent was wine critic Robert Parker, and he was quickly followed by wine publications like Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. In fact, the scoring system they adopted was a copy of the 100-point system used in US grammar and high schools with 50 being a failing score — or an undrinkable wine — and 100 a perfect score. Because this system was so easy for Americans and other consumers to understand, a new age of consumer-driven rating systems was born. The wine world has unquestionably benefitted from a more consumer-oriented media and rating systems. But critics of rating systems still question the difference between an 89- and 90-point wine and claim it farcical to rate wines of vastly different regions and styles merely with a number.
The 100-point system may be the most popular but it’s by no means the only system. Other well-known rating systems use a 20-point scale that’s more in tune with the grading system used in French higher-level education. Proponents of this system include several British critics including Jancis Robinson. The University of California at Davis, the USA’s most prestigious wine school, uses a slightly different 20-point system that was developed in the 1950s by Dr Maynard Amerine.
Another popular system is the 5-star scales that mirror the rating of hotels. One of my favorite critics, Michael Broadbent, has used this system for more than 50 years.
There are also systems that mimic the famous Michelin restaurant guide 3-star system. The most notable among these is Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most famous wine guide that awards one to three glasses. A 3-glass rating is considered equivalent to a 3-star restaurant rating.
One of the newest and most intriguing systems of rating a wine is the relatively new PAR system from Germany that seeks to address the limitations and deficiencies of more conventional numerical or symbol rating systems. This system not only rates wines according to clear criteria but also takes into account the origin, style and type of cultivation of the wine. This consideration of where the wine comes from is particularly important in Europe.
More than two decades ago at a wine competition in Italy, I first came across the strange-looking and sounding word typicity and thought it must be a typo. In fact, it’s a wine word that’s particularly important to Old World winemakers who emphasize the history, place and traditional style of a wine. For them, it’s not enough to merely be a good or great wine, but it’s also necessary to truly and accurately reflect the land and tradition of the wine. Most Old World wine competitions and critics will award wines for typicity and conversely grade down wines that don’t reflect their variety, traditions and origin. The point is that a Chianti Classico red wine shouldn’t taste like a Bordeaux red wine and to judge them without taking into account typicity is heretical.
The best way to understand how wines are rated is to actually do it yourself. Rating wines by yourself has the added benefit of enabling you to make you own wine decisions. Best of all, its remarkably easy to do.
No matter which numerical or symbol system is used, wines are essentially assessed using the same basic method. First, the overall appearance, color and clarity of the wine is judged, and this part usually accounts for 10-15 percent of the total score. Next the aromatics of the wine are considered according to intensity, attractiveness and style and this comprises about 30-40 percent of the score. Next the palate or taste, texture and finish of a wine are judged and this part accounts for 45-60 percent of the total score. Some systems also allow 10-20 percent for the overall assessment of the quality of the wine.
I encourage people who want to learn more about wines to arrange private wine competitions where several wines of like style may be graded. It really doesn’t matter if you use the 100-point or 20-point system or any other system. What matters is that you and your friends systematically practice and learn how to assess a wine.
By doing so you’ll take a huge step in liberating your wine life by empowering yourself to make your own decisions on what wines you like and want to buy. It’s both fun and educational, and those wine snobs around you can no longer derogatively refer to you as a Parker sheep.