Tim James: Scoring the same for different reasons

By , 29 July 2019



I have become so used to the (self-awarded) luxury of avoiding the nonsense of scoring wines that I find it more problematical each year making my Platter’s guide judgements , when I am obliged to score (self-imposed – in exchange not only for money but for the great privilege of tasting so many complete ranges of wines in ideal, unhurried conditions).

Platters stickers

Platters stickers

The last few years have seen Platter’s demanding ratings out of 100 in addition to the traditional five-star system (including half-stars). The correspondences between the two systems are fixed, of course: four stars is the range between 86 and 89 points; four-and-a-half stars is 90 to 94), etc. I rather reluctantly confess that I prefer the new system, in that one can discriminate between a “just-squeaked-in four-star wine” (86 points) and a “nearly- next-level wine” (89 points), a discrimination which is obviously often desirable.

Nonetheless, however hard one tries, the awarding of points can sometimes seem close to arbitrary. Especially when there are more than a dozen other tasters involved in the Guide who you know might have different standards and different aesthetics from your own and might well have scored a particular wine differently. (To help compensate for this, Platter’s tasters rotate the wineries they are responsible for every three years.)

On Saturday I tasted about a dozen wines, which is quite a lot for me to do in one go (I came back to many of them the next day to check – and didn’t actually change my mind); but they were all wines that were known to me, though the vintages were new, which makes the sighted tasting task that much easier, because you can bring your experience and understanding (and prejudice, yes) to bear. And most of these were also wines of modest claims on the world.

What I found particularly interesting was that, as I realised afterwards, I’d given five rather different wines rather similar ratings within the three-and-a-half star bracket – that is, from 83 to 85 points, but all for very different reasons. An 84 score (like all scores, of course) can convey so many different things, not quite all of which are easily expressed in the short note – though sometimes more can be conveyed in a vehicle like Platter’s by comparing the score with that of a previous vintage.

Two of the wines (I obviously can’t identify them here) were in fact not very dissimilar rosés and got pretty standard sorts of comment pointing to the nice things about them: pleasing aromas typical of the variety, quietly fruity, good texture, fresh dry grip – that sort of thing. This score is pretty good for a rosé, though there are many more getting it than there were five or ten years ago, and only a handful rate higher.

Another was a merlot, a new wine in fact, screw-capped and not expensive, and I reckon the producer is not going to be too disappointed in the rating. Again a positive note, in which the key word was probably “easy-going”.

A fourth wine was a shiraz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the producer thought the wine deserved more (it hadn’t been tasted for a few years, and previously had rated rather similarly). So, in more explanatory mode, it was not altogether a positive note I wrote, including a suggestion of obviously high alcohol and acidity a touch unbalanced – nonetheless, the wine had plenty of flavour, etc and I think deserved the rating.

Then there was a wine which I’d better not characterise closely here. The final note in Platter’s will indicate that the rating is a full star lower than the previous vintage had been rated by me. So I was obliged to indicate the reason for this wine falling short of its own standard. Not a bad wine at all – three-and-a-half stars is supposed to be a very respectable score. It’s just that in some cases the score can indicate a success, and in others, the same score can make an accusation of comparative failure. A number by itself doesn’t convey the important matter.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


6 comment(s)

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    Jacob van Rensburg | 30 July 2019

    Thank you for the response and providing some additional insight, Tim.
    Little wonder to realize the capricious practice lasted all of one year…

    Tim James | 30 July 2019

    Thanks Jacob. Good points. One brief response, WRT that 99 points: that year Platter briefly employed a system whereby the Wine of the Year automatically was given 99 points, even though no individual or team had necessarily scored it that (and in this case certainly had not; I don’t know what Cathy Marston had scored it before it went into the final blind tasting – it could have been much less). At least some of us involved were horrified to learn of this embarrassingly misleading practice, and it was abandoned. If any wine gets 99 points in Platter now, it will be because at least someone thinks it deserves it. (As to Kevin’s guess – no; anyway four wineries were involved.)

    Jacob van Rensburg | 30 July 2019

    I wholly agree with Tim in terms of Platter’s paradigm shift in their scoring system. I posit that most consumers would agree that the 100-point scoring system provide a greater degree of distinction as pointed out in the article. I even reckon we’ll see the 5-star rating disappear within a few years…

    That being said, I believe it is critical for wine aficionados to migrate away from reading too much into the final rating (i.e. 90 points); and rather focus more on the tasting notes. I think a concerted effort should be made to point this out at every opportunity. I believe most consumers are too fixated on quantifying the wine instead of relying on the peripheral (but more important) information provided by the notes. A whole lot more can be determined on whether you will enjoy the wine (or not) based on the tasting notes compared to the rating. In addition to that, taking note of the slight variations and preference of certain wine critics, one can also ascertain on which critic’s note (and also rating) you can most likely rely on – given a certain wine or style.

    A case in point was Platter’s 2018 Red wine of the year, the 2014 Nederburg Two Centuries Cabernet; rated 99 points by Platter’s (Cathy Marston’s name is attributed to the rating; but one can safely be assured that the extended panel must have agreed on awarding the wine the coveted title after the second round of tasting…); yet Tim Atkin ‘only’ rated the wine 91 points. I believe most ardent aficionados will know that Tim Atkin does not particularly enjoy ‘dark & brooding…oak & a good dollop of alcohol…’ (notes taken from Platter’s) as wine characteristics (or general style for that matter…) as has been commented on by Tim in certain references to the ‘Parkerisation’ of wines. (I think it would be relatively safe to describe the 2014 Two Centuries as exuding such characteristics). For what it’s worth, I reckon the wine fell somewhere in between Platter’s and Tim Atkin’s rating – a very enjoyable South African Cabernet, nonetheless!

    To add to this and commend the site: I particularly like the fact that Christiaan Eedes provides his rating at the very bottom of his reviews.

      Kevin R | 31 July 2019

      Agreed – tasting notes are probably of more value to serious punters than the scores. It’s important (IMO) that tasting notes differentiate between one vintage and the next rather than the same notes being repeated in different editions of Platters.

    Kevin R | 30 July 2019

    At a guess you tasted Cederberg and their Woolworths (wouldn’t say Wollies 😉 range – in any case the next edition of Platters will tell.

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