Time to have that conversation about wine scores again

By , 26 October 2022



At lunch the other day, I had some notable samples of wine open and our oldest daughter Zoë, who is aged 13 in Grade Seven, on the cusp of going to High School, noticed that I was yet again scribbling down scores between 88 to 93 for wines. “Dad,” she said, “I’d be so stoked with a mark over 80 for any subject I’m study right now”.

I had to explain to her that in the world of wine, the utterly bizarre system works as follows:

79-minus: faulty
80-84: dead ordinary
85-89: semi ordinary
90-94: okay
95-100: get your credit card out

“So basically, it’s a 20-point system,” she observed. And I could not argue with her.

The previous 20-point system operated in a band from 14 – 20, where 14 was the equivalent of “Two Stars” and 18 (not necessarily 100/100) was the equivalent of “Five Stars”. At least when Wine Magazine was will still in print and a measure that the Platter’s Guide also subscribed to.

So, here we are now. It’s all gone bonkers. Producers and punters all say that they want terroir-based, minimal-intervention wines but it’s also about cool labels and big scores from critics because who can tell the difference, anyway?

Understandably, there is a growing movement that wants to chuck out the critic’s authority in favour of Insta selfies. Trust your own opinion – no need to listen to some pale male over the age of sixty. The danger here is that if true knowledge is uncertain, then all opinions become relative – it’s not about anything innate to a particular wine but rather how you feel about it given your cultural background and position in society. We live in a material world, and we tend to value things we pay more for – price quickly become the measure of quality but is that really so?

Ranking fine wines with a view to moving the market is indeed a very strange way to earn a living. Get to the top of the pile in terms of passing judgement and there is money to be made, however. Master of Wine status might well be seen as a way of melding connoisseurship with technical knowledge with a view to creating an elite consensus, the pronouncement of those who hold the title amounting to universal claim.

It’s sucky that some group’s opinion might count more than others in the sense that it goes against the idea of equality. But what if there really are features to discern in a great Bordeaux and Burgundy that take practice and experience to be able to recognise and understand?

I quite like the idea that when you come to wine with some knowledge of the subject, you can interrogate the physical sensations of smell and taste in such a way as to refine your judgements and ultimately arrive at a better understanding of said wine. It’s little wonder that tasting judgements diverge but that doesn’t mean that they are entirely random or utterly independent of the intrinsics – somehow, some sort of consensus is forthcoming. We all do have some appreciation of complexity, balance, length…

Wine appreciation is often guilty of elitism in the sense that there are gatekeepers who would implicitly like to suggest that not all opinions are equally good. The thing is everyone is entitled to an opinion, the proviso being that appreciation requires apprenticeship, your sensibilities need educating. Few people approach music or fine art with the attitude that some sort of qualification of expertise is entirely unnecessary and the fact that so many do when it comes to wine is because there is relatively less at stake – it is, after all, just an alcoholic beverage.

Back to the subject of wine scores. We all know that they are philosophically untenable, but they are equally inevitable, functioning as a way of rapidly conveying a quality assessment. Critics, meanwhile, are authorities not because they prescribe what is good but because they are good at appreciating what’s there. In addition, they are probably better at communicating the reasons for their appreciation of certain wines – there are many with great tasting skills who struggle to articulate why a wine is good or not good.

It is also important that wine lovers look past scores and worry more about whether a particular critic is driving aesthetic standardisation by rewarding one style over another or enforcing a reductive set of requirements as to what constitutes “quality” and gets scored highly. “Opulence” and “Elegance” might sit at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum but who’s to say one’s better than the other?

Finally, it needs to be re-iterated that wine criticism and wine journalism are not the same thing. Why I love SA’s fine wine industry is that there are some very clever people having very important conversations about sustainability – economic, environmental, and social. And surely, by now, we all realise that those three different pillars, to use corporate jargon, are interrelated.


19 comment(s)

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    Gavin Brimacombe | 5 November 2022

    Amongst others, you get theatre critics, music critics, art critics and wine critics. I have never seen a theatre production, a song, or a work of art rated on a hard numerical scale.

    Much like theatre, music and art, surely the appreciation of wine lies in an appeal to the individual’s senses – and this is entirely personal, regardless of how “technically perfect” the wine is deemed to be by the critics?

      Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 6 November 2022

      So Gavin, will you be cancelling your subscription to Winemag then? Surely most subscribers subscribe for the critics’ ratings, for the experts’ opinions, for their recommendations and descriptions? If they love it, you might well like it too. So not “entirely personal”.

    Greg Sherwood | 31 October 2022

    The only thing critics and reviewers should really be worried about and actively take a stand on is, as Christian points out in comments, trying to preserve the importance, prestige and relevance in the market of 90 to 94 point wines. That’s it.

    If more critics felt comfortable rewarding a “very good wine” with 91, 92 or even 93… and not reaching for the 95+ nuclear option, the world of wine reviewing would be a lot healthier … and producers and wine estate marketers wouldn’t be corrupted by the excesses of too many sugary sweet faux 95+ point scores.

    George | 29 October 2022

    Christian, your shorthand version of “90-94: okay” might appear to put you into a tricky position in regard to Winemag’s Prescient Reports. Take this year’s Cape Bordeaux Report: the top wine was awarded 95 points and 2 were given 94 points. So was only one entry out of 55 better than ‘okay’? In the Prescient Sauvignon Report, none of the entries scored more than 94 while in the Red Blend Report again, only the top wine made 95 points.
    Actually, I reckon those scores mostly likely show you’re not falling victim to the sort of inflation you’re concerned about.

      GillesP | 29 October 2022

      Christian has a tendency to score very high what I call gimmicky wines. For me he is not liking what I call classic wines. Our taste is at the opposite end. It is what it is. He has no recognition for top best wines from rest of the world which are the benchmarks that he should use to score SA wines. Its quite sad .

        Lisa | 31 October 2022

        Gillie , why do u even read winemag ? Your always complaining about it , so go read decanter and tell the readers there how rich u are and about the worlds best wines u drink daily. We are South African , proud of our wines and love our wines and winemag.

      GillesP | 29 October 2022

      The funny thing is that by his own admission, all the wines he has scored between 90 and 94 are just OK which I would probably agree to by my own standards, but then why fooling people with such high scoring if compared to other wine scorers around the world and then admit these wines are nothing special.

      Pieter de Klerk | 31 October 2022

      George, I think you and Gilles have missed Christian’s answer to Mike Froud’s comment.

    Dieter Gugelmann | 27 October 2022

    There are hundreds of South African wines on the market. In order to keep track of things, I think points ratings are very good. The 100 point system is helpful. A 98 point wine does not have to be better than a 90 point wine.
    Points and medals are helpful as a guide. For me, in the end, the price is also important, whether I want to spend Rand 800.00 or Rand 350.00 to put the wine in the cellar and enjoy it. My own taste is ultimately important and not just the points, because I can’t drink them.

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 27 October 2022

    Wondering if Winemag is moving the goalposts? According to this post, scores of 90 to 94 = only “okay”, and those of 95+ = highly recommended, “get your credit card out”. Whereas elsewhere on the site, info About the Rating System defines 90 to 92 as excellent, 93 to 95 as outstanding, and 96 to 100 as extraordinary, profound.

      Christian Eedes | 27 October 2022

      Hi Mike, I was being sarcastic about the rampant score inflation that prevails. I certainly would like scores in the band of 90 – 94 to remain significant – the value of the 100-point system is that it’s meant to afford us a more latitude than 20-points used to. Equating 95 points with the threshold for “gold medal” or “5 Stars” as many now do, is a big part of the problem.

    Paul Benade | 26 October 2022

    It would make a lot more sense if everybody uses the same 100 point scoring system. As Robery Parker intended and developed it. But now every Dick, Tom and Harry has his own version and most ends up being a 20 point system(or less). Quite ridiculous. What has become evident is that the Competitions, Judges, Wine Writers and Critiques sell little stickers with ridiculous high scores to the wineries, to put on their bottles. The higher the scores, the more stickers they sell…the higher their income. It is all about the money! The scores for SA wines we have seen lately is a complete farce! It actually is embarassing. Even the best-value wines under R130 at Ultra Liquers gives you a truckload of wines scoring 90+. This is detrimental and a disservice to the SA Wine Industry. It is time to get back to reality.

    Mookesh Desai | 26 October 2022

    What a lovely non article…

    Derek Sumption | 26 October 2022

    Couldn’t agree more! How can someone like me who’s a great fan of big, bold shiraz’s, now try and judge a soft merlot, just doesn’t make sense and vice-a-versa.

    We did an experiment with a group of guys, some whom had some wine knowledge and others who were new to wine. We served a classic Bordeaux blend alongside a Rhone blend, both bottles were hidden.

    All we asked for was their preference in taste, which one they preferred. The result, complete 50/50 split straight down the middle!

    One of the bottles cost around R 3 000, the other a mere R 800.

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