Wine rating systems analysed

By , 25 August 2011



Publication of my ratings of the wines to be sold on the Cape Winemakers Guild auction (see here) has caused some controversy. Teddy Hall said he was initially “devastated” when his Hendrik Biebouw Auction Reserve Chenin Blanc 2010 received a score of only 85 on the 100-point scale in light of the fact that prominent American critic Steve Tanzer recently gave the much more humble Summer Moments Chenin Blanc 2009 a rating of 89. A high-profile potential buyer, meanwhile, said to me “I must confess with the lack of high ratings you gave perhaps I shouldn’t bother with the auction itself”.

Various issues are at stake here. First and foremost, we have a calibration problem. I applied the 100-point system as it is used at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show:

90-100: Gold – Superlative, world class.
80-89: Silver – Excellent, wine of distinction
70-79: Bronze – Good to very good, a wine of fine character

I suspect that when the American critics use the 100-point system, the conversion chart for those who prefer a 20-point system is something more like the following:

80 = 14.0
81 = 14+
82 = 14.5
83 = 15.0
84 = 15+
85 = 15.5 (Bronze)
86 = 15.5+
87 = 16.0
88 = 16.5
89 = 16.5+ (Silver)
90 = 17.0
91 = 17+
92 = 17.5
93 = 18.0 (Gold)
94 = 18+
95 = 18.5
96 = 18.5+
97 = 19.0
98 = 19+
99 = 19.5
100 = 20

In conversation, Hall’s point to me was that whereas I had scores spread across a range from 70 to 97, he expected that there would be very few scores under 89 when the likes of Tanzer released their reviews of the auction wines; my retort was that there would also be very few over 93 – if you score in such a narrow band, it’s difficult to be “wrong”.

The conjunction of numbers and wine is always problematic but the 100-point system most especially in that it implies a precision of the senses that us as human beings cannot really claim to possess. In addition, the perception has become well established among consumers that anything scoring 90 or over is worth buying while anything at 89 or under is best ignored.

Why use it at all, in which case? When confronted by a large line-up of wine where the overall quality must be presumed to be high as in the case of the auction wines, then it’s only practical to opt for the most finely tuned calibration system available in order to avoid “bunching” in the final results.

My contention would be that any wine that has managed some kind of endorsement as at least “very good” (15.5 and over on the 20-point system, 80 and up on the 100-point system as used by Trophy Wine Show and 3½ Stars as defined by Platter’s) is worthy of consideration for serious investment. If you accept this, then there’s plenty to drop some cash on at this year’s auction.


6 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    elias | 28 September 2011

    Do not imply local judges don’t know what they are doing, it is just when the different scores are compared it looks that way because of the big difference, I follow more local critics than those of abroad, I just don’t like our scoring margins, if most of the wines in the line-up are high-end wines it is normal for them to get narrow margin scores. The general public will never buy a wine if it gets 81 while some of the wines get 95 on the Old Mutual system, just my opinion, not criticising our local critics’ knowledge just the scoring system.

    Christian | 27 September 2011

    Hi Elias, With respect, why presume that “local judges don’t know what they are doing and, by implication, the International judges do? Did the Molesworth and Tanzer taste blind? What essentially is the difference between a wine at 90 versus 92 on the 100-point scale? Wine assessment is a matter of aesthetics and attempting to reduce it to numbers is inherently foolish but is perpetuated because it’s what the market demands. Those of us who love wine know that it’s difficult to get beyond bands of quality (poor vs. fair vs. good vs. excellent vs. classic) and the rest is all posturing.

    elias | 27 September 2011

    I think our local judges should def consider changing their method of scoring with the 100 point system, example the same wine gets between 90 and 92 in WS and from Stephan Tanzer and then 79- 85 from Christian Eedes. Not one of the CWG wines are less than 80/100 in my opinion, but what do I know! This just makes our local judges look like they don’t know what they are doing and that they think their local wines are crap compared to what international critics think… I don’t buy wine based on ratings but lots of people do and and our local critics are not helping with sales and perception of our wine locally and abroad by using this system!!

    Arco Laarman | 25 August 2011

    I agree that the 100 point system has its faults; unfortunately most retailers in the USA can’t seem to make their own minds up. With us selling almost a large amount of wine in the US the difference between getting 89 to 90 points is a massive one and as much as I hate to say it to potential customers, the first words out of my mouth when travelling in the US is the score. If you subscribe to Wine Spectator a retailer can even print his own “shelf talkers” with the name of the wine and score, these stores look like a ticker tape parade exploded in the store and landed on the bottles. Mabe we should look at tha e amount of people following a winery on its facebook or twitter page to rate a wine or a like or dislike on youtube.

    Kwispedoor | 25 August 2011

    The 100-point system is already crappy as it is. Why, to boot, did we decide that us South Africans should use a different scale to the established and internationally prominent American one? And who was it that thought this would be a good idea, seeing as we’re working with very much a global product?

    Arco Laarman | 25 August 2011

    Hello Christian

    I think where Teddy Halls frustration comes in is that there is quite a big difference in 100 point system used in South Africa and the one used by Wine Spectator in the USA. The scale below comes of their website.

    Wine Spectator tasters review wines on the following 100-point scale:

    •95-100 Classic: a great wine

    •90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style

    •85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities

    •80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine

    •75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws

    •50-74 Not recommended

    Perhaps international buyers who use wine spectator as a reference may be influenced by the local 100 point score. Teddy Hall Mediterranean white Cape winemakers guild wine 2008 scored 92 points in WS. What were the local scores for that wine?

    We all know that scoring wine is always a big talking point in the wine industry. With communication and information so easy to obtain around the world fon the internet and other forms, maybe its time to try and balance out the scoring systems around the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.