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Orange Coast Winery

Douglas Wiens
September 6, 2017 | Douglas Wiens

Behind the Numbers Grading that Bottle of Wine

How wine scores are determined

Judging the quality of a wine is often a numbers game today. The number – or score – a wine receives has become one of its most important selling points. A good score can elevate a brand into the upper echelons of the wine and spirits industry. A bad year can damage even a long-standing producer’s reputation. So, what do the numbers mean and how are they determined? What’s the difference between an 85 and a 93?

Why we have a point system

Wine has been around for thousands of years, of course. In that time, various systems were developed to judge the standards of the vino we drink. Major wine-producing regions such as France have used a strict system for hundreds of years. Although it worked when picking a type of wine (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, etc.), it did not work nearly as well for choosing a specific vintage.

In the 1980s, writer and wine critic Robert Parker developed a new 100-point rating system. According to Wine Folly, “The 100-point wine rating system has become the benchmark of quality in the wine industry.” Wine is judged on production quality and typicity, or how much a wine is typical of its style and region.

What the numbers mean

The Robert Parker system actually uses a 50-100 point quality scale. Wines below 50 are not judged. Here is a breakdown of what the numbers mean:

96-100 – An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.

90 – 95 – An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.

80 – 89 – A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.

70 – 79 – An average wine with little distinction except that it is a soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.

60 – 69 – A below-average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.

50 – 59 – A wine deemed to be unacceptable

Other notable publications that now use this scale include: Wine Spectator, Vinous, Decanter Magazine, James Suckling, Jamie Goode (The Wine Anorak blog), Jeff Leve (The Wine Cellar Insider), and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

How the score is determined

Tastings are usually done in peer-group, single-blind conditions, meaning types of wines (e.g., a Bordeaux or Riesling) are tasted together without revealing the names of the producers. The tastings look only at the quality of the wine on that day. The price and the producer or grower is not part of the equation.

The critics are taken to a room that is free of scents or other elements that could affect the results. Each wine is poured into a glass and the critic goes through a specific ritual that includes swirling the wine in the glass, sniffing the wine, and then tasting it. The wine is not swallowed; it’s spat out. Between each tasting, the palate must be cleansed with neutral-tasting food or drink.

Critics typically look at four qualities of the wine and then assign a number for each element. The Robert Parker score includes the following:

  1. The wine’s general color and appearance merit up to 5 points.
  2. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points, depending on the intensity level and dimension of the aroma and bouquet as well as the cleanliness of the wine.
  3. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points, and again, intensity of flavor, balance, cleanliness, and depth and length on the palate are all important considerations when giving out points.
  4. Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement—aging—merits up to 10 points.

The points are then added up for all of the elements to determine the final score.

A caution about the numbers

Although a high score is a good indication of a great-tasting wine, it’s important to remember that all scores are subjective and based on the individual critic’s taste and preference. Some prefer a bolder flavor, others subtler notes. Some critics also give routinely higher scores than others. Even the mood of the critic on that day can affect a score. 

Also keep in mind that Robert Parker’s method is not the only ratings system for judging wine. There are other well-known systems, including: The UC Davis 20-Point System, Jancis Robinson 20-Point System (Decanter Magazine), and even several 5-Point Systems, such as and Vino in Love.

Knowing the “score” behind the score can help you choose the perfect wine for dinner or your next party. And if you want no doubt you’ll be sampling great wine, visit Orange Coast Winery and review our selection of fine wines for every price range and palate.


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