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11. Scoring wine

By Ben Greene

Every wine writer that I know of uses some kind of scoring system to express their opinion on the quality of a wine. Robert Parker marks out of 100; Jancis Robinson and many others out of twenty; Michael Broadbent awards stars up to five; Hugh Johnson gives producers up to four stars. So why is the Parker scoring system so divisive?

Accuracy and judgements of taste

Leaving aside the issue of whether Parker’s influence is out of control and looking squarely at the 100 point system itself, the biggest criticism of it is that it implies a degree of objective accuracy which is impossible in wine.

For a start, every bottle of the same wine is different. Wine changes and develops in the bottle every day. Much also depends on the mood of the taster and what they have previously eaten or drunk. There are countless other variables which ensure that every time a bottle of the same wine is opened anywhere it will give a different account of itself.

Is there a better system?

However, if this criticism applies to the 100 point scale, doesn’t it equally apply to any other system? The most widely used system in the UK today is the twenty point scale. It is my opinion that anybody who uses this method, regularly awarding marks of 17.5, 18.5, 19.0 etc. and who then criticises Parker for implying an impossible degree of accuracy is spouting the most hypocritical bilge water imaginable and needs to be stopped. The only people who have a leg to stand on in this regard are those who simplify things further, awarding stars out of five.

Four or five broad categories, ranging perhaps from poor to average to good to very good to excellent are pretty much going to be universally agreed upon and will therefore provide an accurate guide to the quality of the wine in question, in so far as they go (which is arguably as far as you can go, objectively). So are these systems superior?

Further complications

It’s not as simple as that. Every more elaborate scale is subdivided into broader areas that puts each score into a quality category. The twenty point scale used in The World of Fine Wine magazine, for example, is divided into seven such categories. Parker defines wines scoring between 90 and 100, 80 and 89, 70 and 79 and less than 70 as being in roughly the same area in terms of quality, with definitions for each area.

Nevertheless, the scores themselves remain, and there is an implied difference between wines scoring 12.5 and 14, or 87 and 88. So are the numbers useful? Is it helpful or of any interest to know that one wine tasted by one person on a particular occasion scored 97 points, while another on a different occasion scored 98? Does it actually tell you anything meaningful? In the end, which side you come down on in this argument will depend largely on what you think wine is and how you think quality in wine can be judged. For Robert Parker ”...wine is no different from any other consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize, and there are benchmark wines against which all others can be judged.” The opposing view is well put by Hugh Johnson, who writes that “One should always remember that the value of wine is more than a simple (or indeed complex) gustatory pleasure. It is a tapestry of taste and sentiment, expectation and association…most of us are readier to enjoy wines with personal links that only we understand.”

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