Wine Scores: What Do They Really Mean?

Posted on Sep 8, 2021


Chateau Couspaude

Chris assessing a glass of wine at Chateau Couspaude in Bordeaux.

Wine scores are those assessments of a wine’s quality that usually appear at the end of a tasting note. The tasting note will describe the wine’s various attributes, such as aroma, flavour, body, structure, balance, etc. and the score will evaluate the wine’s relative quality. Scores are big topic for discussion among wine-lovers and the topic can attract some rather heated views. AdVINEtures wanted to give you our take on wine scores, the different types, how to make the most of them.

The most common type of score that we see is the numeric score that assigns a grade to the wine via a scale of varying length, depending on which scoring system is being used.

Seattle Washington

How do you distinct one glass of wine from another?

The first numeric system to gain popular acceptance among the wine cognoscenti was the 20-point system. This was the scale used by most of the British wine writers in the 1960s and 1970s. Luminaires such as Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Edmund Penning-Roswell and Clive Coates were among the first wine writers that the public wanted to follow.

Though each used the 20-point system to evaluate wines they tasted, none in this group was the originator of the system.

Wine scoring chart

The UC Davis 20 point wine score sheet

That credit goes to the University of California at Davis and their influential and highly respected Viticulture and Enology Department. Dr. Maynard Amerine, a professor within the department first developed the 20-point system in 1959. The system was developed solely for academic evaluation of wines and was not intended to communicate a wine’s quality to the general public.

The evolution of this system from academic and private to public use started with wine competitions utilizing this system. Panels of judges were asked to score a wine out of 20 points, awarding up to 10 points for the palate, 7 for the nose, and 3 for the appearance. This was a first attempt at standardizing ratings. One issue that developed was that there was no real distinction offered from the 3 points for appearance because unless the wine was flawed and had changed colour due to oxidization, everyone got a 3. A different derivation of the 20-point system started out by giving all wines 20 out of 20 and then deducting points (in half point increments) for what the judge perceived as less than perfect attributes. The use of half points really changed it to a 40-point system, but that mathematical inconvenience did not seem to bother anyone.

Wine critic

Respected wine critic Jancis Robinson.

The next wave of writers also came largely out of Britain and included the likes of Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke and Andrew Jefford. Under their hands, the original more rigid and formulaic 20-point system retained the same 20-point scale but morphed into a more subjective and general evaluation of the wine. Though the descriptors can change from reviewer to reviewer, we think Jancis Robinson is the standard bearer and her system is provided below:

20 – Truly exceptional

19 – A humdinger

18 – A cut above superior

17 – Superior

16 – Distinguished

15 – Average, a perfectly nice drink with no faults but not much excitement

14 – Deadly dull

13 – Borderline faulty or unbalanced

12 – Faulty or unbalanced.

Wine tasting

Getting ready to taste at Roda.

Half points are permitted as well, which expands it to a 40-point system. But since 12 is the lowest score you can get, it is really a 9-point system, or 18 if you include the half points or …. forget it. We will just stick with 20-point system.

We are not too sure about those descriptors that Jancis chose. “Humdinger” is folksy and colloquial but does that word really communicate something useful to a potential taster? I have a hard time imagining myself in a fancy restaurant for a special occasion and calling over the sommelier and asking what he might recommend in the humdinger category. And if he were to get my drift and all of his humdingers were beyond my budget, I hardly see myself falling back to “a bit dear for my wallet, my good man, what might you offer that is a cut above superior?”

Less widely used is the 5-point system, which basically takes 5 adjectives, superlative; excellent; good; casual quaffing and very ordinary and converts them into points in descending order. Our only comment is why bother with the numeric conversion? Pretty simple to just stick with adjectives and then no one needs to bother with the explanation key.

wine tasting

Robert Parker, the most recognized wine critic worldwide.

But the granddaddy of numeric scoring systems used the world over is the 100-point system. This system came out of Baltimore, Maryland when Robert Parker quit his job as an attorney in the 1970s to pursue his love of wine and became a reviewer on a full-time basis. His publication, The Wine Advocate, was the first to use the 100-point system and it caught on quickly.

It gave a more finely scored review by virtue of its larger scale.

wine tasting

100pt scoring system used in Wine Spectator.

Parker’s version is in fact a 50-point scale as 50 is the lowest score a wine can receive (flawed). Probably the greatest virtue of the 100-point system is that it closely aligns with the grading system most of us endured during our school years. We know without any further explanation that 51 is just barely a pass, and hardly a recommendation and that 100 means you got everything right, or perfect. The 100-point system therefore has a familiarity and intuitive appeal that sets it above the others in terms of acceptance.

The Wine Advocate’s score ranges correlate to the following assessments:

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 as well as character with no noticeable flaws.

70 – 79: An average wine little distinction except that it is 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 flavour or possibly dirty aromas or flavours.

50 – 59: A wine deemed to be unacceptable.

At AdVINEtures, we chose our own system. We see both merit and flaws in each of the systems discussed above.

Oregon willamette valley

We hope our wine assessments help you find the wine for you.

Of them, Parker’s 100-point system has the most appeal for us. However, we think that it cuts the issue a bit too finely. To say that a wine is a 90 or a 91-point wine is a very fine distinction. Time of day, mood and many other factors can influence a taster’s perception and we are frankly not confident enough in our own palates to make so fine a distinction. So, we have elected to use a 5-category system and rather than assign numbers to the categories we have chosen adjectives that we think most closely reflect common vocabulary when assessing quality. But given the popularity of the 100-point system, and the usefulness it holds, we have put in brackets a numerical range based upon the 100-point system next to our definition of our wine assessment.

AdVINEtures Wine Rating System

Extraordinary – Definite wow factor. That rare experience that combines everything you want in wine in perfect balance. (96-100)

Excellent – Top quality, distinctive, a memorable wine that screams best in class. (90-95)

Very Good – Not only good, the wine captures our interest and brings us back for another taste. (85-89)

Good – enjoyable, no reason for complaint, but without distinction. (80-84)

Decent – a passable wine only; drinkable but in no way exciting. We would not purchase again. (75-79)

We have chosen this system because we think the descriptors match a vocabulary that is commonly used and therefore has more meaning. Sometimes, we will use a forward slash between two descriptors when a wine is right on the edge and could fall into either category, depending on the day. If the wine is below Decent in our assessment, we won’t waste your time (or our own) by reviewing it. We hope that these evaluations, together with our tasting notes, communicate to our readers something readily understandable and useful about the quality of the wine we have reviewed.

4 Comments

  1. Robin@crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    It’s fascinating to see the evolution of how these scales came to be. Do I look at them when I purchase? Yes, if I am choosing between several wines that are unknown to me, it is sort of a recommendation from a wine authority. But as we typically are choosing wine based on the location, winemaker, soil and story…at that point these scales do not matter. I like the idea of using a simpler scale, not numeric. While there are parts of wine that can be looked at very analytically for quality, there are other qualities that render it much like art, in that it is in the palate of the beholder.

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    • We agree completely. We do look at scores for an idea/recommendation/must try but then there are all those subjective things like the ambiance, location, frame of mind, etc that simply can’t be captured in a score. Finding similar palates of critics helps but our palates continue to evolve as we are exposed to more styles, varieties, and regions.

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  2. martindredmond@gmail.com'

    I generally use the 100pt scale because I keep track of my TN in Cellar Tracker which uses the scale as well. I do like you scale and have, at times in the past used it. I think it’s easier for readers to understand. Well written as always!

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    • Thanks Martin! We’ve seen your notes and trust your ratings as we have similar palates.

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