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Scoring wines: one point of view
Greg Sherwood 

Reading through the wineanorak blog, I came across Jamie’s comments on the Decanter tasting panel’s use of the 20 point scoring system versus the Parker/Wine Spectator 100 point scoring system.

Having started my wine qualifications in South Africa through the Cape Wine Academy, the norm was always to use the 20 point scoring system. Namely 3/3 for colour, 7/7 for Nose and 10/10 for Palate, giving you a score out of 20. To be absolutely honest, I always felt that this scoring system lacked sufficient means of personal (though of course objective) expression. Scoring out or 20 was like giving a wine a very basic summary score without being able to allude to anything more intimate or descriptive. At a glance, you could see a wine made 17 or 17.5 out or 20 and you knew it would be pretty good. But that’s about all. Even though at the time I was a total novice, I was just not content with the 20 point system.

Apparently devised at UC Davis (though I bow to anyone’s better knowledge), the 20 point system was widely adopted in South Africa and continues to be the main method of scoring wines in competitions and for wine guides. I fondly remember attending the Cape Wine Master’s 1996 Claret Tasting in Johannesburg and tasting for the first time in a long while, some of the best classed growth clarets from Bordeaux. I of course eagerly scored the wines out of 20. However, when individuals were asked to comment on certain wines, I remember the boyfriend of one of the younger female Cape Wine Masters standing up and describing his notes on the 1996 Pichon Longueville Baron, and more interestingly, scoring it 96 out of 100. Several people did a ‘double-take’ including myself.

Even though I was too scared to attempt this scoring method, I was intrigued by the extra expression that this scoring seemed to lend to the person’s description and evaluation. From then on, I decided that the 100 point score would have to be the way forward and whatever my personally inadequacies or lack of experience, I would have to make a start sooner or later with the 100 point system.

Funnily enough, at first I found it easy to score wines rated say, between 85 and 95, but hesitated with making scores above or below this mark. But eventually I discovered that this was merely because most wines ARE indeed well made these days and rarely crack a 75 or 80 unless they are very boring and a bit deficient in some way. Also, you can’t look to push a score over 90 or 95 if the quality is not there. The subtleties become so much clearer.

While today I like to feel that I am a lot more proficient using the 100 point scoring system, I still pause for added thought when I taste a shocker that could just be a 78 or a 79 pointer! However, when I taste a potential 98 or 100 point wine, it hits you between the eyes and there is no doubting the quality and comparative step-up in complexity.

But sometimes it is possible for an extraordinary 100 point scoring wine to make this system seem like it is lacking another 10+ points to do the wine justice. My favourite illustration of this was at a tasting in Oberhauser in the Nahe, Germany, with Helmut Donnhoff in 2003. After rating his entire range of 2002s we finally ended with his prized Eiswein 2002. Amazing!! Nothing else left in the repertoire but to score it 100/100 points based on the quality and comparative scores of the Auslese and other Gold Capsule wines. So that was it, my first 100 point score, or so I thought. That’s when Helmut pulled out a solitary bottle of his 1998 Eiswein! The extra age and tertiary development made for a wine of incredible, breathtaking complexity. Hence the problem. Even though the 1998 was at least 10 to 15 percent better than the younger more primary 2002, and yet another step up in complexity, balance and concentration, this wine had to score the same as the 2002. If the scoring system had allowed it, this could easily have been a 110 pointer.

Perhaps it is time wine writers, wine journalists and industry commentators took a moment to try and make sure there is greater uniformity in scoring procedures around the world – for the sake of the consumer, towards whom all of this written media is targeted. In fact, I still feel a little awkward when I read Jancis Robinson’s scores out of 20. They seem to lack expression as the jump between a 17 point wine and 19 point wine can be so large in reality.

Take the ongoing saga of Chateau Pavie 2003. She scored the wine 12/20 and Parker gave the wine 96–100/100. Hang on a second I hear you say, they both can’t be correct! Well, if they are scoring the wines subjectively, then they can both be right. But I have always been led to believe that ‘professional’ wine evaluation and scoring should be as objective as possible. Otherwise, how else could a person who perhaps dislikes sweet wines (I’m not referring to myself!!), taste a bottle of Donnhoff Eiswein and score it 100 points, or taste a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem and score it equivalently, regardless of their personal preferences? It can only be done with a certain level of experience and objectivity. When reading tasting scores, consumers want to know about the relative quality of a wine within a given context, not whether one or another taster personally liked it! In the Pavie case, it comes down to personal preference. And that’s all. Parker’s evaluation is perhaps a more realistic or objective score, regardless of preference to this overly ripe style of classical Claret.

Listed below are Robert Parker’s 100 point rating criteria. It’s really not that complicated or long winded. Once you start using the 100 point scale, there will be no looking back. Trust me!


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.

outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.

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

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

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

A wine deemed to be unacceptable.

To put my call for more scoring uniformity into context, we should not forget that there are also other scoring methods in addition to the 100/100 point and 20/20 point scoring systems, including the 3 Bicchiere (3/3 Glasses) used by the Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine bible, and also the standard 5/5 Star rating used by many wine guides including the South African John Platter Wine Guide. Just think of the great comparative analysis one could make if everyone used the 100 point score. It would be a real opportunity to reveal regional or even national preferences by just comparing an individual wine’s score from all around the world. But like Parker’s scores and the Wine Spectator’s scores, they are generally speaking fairly similar and consistent as they probably should be if review professionally, objectively and consistently!

Well, so much for the relevance and importance of tasting and scoring - you make up your own mind. Or perhaps I should leave the last words to Mr Parker, speaking about the Pavie-gate Saga…. “That is her opinion (Jancis Robinson), and she will have to answer for it as all of us do that practice this rather whimsical craft.”

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