By Rai Cornell
90 points here. 83 points there. When you’re shopping for wine, these obscure little numbers like to float around and act like they mean something. But the truth is: They don’t.
Here’s what you need to know about what wine ratings really mean, how they affect your choice of which wine to drink, and how you can use wine ratings to understand your own unique wine preferences.
In 1975, Robert Parker was growing frustrated with how little information there was available about wines and, in particular, how to know what to expect from the taste and quality of various wines. Though he was a graduate of the University of Maryland Law School and had a successful career as an attorney for over ten years, Parker left that path to forge his own in the world of wine.
By 1978, Parker launched The Wine Advocate, a publication dedicated to the discussion of all things wine. Today, The Wine Advocate stands with more than 50,000 subscribers around the world. Along with creating a well-respected global wine publication, Parker also created a rating system that ranks wines on a scale of 50 to 100.
The Wine Advocate’s and Mr. Parker’s wine rating system is based on a comparison of a single wine to the other wines in the same peer group. In particular, his rating system evaluates each wine at its best. So even though wines continue to evolve their flavor over time, the rating is given to a particular wine at the time it’s expected to be at its peak flavor.
Based on his 100-point rating system, Parker states that any wines over 85 are considered “very good to excellent, and any wine rated 90 or above will be outstanding for its particular type.” The system also takes into account a variety of wine characteristics like maturity and tannin levels.
However, knowing that Mr. Parker’s wine rating system is based on one (very experienced and knowledgeable) man’s wine tastes, many wine retailers and producers have come up with their own rating systems.
But where does that leave you? If a 2009 Bordeaux is a 91 on the Parker rating scale but the winery itself classifies it as a 97, which rating do you listen to? Who should you believe?
The truth is, there are myriad factors to consider when evaluating and buying wine. Apart from the obvious fact that each person will have his or her own preferences and opinions on what makes a good wine, each bottle will vary depending on the geography and climate that the grapes were grown in, the type and generation of grapes used, and how the grapes were treated from the time they were harvested until they entered the bottle.
Another thing that affects the flavor of the wine - and therefore your experience of it - is wine storage. While most specialty wine stores and online retailers have all the kinks worked out of their wine storage systems, many generic grocery stores do not.
Also, how long and where you store your wines once you purchase them can also play a role. So the 93-point wine you bought last May on a whim and are just getting around to trying now may not be what you’d expect. It may be better, it may be worse.
You’re the Expert
The only real way to be able to compare one wine to another is to do your homework. And luckily, your “homework” in this case is drinking a lot of wine. That’s why we encourage all wine lovers to try as many wines as possible and keep notes on what they liked and didn’t like about each.
By going into wine tastings with the mindset of an investigator, you’ll be able to sniff out your own unique flavor profile. Because while Mr. Parker may demote a wine that’s young and ripe with tannins, you might fall in love with such bright flavors.
Using Ratings Smartly
No one but you can know the best wine for you to drink, so explore the wide world of wines and create your own rating system based on factors like body, acidity, fruitiness, tannin levels, and sweetness. If you prefer to buy wine online, you probably rely on wine ratings to learn more about your options. And that’s perfectly fine! Use those numbers to your advantage by noting what a 93 on the Parker scale means to you. Does that mean that it’s too dry for your liking? Or that it’s a great choice when you’re in the mood for something complex?
While you’re getting to know your wines, be sure to read the wine labels. Many producers use blends. Knowing that you typically don’t like anything made from malbec grapes but you love anything syrah is valuable information.
Here at VINEBOX, we want to make you an expert on wine. But the truth is the only audience that matters is your own palate. So get to know your own preferences first and foremost. And the only way to do that is to enjoy them all.
Have you discovered your unique wine profile? Tell us what you like and why in the comments below!