Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rating Systems - updated

Robert Parker Jr. devised the 100 point Wine Rating system, a.k.a. the Wine Advocate Rating System (WARS), used by many wine reviewers to communicate the relative merit of wines they taste. How faithfully this system is adopted is open to the vagaries of individual tastes and imposed tasting situations. I'm a skeptic at heart and have given up relying on any 'number' provided in wine reviews. Confidence in a published rating gets down to a confidence in a reviewer's knowledge of, adherence to a consistent system - not necessarily the Parker system - and unwavering independence from business influences. Perhaps it's not too surprising to note the number of reviewers providing textural descriptions only. If you're one to look at 'numbers', with some planning, you can avoid being entirely dependent by doing your own ratings. You will increasingly develop a comfort level in what to look for and how to describe what you find and be able to crosscheck any number that crosses your path – and it’s not that difficult if you adhere to Parker’s conventions.

For reference I've included the Parker ranges below. Generally, as their website states: "Wines rated 85 and above are very good to excellent and any wine rated 90 or above will be outstanding... " This puts everything below 84 to 'average or barely average' and for 70 points, wines 'with little distinction', then below 70, 'flawed to undrinkable'.
  • 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 calibre 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 flavour 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 flavour, or possibly dirty aromas or flavours.
  • 50 - 59 A wine deemed to be unacceptable.
From a base(B) of 50 WARS allocates 5 points for colour(C), nose(N) gets 15 and flavour and finish(F&F) receive 20. The wine's potential(P) for improvement over time gets the remaining 10 for a total of 100. Because cellaring is not a big thing for me I reduce the 10 for 'potential' to 5 and add focus on trueness to the varietal or blends and a wine's balance, ie. Typicity. Another reason for emphasizing Typicity is the more prevalent use of 'additives' since WARS was devised. Even today in Parker's realm 'additives' aren't likely an issue but they are in yours and mine. Typicity allows recognition of these recent influences. In brief: the Rating components and their weightings are: B50, C5, N15, F&F20, P5, T5 to total 100. A Rating system isn't too useful without a guide to the traits in each rated component and to the characteristics to look for in the many varieties of grapes used for wine. I use a small fanout called Essential Wine Tasting Guide available at most wine outets. Another which I haven't used is the Wine Wheel available in various renditions from various websites, see Wine Wheel1, Wine Wheel 2.

Variations of WARS or completely new systems are often used. For instance, the Wine Access tasting panel uses a slightly changed 100 point system putting a flawed wine below 80. This tends to push average wines, in the 70 to 79 WARS range, into the 'above 80' range. Consequently it's not surprising to see more 70+ wines given 80+ in their reviews.

Wine Access uses:
  • 95 - 100 Outstanding qualities and exciting to drink. Defines grape and origin with exquisite harmony, fascinating, complexity and great depth.
  • 90 - 94 Excellent quality, providing great pleasure to drink. Exemplary expression of grape and origin, and offers very fine balance, complexity and depth.
  • 85 - 89 Very good quality and enjoyable to drink. Expresses its grape and origin well, and provides good complexity, balance and depth.
  • 80 - 84 Good quality and drinkable. Recognizable grape and origin, perhaps masked by minor flaws. Balanced and basically correct, but simple.
  • Below 80 Has flaws that compromise character.
For 5 Star systems-

VINES magazine uses:
  • 5 Stars Exceptional quality. Simply superlative.
  • 4 Stars Very good example with solid style and character.
  • 3 Stars Good wine, well worth trying.
  • 2 Stars Drinkable wine, with sound commercial qualities
  • 1 Star Poor or substandard wine, best avoided.
Winecurrent uses:
  • 5 Stars Wines achieving nirvana
  • 4 Stars Wines of excellence
  • 3 Stars Wines well worth trying
  • 2 Stars Wines below average, but drinkable
  • 1 Star Wines better avoided, unless desperate
Winepointer uses:
  • 5 Stars It’s hard to imagine better quality (94-100 points)
  • 4.5 Stars Excellent quality (90 – 93 points)
  • 4 Stars Very good quality (87-89 points)
  • 3.5 Stars Good quality (85-86 points)
  • 3 Stars Well-made but without distinction (82-84 points)
  • 2 Stars Not used
  • 1 Star Not used
The rhetorical question is 'Does the 5 Star system water down the ratings?' The answer is ‘It depends’. Winepointer gives a conversion to WARS so we know, if we wish to convert, that a 3 Star rated wine is ‘Well-made but without distinction’. This corresponds to 82 – 84 or ‘A barely average wine to… no noticeable flaws’. To me, the correspondence is within the ballpark. In Winecurrent’s 5 Star system an acceptable wine is 2 Stars and up or, 70 – 100 WARS points. The range from 70 to 100 is then divided among four Stars and, assuming linearity, the equivalent ranges for Winecurrent’s 2 to 5 Stars become 70 - 77, 77 - 85, 85- 93 and 93 – 100, that is, 4 Stars would be in the WARS range 85 - 93. In words, 'very good to outstanding' becomes 'wines of excellence' and then half stars are used for further refinement. To me, there’s less correlation in this latter Star system but I’m likely being far too analytical for what was originally intended. Some reviewers use fewer ‘Stars’ further limiting meaningful merit indicators and some provide just tasting notes.

Two quite different and interesting systems are the Wine Spider (shown) and The Three Stooges.

Things to exclude when rating a wine:
  • Price is not involved.
  • Style is not involved. E.g. don't rate a riesling differently because it's a kabinett.
  • Grape is not involved. If you don't like a grape don't rate it. For instance, Foch and Pinotage are not big on my flavour parade. Rather than rate these I skip them.
  • Incidentals don't count. E.g. It doesn't matter if a 'flying consultant' has blessed the grapes or if the vines are a century old, etc.
  • There is nothing about how the wine is presented: artistic rendering of the label or the foiling or cork detail. I don't choose a wine for its packaging but for its appropriateness to an event or meal. Maybe this condition gets warped if there's a wedding or other nuptial where the overall presentation could be a higher priority.
I should quickly add, if you have found a reviewer that consistently reflects your tastes in wine his basis for rating wines doesn't matter... don't change. On the other hand, if you continually find you are being surprised or disappointed by a wine that’s highly rated you're a candidate for implementing the Parker system - whether you use the changes I've introduced or not. What I can assure you... your ratings will become more meaningful. You will know which traits contribute to your rating and why. You will hone your tasting skills by looking for the elements important to your personal tastes. You will be able to dialogue with your fellow imbibers more effectively in verbal descriptions of wines without a gullible acceptance of 'numbers'. Whatever... you'll have ownership of your ratings.

In the following I've summarized the WARS components as a series of questions. The system is the same as above except for the changes to Potential and an emphasis on Typicity or trueness. Whether red or white, bubbly or still, they equally apply. Each trait is stated in a general context not influenced by an actual instance of the trait.

  • Base : 50
  • Colour: 5 Are natural tints reflected cleanly? Does it glisten with clarity?
  • Nose: 15 Do the aromas correspond to the fruit and terroir claimed for its origin?
  • Flavour & Finish: 20 Is the wine a simple presentation or are there extra nuances expressing the varietal or blend? On the first sip, does the texture and body reflect the labelled process and/or blending? How does the wine leave your senses? Whether fading slowly or quickly, with marked change in any of the traits you've sensed, or are new facets of the varietal or process introduced? Do the changes detract or add to your enjoyment?
  • Potential: 5 Will the wine improve in character and value with long term (5 - 10 years) cellaring?
  • Typicity: 5 How closely does the wine represent the varietal or blend it represents? Tartness, tannin, sweetness, process influences all contribute to a balanced sensation on the palate. Each contributes its own distinct sensation not interfering with the contribution of others but complementing them. How balance affects overall enjoyment can be the most difficult to assess, and easiest to overlook, but often makes the difference between 'average', 'good' and 'excellent'. Is the wine balanced or is it missing some varietal texture - ie. is it lopsided?
Early on you should consciously decide what your preferences are. For instance, I want a wine that is pleasing to look at, to sniff and hits my palate on the first sip in a pleasing, maybe surprising, maybe elegant manner, with flavours, textures representing the natural grape and then finishing in character. If a vintner's process is somehow indicated, usually on the label, it should be apparent and complement these traits. Complexities introduced by ageing should be noted. I consider Flavour & Finish and Typicity of paramount importance.

Next time you are tasting a recommended wine tabulate your own evaluation. How closely does your rating come to that of the reviewer? And don't forget... your ratings are the correct ones for you.

Ww (updated July 9, 2008)

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