Fine Wine Critics Ratings: Are They Important?

When I was little, I couldn’t bear criticism. People would come to me and try and “help” me by telling me what I had done wrong: my feet were too pointy in my ballet class, my writing was all squiggly at school and I needed to help more at home. I hated it. To me, even if people meant well, I couldn’t bear being criticised. If I hadn’t done something perfectly the first time, then I had done it wrong. End of story.

What I didn’t understand as that spoilt, petulant child, was that constructive criticism is always good. Yes, my writing needed work and yes, my first position in ballet wasn’t as good in real life as in my head. Constructive criticism is good (emphasis on constructive). It helps you to grow and get better, particularly when others are involved. As an adult, I have undergone a complete volte-face – today, I am over-sensitive to what others think (do I look alright? Am I kind enough? How does this blog entry read?).  Even now, with over 20 years of writing career behind me, I am nervous about pressing the publish button because, well, what if you don’t like it? 

Leaving my vast insecurities aside for the moment, it is time (for me) to accept that criticism is worth it. And that professional critics are not only some of the most knowledgeable people on the planet, but they are there to help. These talented men and women spend years learning their craft, so we don’t have to. Whatever you’re into: films, books, art and yes, even wine, if you don’t want to spend years learning the basics of your subject, you’re going to need to find a critic whose opinion you trust, and just go with it. 

What Wine Scores and Ratings Do Critics Use?

Understanding the ratings of fine wine is one of the most crucial steps of fine wine investing. It is super easy now to invest in wine if you use a wine investment app. Ratings are the simplest way for a wine critic to communicate their opinion regarding the quality of wine and whether it a an age worthy wine. These numbers are found alongside tasting notes and help consumers and collectors to decide which wines to invest in. Most critics use the 100 point scale, but some (see below) use the 20 point scale.

The amateur investor should also be aware that wines are rated several times during their lifetime. Investors should pay special attention to the ratings at the en-primeur stage (traditionally the most interesting time to buy from an ROI point of view), followed by the first rating once the wine has been bottled. The evolution between these two scores gives a good indication of how the wine will perform over time. 

Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale

Wine Spectator’s scoring scale applies more or less across the board, for those who score 1-100. Based on Robert Parker’s original 100-point system, the American magazine has appropriated the scale which is today considered the holy grail for wine lovers. If you are not already aware of the magazine, you should be. Wine Spectator provides precious insight for both amateurs and professionals, providing unbiased background information, essential for doing your research when thinking about investing in wine.

100 Point Scale

95–100Classic: a great wine
90–94Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
85–89Very good: a wine with special qualities
80–84Good: a solid, well-made wine
75–79Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
50–74Not recommended

TWA Rating System

TWA or The Wine Advocate is another, incredibly important, source of information for investors. Founded by Robert Parker in 1978 (and then sold in 2012 for “an undisclosed sum”), TWA is one of the most influential publications on the market. His 100-point rating system is the original system to which most critics refer, particularly those in America. The scoring system was born in the 1970s out of Parker’s frustration with a lack of unbiased scores. This was in a time when many wine critics had financial interests in the wines they were writing about, thus inflating the scores of “their”’ wines. The 100-point system was conceived as Parker considered the 20-point system, which was commonplace at the time, to be lacking in scope to realistically reflect the wine’s overall quality. Many British critics, such as Jancis Robinson, still prefer the 20-point system. 

A word to investors, however. Parker himself says that the tasting notes are as important as the scores and should always be considered when thinking of buying a wine to drink or save. He says on his website:

“Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and ageing potential than any score could ever indicate.” — Robert M. Parker Jr.

Robinson’s 20-point scale

British wine critic Jancis Robison favours, albeit reluctantly, using the traditional 20-point scale. Her breakdown is as follows: 

20 Point Scale

20Truly exceptional
19A Humdinger (Excellent) 
18A cut above superior
14Deadly dull
13Borderline faulty or unbalanced
12Faulty or unbalanced

Robinson does however go on to mention on her website that she is “very uncomfortable” rating wines as she does not “believe there is a single objective yardstick of quality by which a Beaujolais, for example, can be measured alongside a Napa Valley Cabernet.” Be that as it may, scores and ratings are certainly a good benchmark when you are looking at which wines retain their quality when looking to invest. 

How to Approach Wine Ratings

Wine ratings, therefore, are an essential source of information for both inventors and enthusiasts, for whom the wine is ultimately intended. To put it basically, if the wine is low rated, no drinker worth their salt will ever touch it and the wine will be worthless, however much you paid initially for it. But it is important to also remember that however high (or low) the rating is, it is just one person’s opinion. And that their opinion, however well educated, is not fact. 

Step 1: Research Wine Critics

There are many, many wine critics out there and finding one whose option you trust can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. However, there are a handful of really famous ones who pop up all the time. Apart from the aforementioned Robert Parker and Jancis Robison, James Suckling, Neal Martin, Antonio Galloni and Tim Atkin are names that are omnipresent on the fine wine circuit. This sextuplet is basically like the first page of Google for a wine – everyone wants to be in their favour. One bad review from one of the six and boom, you’re history.

That is not to say that they all agree. Although mostly their opinions are usually aligned, bar the odd discrepancy in scores (Suckling is usually generous, Parker overly critical). A very famous dispute took place in the press between Robison and Parker in 2003. Robinson called Pavie “ridiculous”, giving it just 12/20, with Parker rushing to its defence. Calling Robinson “a Bordeaux reactionary,” he said her comments were “very much in keeping with her nasty swipes at all the Pavies made by (estate owner) Gerald Perse”. Opinions, thus, can be very divided, so make sure you do your own homework. Parker has since apologised.

Step 2: Explore Trends on the Wine Market

Like everything, wine is governed by trends. Currently, the market is moving away from the big Bordeaux wines (although from an investment point of view, you can never go wrong with a First Growth), and looking towards Italian wines, notably Barolo. Smaller, younger Bordeaux producers are creating a buzz too, particularly those with low yields who champion great attention to winemaking. And, despite the vast sums that Burgundy wines have reached in the past, the Bourgogne bubble may well have burst. Despite Sotheby’s selling a record-breaking $27million of Domaine Romanee Conti in 2019 (making it the highest-selling producer the auction house sells), prices for Bourgogne have been in decline for over a year. A word of advice: beware before you flash the cash. 

Step 3: Find Your Wine Critic

Finally, read all you can in wine publications such as Decanter, Wine Advocate, Vinous, Wine Enthusiast etc and start getting a feel for critics with similar tastes to yours. After all, ratings are subjective and you should really build your portfolio on what you love as well as what you can sell 10-15 years down the line. 

Should People Rely On Wine Critics’ Ratings? 

But the real question is, how much can we trust, Parker, Robinson, Suckling et al? Are their subjective opinions really reliable?

Well, yes and no. It would be remiss of us to place all our faith in the hands of just a few experts but equally, we would also be foolish to not consider their knowledge as sacred. Yes, it is very difficult to encapsulate a wine’s qualities in a single score, but scores do serve a purpose, especially when you are buying and selling. These people have devoted their lives to researching and learning about fine wine and yes, of course, opinions will differ but with great wine, the proof is in the glass. If we are seeing constant top scores from all critics then I think yes, we can trust that they know their stuff. After all, we are not petulant children anymore, are we? 

Now that you have learned these tips on how to approach wine critics’ ratings, you can head to our wine tasting terms glossary so that you can sound like a real wine sommelier!

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