What’s The Score?

By David Biggs

Question 1: What wine scoring system is the best?

Question 2: Who gives a damn?

The sainted Robert Parker, pope of the wine critics, uses the 100-point system of scoring. Any wine that is blessed with a score of 90 points or more is regarded as suitable nectar for God’s table and immediately worth an increase of 50 per cent in price.

Has anybody ever heard of a Robert Parker score of less than 50 points? Not I. Maybe his range is actually 50 points, rather than 100.

Most South African wine competitions are scored on a 20-point system, but is this really the case? A really superb wine may achieve an 18 score. A score of 16 or 17 is regarded as “silver medal” territory and 14 or 15 is a bronze medal. Less than that gets no medals at all.

So a really awful wine may be scored 11 or 12 and that means: “Not worth considering further”. Doesn’t this really mean we’re using a 10-point system? There’s no territory lower than 10.

I was invited to judge wines in the VinItaly Competition in Verona a couple of years ago, where they use an incredibly detailed 100-point scoring system. Each wine has it own A4 score sheet with boxes to tick for things such as colour, hue, intensity, turbidity, clarity, typicity, harmony, and so on.

But the bottom line was this: We were told that any wine that scored less than 82 points (for some reason) would not proceed to the next round of judging.

Ergo: If you like a wine, and think it should go to the next round, make sure it scores more than 82 points. If you think it’s crap, keep the score down to 78 or 75 and you’ve killed it without being outright rude. I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I spoke to several of my fellow judges in Italy and they all admitted that was the way they worked. You sniff the wine, look at its colour, sip it and decide: “Hey, this is good stuff! It deserves a score of at least 88.”  Then you work back from there—maybe add a little more for turbidity and another point here for typicity until you’ve reached the desired 88 points.

Don’t tell me there’s any judge in the world who can consistently say this wine’s turbidity is 3 points out of 4, or that it has a “typicity” of exactly 5 points out of 7.

So, what's the point? 

At the annual Veritas Awards Competition, probably the most prestigious wine contest in South Africa—regardless of what its detractors may claim—we use a nominal 20-point system.

I say “nominal” because it’s really a five-point system. In practice, the wines are scored as “gold, silver, bronze or nothing”, and if enough judges agree, a wine can be promoted from gold to double-gold. Five categories of excellence. If a judge thinks the wine is really bad, he or she ticks the “14 minus” box. There’s no place for 12 or 11. At the Wine-of-the-Month Club we use the nominal 20-point scoring system.

In fact, it’s actually a 100-point system, because judges are allowed to use decimal points. Even very poor wines seldom receive less than 10 points, so the range of scores is actually between 11 and 20. That’s a 10-point spread in real terms. Add to this the decimalisation—you may score 14,6 or 15,2 for example—and you end up with a possible 100 different scores within the 10-point range.

So we’re back to His Holiness, St Robert Parker’s 100-point system. The reality is there are no absolutes in judging the flavours or aromas of wine. If enough people like a wine, well, then, it’s a good wine. Members of serious judging panels have had long experience of tasting wines and knowing what to expect. If one judge scores a wine 18 out of 20 and another gives it 19, that’s not a sign of disagreement. It’s a sure indication both judges thought the wine was pretty damn good.

And isn’t that all that’s important?