There are several systems currently used to rate wines by wine industry professionals. A wine rating is simply a score assigned by one or more wine critics to a wine tasted, as a summary of that critic’s valuation of that wine. It is therefore a subjective quality score. (Wikipedia)
The purpose of rating wines is of course largely for marketing purposes – there is nothing like having the capacity to read up on an independent expert’s assessment of the quality of a wine before you buy it. Rating also of course helps wine producers benchmark their wines against comparable others and can help point directions for future improvements.
So what are the rating systems, which is the best, how do they work and crucially, are they a better indication of quality than price? In other words do we REALLY get what we pay for?
Numerical scoring of wines is a relatively new concept. The system most commonly used in the Australian wine shows and wine competitions translates scores into Gold, Silver and Bronze medal awards.
Other writers use a 20 point system, and some use a 5-star system, which is sometimes used to assess the winery itself rather than any one particular wine. So you might see ‘’5-star winery’’ on a wine bottle. This is based on the overall quality of all the wines produced by the winery (or at least, all those sent for assessment). It has the unintended consequence of working against smaller wineries which may only produce one or two wines from their own vineyards.
No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores as long as they’re applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the wine buyer with a professional judgement.
What do the points mean?
Using the 100 point system as the base, a score of 90 – 100 is equivalent to an A Grade. It’s only given for an outstanding or a special effort according to Australian Wine Showcase magazine. Wines in this category are the very best produced of their type. There is a big difference between a 90 and 99, but both are top marks. Wine Showcase magazine has developed a useful matrix which gives equivalents to the differing ratings:
|100 point system||Description||20 point system||Wine show medal|
|93 – 100||Extraordinary||18.5 – 20||Gold|
|90 – 92||Outstanding||19 – 18.4||High Silver|
|85 – 89||Extremely good||17 – 17.9||Silver|
|73 – 84||Very good||16.5 – 16.9||High Bronze|
|78 – 82||Good||15.5 – 16.4||Bronze|
Price as a Guide
Of course another way to judge what wines are likely to be good is to go by the price. It’s common sense to assume that price is an accurate way of judging whether a given wine is going to be half decent or not. It may not tell you in sometimes over flowery language what a given wine tastes like, but we tend to assume it’s based on quality.
James Halliday has recently released the 2016 edition of his Australian Wine Companion, the wine bible in Australia which rates wines sent to Halliday under the 100 point system.
So armed with the results for the 2012 vintage of Braydun Hill’s Premium Single Vineyard Shiraz (triple gold medal, 94 points) we decided to put our price guided assumptions to the test. We researched the prices of comparable wines from McLaren Vale through the latest edition.
We found 17 McLaren Vale comparable shiraz wines – and the results are surprising in the wild variations in price. To make sure that we are comparing like with like, we made very sure that we only compared shiraz-only wines (no blends) from the 2012 vintage all with 94 points from James Halliday. One might expect that the same varietal from the same region in the same year and rating by the same person at the same number of points out of 100 would be much the same price. Not so.
We counted 9, ie 52% of the total with a price point at over $50 a bottle. The most expensive was three different shiraz wines from the same winery all priced at $103, while most of the $50+ wines clustered around the $75 – $80 price point. At the other end of the spectrum we counted 5 labels priced at less than $25 a bottle. The remaining 4 labels were between $35 and $45.
What this small piece of research shows is that the 2012 McLaren Vale shiraz wines recently rated at 94 points by James Halliday which one might expect to be priced at similar levels, in fact have huge variations in price.
Furthermore they appear to go from one extreme to the other – falling into the pricey or cheap categories – with relatively few falling into the mid-range price points.
If we take the research further afield and consider some of the shiraz wines from the Barossa (from the same vintage and with the same recent Halliday rating) it seems that the same variations hold, with a marginally greater percentage of wines (58%) in the $50+ price bracket. Interestingly, the Barossa wines have a more even spread of prices at the higher end, with the highest at $125.
What all this means is that mid priced McLaren Vale wines like triple gold medal Braydun Hill 2012 shiraz at $39 compare very favourably when set against similar wines with the same rating from the Barossa. As a buyer you may not mind paying $90, $100 or $125 for a bottle of Barossa 2012 shiraz, but don’t think that by doing so you’re getting better quality for what you pay for!
And if that sounds a bit parochial, we should in all fairness broaden the scope and say that if you hunt around you can get some good bargains in South Australia.