Wine scores: sense or nonsense

Wine tasting is an art not a science and as such the results will not have the same empirical support as, say, a chemical analysis of a wine's constituents. Moreover, a truly great wine provides the taster with a profound emotional experience which is hard to quantify. But a cursory glance at wine magazines, wine assessment sites and merchants' wine lists frequently reveals a two or three digit number (a score) which may push a prospective purchaser into buying a particular wine. Europeans tend to prefer scores based on a twenty-point scale, whereas their American counterparts prefer a hundred point system – why a country which still uses Fahrenheit, whose cars have milometers and where weight is determined in pounds, uses what is effectively a decimal system makes not a little sense. Most of these scores are taken at face value and widely promulgated as if they are the last word on a particular subject, the international standard which may be transported to any timezone and proudly affixed to a wine's description as if it has the same value as the level of alcohol in the bottle. The small print which should accompany all such assessments is conveniently forgotten, as indeed are the actual notes which accompany the digits.

There are a few websites which delve into the statistical world of scores for wines and one, in particular, is worth a moment's perusal in order to penetrate the sheer depth of information available. At its most basic level there are the lists of scores from a host of different critics organised on an historical basis from the 2003 vintage and onwards. These will be updated with the new flood of critics' pronouncement for the latest vintage (2008) in due course, so you may wish to bookmark them for further review. Here one can see at one glance see all the 'scores' derived from the most celebrated wine commentators – perhaps your favourite is among them? The columns can be conveniently sorted in a myriad ways to extract the most useful information. An interesting trend is the disparity between the scores from the European and American critics whilst allowing for the problems of converting the various scales.

One of the most convenient sortings to perform is that of sorting by high score according to your favourite critic. One might observe that the highest scoring wines are not necessarily the most expensive, especially in difficult years. It is also interesting to observe the familiar names of châteaux which some critics may seem to champion. Use of these kinds of statistics can be helpful in making purchase choices if one is confused by the wines and at the prices at which they are offered.

Bertrand Le Guern's website tracks critics scores as if he were compiling the statistics for the Baseball League. This is a very comprehensive presentation of critics' scores and, to some extent, their underlying influence through the prices that are finally charged for the wine in question. A very interesting chart, for example, is the average price of wines compared to the score it received in the vintages 2003-2007. This makes it very clear that there is a very strong correlation between wines which scored over 90 in the various vintages and the prices that were charged. This was particularly true for the 2005 vintage, much less so for 2003 and 2004. The correlation is also high for 2007, a campaign which largely failed in Britain.

There are other fascinating charts such as his presentation of average prices for the different appellations in Bordeaux. Pomerol and Pauillac showing their relative strengths when compared to other regions, an indication perhaps where to buy from too. Mr Le Guern is particularly strong when it comes to analysing prices. He makes useful comparisons between the price of a wine and the score it has received from the critics in his database. From this one can determine whether a wine is good value or not. He provides tables which show an estimated price based on a complicated statistical formula with the actual price and the highs and lows for the wine. All of these tables, provide some useful checks to those prices you might see in the marketplace – assuming you have the time to look through all of them.

Another particularly interesting table is where he lists the scores given to wines by critics from particular countries. Sorting the scores by country shows just how highly the US critics score the wines compared to their European counterparts and how much lower, in general, UK critics score the wines, with some notable exceptions where certain wines obviously appeal more to the British palate. Perhaps most useful to the consumer are Le Guern's comparisons to the issue price of the wines at the time of the 'primeurs' (prix de sortie) and those which can be found in the supermarkets in France during their annual wine promotion festival in the autumn. Helpful, because he also gives the name of the supermarket when the wine could be bought. As if this wasn't already enough he produces charts for all the wines showing their price evolution over a number of years, as many as ten years in some cases. If you're concerned about whether some critics may prefer some wines over others than the website produces another set of tables which calculates the coeffficients of preference. An interesting, but not particularly scientific excursion. The rationale behind this 'coefficient' was to demonstrate one way or another whether there was a case to answer against an American critic that he 'preferred' the wines of a well-known consultant in Bordeaux. This provided some proof that he didn't. On the contrary, a French wine commentator was amused to see how he himself apparently rated the wines of Michel Rolland higher and higher each year. Something he had not realised until now.

The comparisons of wines through scores are really only valid on the specific occasions when the wines are tasted. It's therefore no good taking the score of a particular wine for 2008, say, and comparing it to the 2007, or even 2005. The prices of the wine will have a greater propensity to reflect the truth of the matter. Frequently scores are taken out of context and their use can be very misleading.

Scores are helpful because they provide some assessment of the quality of the wines during, for example, a primeur campaign, but they shouldn't be taken on their own and should always be used in conjunction with the note which describes the wine. After all, no one is buying a score, but they are buying the estate, variety, style, taste and even colour of the wine. As obvious as this may seem it is largely forgotten. There are also other factors to consider which include a domain's reputation and the general views on the vintage.

Statistics and scores taken from (note: no www.)

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