Wine Rating Systems:

How They Work

By Paul J Aynscough

Wine ratings are now a consumer benchmark for quality and some would argue are a proxy for what constitutes a premium wine. Many of us look to them for reassurance that we are 'making a good decision'. Perhaps for others, it is an insurance policy on our purchase.

However, much like wine itself, there exist nuances in these wine ratings. Ratings vary, the scales differ and scores don’t always align with those of other critics. So how can we make sense of them? Read on to find out.

The revolution for wine ratings began in the United States during the 1980’s when Robert Parker introduced the 100-point system. It was the first scale to be used for wine judging and also the most commonly used. Here in Australia, the 100-point system is most notably used by James Halliday (Wine Companion), The Wine Front and Ray Jordan. While it’s notionally called the 100-point system, any score below 80 is generally considered unfavourable, to say the least.

James Halliday ratings scale - Halliday Wine Companion 2017

James Halliday, Australia’s leading wine critic, uses an additional scale when he reviews wines and the wineries that produce them; the five-star scale. Best known as a hotel review model, Halliday uses this scale with a few modifications to illustrate the prestige of top tier Australian wineries. Other publishers who use this model include Decanter magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

The five red stars - James Halliday's highest rating a winery can achieve

Halliday's use of the five-star system builds out to add an evocative layer of colour to signify where wineries are consistently achieving near perfection. One to five stars will be coloured black, however, when a winery has held the five-star rating for the previous two years and they have at least two wines rated 95 points or higher, they are awarded the coveted Halliday 5-Red Stars.

“I look at the ratings for this and the previous two years; if the wines tasted this year justified a higher rating than last year, that higher rating has been given. If, on the other hand, the wines are of lesser quality, I take into account the track record over the past two years (or longer where the winery is well known) and made a judgement call on whether it should retain its ranking, or be given a lesser one. In what I call the mercy rating, in most instances a demotion is no more than half a star. Where no wines were submitted by a well-rated winery which had a track record of providing samples, I may use my discretion to roll over last year’s rating.”– James Halliday

The three rating scales and the industries that employ them

After the 100-point scale and the 5-star rating, the third most popular scale is the 20-point scale. The 20-point scale is rarely used in Australia, however, it is popular in other parts of the world. It is a simplified, minimal version to the 100-point scale and is most notably employed by British critic and Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson.

Whichever rating system is employed, they are all attempting to convey two key factors. First and foremost is the overall quality of the wine.  And the second key factor is how well the wine expresses the grape varietal and the region from where it’s crafted.

For many consumers, ratings will continue to define the quality a wine has achieved. However, like any subjective topic, the voice that resonates with our views is often the voice we follow. So, find the critic whose views and tastes resonate with yours and trust them to help you discover those wines you may never have thought of trying.