Tasting System & Scale

Wine Rating System
First, you should know that I believe that all methods that try to quantify the quality of wine are flawed. Those that try to be precise are the most arbitrary and least credible.

Wouldn't it just be simpler, you might say, to use the 100-point scale that is so commonplace and easy for most people to understand? Yes, that would be the path of least resistance, but how could I in good conscience use an approach I do not find plausible? What is the difference between a wine rated 87 and one rated 89? On what basis is the scorer assigning a number - compared to all wine generally (the worst and most subjective approach), to wines of the same grape variety, district, region or country? Or compared to all wines of a specific type, or a similar blend, around the world? The truth is that ratings reflect all of these approaches, often inconsistently depending upon the reviewer or even the category of wine. For these and other reasons, I subscribe to two fundamental principles in my rating approach:

1. I prefer broad, less precise groupings and therefore have opted for five tiers of quality assessment, allowing considerable flexibility.

Gone are the debates surrounding the real differences between a wine scored 86 and one rated 88!

2. I rate wines according to their peer group: a family of wines from the same variety or blend within a region of origin.

 It is thus possible to assign the highest rating to a wine I believe is an exceptional example of its type, even if that wine is not among the greatest wines of the world. This approach is closer to a wine judging, in which a gold medal could be awarded to a top performer in a well-defined category even if it is a comparatively humble wine. For example, a regional Côtes du Rhône and a far more powerful, multi-faceted Châteauneuf-du-Pape could both merit 5 stars provided each is a truly exceptional rendition of its appellation.

Wine Tasting

What are the 5 S’s of wine tasting? Do you use these in your wine appreciation classes? Thanks for your reply.

The "5 S's" of wine tasting could be seen as just a catchy memory device, yet the concept is grounded in a sensible tasting strategy. The first step or S is to "See" or examine the appearance of a wine in the glass, which may provide various information to be confirmed by the subsequent steps. This should be done while tilting the glass over a white surface illuminated by a bright incandescent light. The clarity of the wine is to be noted, although contemporary wine handling renders virtually all (filtered) wine completely clear. In older wines, of course, there can be sediment to varying degrees. Young reds typically have a purple rim and vibrant color which fades and browns with time; whites may be lightly gold when young before darkening and browning as they become older. A brownish tint could also tell the taster that the wine has been deliberately exposed to air during extended aging in the cellar, as would be the case with a Tawny Port. The second S is for "Swirl," the act of rotating the glass by the stem so as to provoke release of the volatile aromatic compounds prior to step three, "Sniff" (or "Smell"). This is an absolutely vital component of the tasting process, since what we call flavor is determined mainly by aroma. Unfortunately, many people tend to rush past this essential step. We could also say that the nose of a wine is a source of tremendous pleasure, not just for those wines based on so-called aromatic grape varieties (for example, Riesling or Muscat). The world's finest wines possess multidimensional aromatic personalities. The nose might also tell us about defects and off-odors. Next, we come to "Sip" as we take some of the wine into the mouth, perhaps aiding our senses by drawing a bit of air and gently moving the wine around the palate. (Pros do this without drawing the attention of a room full of people!) At this point, we can take note of the basic tastes such as acidity, bitterness, sweetness and - in a few instances - saltiness (the fifth taste, umami, is a more complicated issue in wine tasted without food). As we do this, we arrive at the final stage, "Savor," when we can assess and reflect on the overall characteristics of the wine, including its state of development, body, balance and, once again, the aromatic traits which ascend through our retro nasal passages. Last, we may savor the length of the finish, or how long the flavors persist. The greatest wines have the most lasting and complex finishes. So the 5 S's really do make a lot of sense and they can help anyone to go about tasting in a deliberate, disciplined manner - taking notes at each step if you're really serious and want a record for the future.

An answer I wrote in my role handling the Q&A on LocalWineEvents.com. 

My Rating Scale


* poor, possibly flawed


** below average or deficient


*** good, well-made


**** excellent


***** exceptional


(  ) denotes added potential with bottle aging


My system is not perfect, but it serves to establish a general ranking in terms that are equitable, and it allows for any high-achieving wine to be recognized for its merit.