How I taste and score wines

  • Blind tastings
  • Independent and unbiased
  • Same 100 point scale for all wines
  • No ratings for barrel tastings
  • Winery ratings driven by their top 5 recent wines

Almost all the wines I review are first tasted ‘blind’. I believe it is important for that first impression to be uncoloured by any preconception that may come from viewing the label. Having blind-tasted, though, I don’t consider the result to be holy writ: after unmasking I always check, and if necessary re-taste. No-one’s palate is perfect and there are always wines that will “fall through the cracks”, ending up with rougher treatment than they deserve. In blind tasting, it is easy for a minor blemish to have a disproportionate influence on the assessment. We have to be mindful that wine is a drink, and often, wines with a small imperfection are often great to drink. A slight whiff of reduction in a young riesling may be a defect to a clinical blind-taster in his ivory tower, but in the final summation, it is barely worth commenting on – and usually dissipates after a little exposure to the air anyway.

I normally score out of 20 as I taste. This is converted to a score out of 100, which is not arrived at by multiplying by five, but is a slightly more complicated conversion.

My calibration takes some account of that employed by other reviewers – after all, there is no point rowing a totally eccentric boat that no-one understands. There are some ways that my calibration differs, however. I tend to score wines slightly lower than some reviewers, in an endeavour to give a wider spread to my points. There is at least one major critic who applies a different scale of scoring to Australian wines versus imports – but he doesn’t let us into the secret of precisely how it varies. I consider this an absurdity. On my scorecard, a Champagne is pointed on exactly the same scale as an Australian, Spanish or any other sparkling wine. I see no point in doing otherwise. The system has to be as simple and transparent as possible and as useful to the wine-consumer.

As I am not a winemaker, or producer, or seller of wine in any way, shape or form, I hold no brief for the winemaking industry/community and feel no compulsion to act as its de facto promoter. Some critics appear to see their role otherwise. Some critics actually produce and sell wine, and I feel they are compromised by that activity. I have never and would never do this, while remaining a critic.

Most of the reviews result from blind tastings conducted in my own tasting room. This to me is the ideal situation. I control everything: the glassware, the temperature of the wine, the context in which it is tasted, the amount of time taken – and I can re-taste as often as I like, sometimes looking at a wine over a period of days, often re-tasting wines with meals or simply in a drinking rather than a tasting situation. (As Gerard Basset wrote, drinking and tasting are different acts: “Just as listening is different to hearing, so tasting is different to drinking”.) Some of the reviews are from wine competitions and blind tastings others have organised. A few are from non-blind tastings, usually at seminars, winery visits or the dinner-table.

I have been a wine show judge since 1987 so my scoring does have some relation to the wine show system, in that a score of 95 equates to 18.5 out of 20, which is a basic gold medal score in a wine show. And 90 equates to a silver medal (17 out of 20), while 86 is 15.5 out of 20, the threshold for a bronze medal. For wines scoring below 85, no review is published. However, readers should always weigh up scores against prices, and remember that a score of 84 can still indicate a worthwhile wine, especially if the price is attractive.

Finally, a word on quality and scores. While experienced judges of wine tend to agree more than disagree on what constitutes quality, they will never agree completely. Firstly, our palates are all different – as different as our fingerprints. Second, it’s well-known that tasters from different backgrounds have slightly different ideas of quality. In the US, for instance, wine judges are more tolerant of overripe flavours in red wines (eg. portiness, jamminess, ‘dead-fruit’) which are regarded as faults of viticulture or harvest timing in Australia, New Zealand and most other countries. Likewise, Americans tend to be more tolerant of high alcoholic strength in table wines than in most countries. And European judges are more likely to notice and be critical of what they interpret as over-acidification in some Australian wines. Each to his/her own taste!

In a perfect world, subjectivity would not be a factor in wine assessment. But we live in a far-from-perfect world, and there are no perfect wine judges. Some reviewers like to give the impression that they are entirely consistent in their judging and that personal bias isn’t a significant factor. But inevitably, there will always be a possibility of a subjective bias, and it can be both good and bad. Some critics may have a reputation for preferring big wines, others for favouring delicate. As with cinema, music or restaurant critics, the reader can get to know the likes and dislikes of a reviewer and take them into account. The one comment I would make is that I’ve observed that subjective preference comes more into play the higher we ascend the quality/price ladder. A group of judges might all agree that six chardonnays are worthy of gold medals, but if you ask them which is the best, you could easily get six different answers!

Not Rated (NR)

The initials NR instead of a score usually indicate there was something wrong with the bottle sampled, or I suspected there was. The usual fault is cork-derived taint or random oxidation (also thought to be due to faulty cork). If I have any such suspicion about a wine, I’ll usually elect not to rate it. If a back-up bottle is available, I taste it.

Also, if my impressions are below expectation, knowing that I liked the wine on a different occasion, or the wine is from a producer whose wines I normally rate highly, I might elect not to rate that bottle. I usually try to taste another bottle, and record my impressions of that bottle, at a later date.

How I Describe Wine

Trying to describe wine is like trying to catch a butterfly in a net. It’s a pity we even try, but some of have to at least make an attempt to describe wine and explain why we like or dislike it.

Some wine writers use flowery, fruity and vegetal words. Some use so many of these descriptors for the one wine that it beggars belief.

Personally, I prefer structural descriptors. Is the wine full-bodied or light? Is it lean or rich? Are the flavours tight or diffuse? Opulent or austere?

Such structural descriptors always have a pair; an opposite. Is the wine sweet or dry? Is it fruity or savoury; soft or astringent; tart or flabby; is the texture refined or coarse? These are, to me, more useful concepts than whether a wine smells of mulberry, blueberry or blackberry – although I use a few of those, too.

How to identify
outstanding wines

To make it easier for you to identify wines of exceptional quality, HuonHooke.com uses the following gold and silver ribbons:

90

90-93 points

The 90-point threshold is an important one, both psychologically and practically. 90 points is a silver medal in many wine competitions, and that indicates a very high quality wine. Aside from technical quality, it will possess character, balance and that hard-to-define element, style. And also textural refinement, as opposed to coarseness.

94

94-100 points

These wines are in the big league. They are truly excellent wines which are fully representative of their region, variety and maker; wines of pedigree, great balance and harmony. They sing with a kind of rightness; an effortlessness; a natural symmetry. Over 95 points, they are the best of their breed, with great distinction, a certain thrill factor – and sometimes even uniqueness.

Barrel tastings

Some critics rate and review wines tasted as barrel or tank samples. In my view this is wrong, and potentially very misleading. I am never thinking of the commercial consequences as I taste and review wines. People who review barrel samples, as they do at the annual Primeur tastings in Bordeaux, are I believe motivated by the desire to be first into print with judgements on new vintages, or else, they’re allowing themselves to be pawns in the commercial chess-game of wine marketers, either wittingly or not.

There is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, as the saying goes. And a lot can go wrong with a wine between the time a critic tastes from the barrel and the time the wine is finally blended, bottled and put on the market. Wines can be manipulated or adulterated, and faults can creep in. As well, the phenomenon of the critics’ barrel is well-known and rightly derided in the wine trade. A winery owner may have 100 barrels of what is ostensibly the same wine, but unblended. In reality each barrel will be slightly different, and the best will be substantially different from the least. Winemakers and proprietors are only human, and who can blame them if they choose to draw the critic’s sample from their best barrel?

I never review unfinished wine, and have been for 25 years a vocal opponent of wine competitions which permit unfinished wines to enter. To judge such samples is like judging a recipe for a dish instead of the finished dish itself, or judging a cake-mix before it has been baked. In other words, it doesn’t make sense.