Numbers by themselves seem to be univocal—93 is 93. Period. Yet when it comes to scoring wines, we tend to relativize wines to the type being scored. Is a 93 for a Fleurie the same as a 93 for a Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru or a Cru Barolo? Most would say that each number is attached to the kind of wine being reviewed. A 93 does mean an excellent wine in every case. But just how good can a Fleurie or a Barbera be in comparison with a Burgundy or a Barolo? Easier to drink, ready to go early in its life, less demanding, and more immediately pleasurable. If wines were rated by such criteria then we might be inclined to say that Beaujolais’, Malbecs, Barberas, Valpolicellas, Côtes du Rhône are the best wines in the world.
But of course we do not. Our criteria for excellence are based on longevity, complexity, nuance, length on the palate, aromatic intensity, etc… etc… Experience teaches us what kinds of wine can climb the mountain of exceptional quality. It has to be admitted that such wines are often challenging to the taster and may require years of cellaring to realize their full sensory potential. There is a degree of risk in purchasing such wines: will a given bottle realize its full possibilities or get stuck in eternal adolescence as it were? Part of the adventure of investing in potentially exceptional wines is that the journey is a long one and the outcome never entirely predictable. I submit that the element of uncertainty is part of the meaningfulness of investing in great wines. Disappointment in a 10-year aged Burgundy or Barolo is quite different from disappointment in a Fleurie or a Macon. Full satisfaction from a properly aged Barolo from a top estate is quite a different experience from the pleasures of a cru Beaujolais.
Let us return to the question of using scoring in the best possible manner. If we take the absolute position with respect to scoring then we have to say that a 94 or 95 means what it says irrespective of the type of wine being reviewed. This is very convenient for the retailer trade which just want an endless stream of high numbers. But it is much less good for consumers who will bring high expectations to such scores only to discover that the 95 points rated Côtes du Rhône does not deliver the thrill which such a number suggests. This means that we all have to learn to relativize numbers to wine type. Wine writers, correspondingly, should keep this in mind in awarding points. Throwing 95, 97 and 97 at wines whose development potential is inherently limited, helps no one. Indeed, it eventually discredits the reviewer. There is no way to set up a chart with the highest possible rating for wines of different types. Some wine writers keep such a scale in mind when tasting wines: A Côtes du Rhône can get to 92, a special cuvee Châteauneuf-du-Pape can get to 96, a Côte Rôtie could actually achieve 100 points in certain vintages. This is merely an example of what I would call disciplined scoring. Too many high scores both obliterate category differences and eventually makes it all but impossible to understand the criteria being used by the reviewer. Scores are evaluative tools which can be used in a responsible manner if reviewers remember that numbers have consequences!