Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES September 24 Release

John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview September 24: Score!

By John Szabo, MS with notes from David Lawrason, Michael Godel, Sara d’Amato and Megha Jandhyala

“Come See the Violence Inherent in the System! Help, Help, I’m Being Repressed”

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You’d be forgiven for coming away even more confused about wine scoring after reading the latest VINTAGES circular for the September 24 release, the feature for which is “High Scores.” The VINTAGES writing team attempts a short explanation of how wines are scored, but, in the end, manages little else other than to highlight all the glitches inherent in the system. In short, humans with different agendas awarding numerical ratings to a complex and varied product is fundamentally problematic.

I’ve been down this path several times in the past — as have many — attempting to explain what scoring wine is all about, why it’s useful, and why it is not. But at the risk of flogging the proverbial expired horse (it’s too much fun to resist a little dig), let’s have a fresh look at how the LCBO explains scoring, and what we can learn from it.

First, a spoiler alert: the simple fact is, it’s not a level playing field with comparable numbers. Each critic, no matter their particular scoring system, applies slightly different criteria, heavily shaded with personal experience, context and individual preferences. Not all numbers are equal, even if they are the same number.


The circular leads off plainly enough, offering that, “The scores provided by professional wine critics are powerful tools for consumers. No matter your experience level, these expert opinion and recommendations can help you make confident choices at all price points.” So far, so good. Perhaps it would have been best to leave it at that without opening the Pandora’s box full of devilish details.

But then, various scoring systems are introduced to muddy the waters. Although the 100-point system may be the most common, used also at WineAlign, it’s not the only one, of course. Page 4 continues: “…it may be challenging to visualize what a Gambero Rosso 2 glasses out of 3 rating means. Similarly, a Jancis Robinson 17 out of 20 means that the wine is superior, but many people erroneously translate such scores to percentages, which makes the wine appear less successful.”

I’d also add the 5 star (glass) system (colored in or not), medals (platinum, gold, silver, bronze, etc.), even a simple thumbs up or down, among other ways of sorting through the noise. Is this confusing? What does this mean? Can you find equivalence across different scoring systems? Not really, at least no direct or linear correlation. It’s up to you to learn what each system means to the person or publication applying it. While most of the shelf talkers include a score out of 100, the LCBO will also occasionally sprinkle in glasses, stars, medals and other rating systems when convenient. 

The explanation of scoring falls further down the rabbit hole on page 6, when price, another important number, is grafted onto the discussion, raising the question of how to make sense of two wines separated by a $40 difference in price, yet with identical scores. I’m sure you’re wondering about this, too.

The answer, we’re told, “lies in the wine’s context.”

“There are different wines with different expectations. Even for the same wine, one critic may award a low-priced wine a big score because the wine displays exceptional qualities within its particular price band, while another might score it lower, assigning it a rating that places the wine within a broader stylistic and regional framework that includes the most expensive wines.” Glad we finally cleared that up.

Some instances of score/price ratios are more obvious, like the 97 points awarded to the $26.95 Château Lamartine Cahors Cuvée Particiulière in this release at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Surely the panel didn’t think this reasonably priced wine sits shoulder to shoulder alongside the very greatest, nearly perfect wines ever produced. Even the producer would scratch her head in bewilderment. But it performed very well in its specific category. (For the record, the WineAlign Crü did not taste this wine, though in my experience with the estate it is surely very good, if not quite 97 points.) But in less extreme cases, i.e. most cases, it’s impossible to know for sure in which context a critic was operating when awarding the score.

Page 12 then touches upon yet another glitch in the matrix: the annoying inconvenience of inexorably rising numbers. We call it “score creep” in the business. You don’t need to look too far back in history to find the time when perfectly good, and even some very good wines, would score 85 points, or 83 or even 81 points. I was always pretty happy with a grade over 80 in school. But in this hyper-inflated world, nobody cares about your 80+.

“…it’s only natural to have our heads turned by 90+-point wines,” someone writes in the circular, continuing, however, to report that: “an absence of a score or review or a score below 90 points aren’t indications of a poor wine…the fact is that the vast majority of wines are not reviewed, and most high-quality wines earn ratings in the 88-89 range.” And then, to continue the contradictions, and as though to underscore how meaningless anything less than 90 points has become, a quick perusal of the VINTAGES catalogue turns up just a single wine with a score below 90 points [89] in this release. Are we ever lucky in Ontario to have only the world’s finest wines!

To someone cynical, it would appear the LCBO is conscripting scores from across the vast worldwide web to shore up the 90-point illusion and confirm that sub-90 wines are rubbish. After all, through the power of Google and the vast number of wine scorers out there, surely a 90+ will turn up somewhere. (“Ken’s Wine Guide,” who are you?).

For all other wines in the catalogue, if no 90+ score could be found, all lower numbers were repressed — along with their third-party awarder’s reviews — and readers are provided with the VINTAGES tasting panel’s notes, with no score attached. “For wines without reviews, VINTAGES provides notes that reflect the experience of our expert tasting panel…”

Of course, it’s not that these scoreless wines have no published reviews. They almost always do. In fact, a review with a score is one of the primary boxes to tick when submitting a wine to the LCBO for consideration in the first place, long before it reaches a shelf. It’s just that the catalogue writers see no benefit in publishing sub-90 scores these days. It’s a policy in line with what most modern wine retailers do, and in the end, the consumer-facing 100-point scale is squished down to less than 10 points.

The circular’s explanation of scoring winds down on page 14 with the all-encompassing, get-out-of-jail-free card that is invariably pulled out in these discussions: “Tasting wine is always personal.” In other words, if you don’t like the high-scoring wine, it’s you, not the wine. At the same time, the statement would also seem to imply that the entire scoring game is a sham, or at least of very limited value for anyone but the person scoring the wine.

So, what have we learned? 1) There are multiple scoring systems, which have no relationship to one-another. 2) Everybody applies their own, personal approach to scoring, with no universal standards. 3) Some critics factor in price, or regional, or style grouping, while others don’t. 4) Only 90+ point wines with reviews exist, the rest were never reviewed.

But just when you think that wine scoring is a hopeless, unhelpful, unreliable mess, the explanation wraps up with one final golden nugget. It’s perhaps the only piece of advice that makes any sense in this convoluted rationalisation of wine scoring:

“If possible, when you have tasted a wine, read several reviews. You’ll begin to recognize critics whose tastes, more often than not, match your own. You can then confidently seek out wines that they recommend, even if you’re unfamiliar with the producer, grape or region”.

We at WineAlign have to agree with this last statement. It’s the founding principle of the publication, an elegant solution to all the inherent problems with scoring wine alluded to here, and yet more besides. In the end, all that can be asked of a wine critic is to be consistent.

Vintages Buyer’s Guide September 24: Sparkling, White & Rosé

Blank Canvas Reed Chardonnay 2019

Blank Canvas Reed Chardonnay 2019, Marlborough, New Zealand
$39.95 Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
John Szabo – This is a highly flinty-reductive, idiosyncratic chardonnay in a style that I admittedly love, but tends to be polarizing. It’s all sulfur compounds and lime zest, white peach and nectarine- a real tour de force and obviously ambitious, high-quality wine, the individual style preferences are for you to decide. Decant if serving now, or in three years, or hold into the ’30s I’d suspect without previous reference, given the liquid observed here alone.
Michael Godel
Blank Canvas Reed is a seriously reductive, flinty and crackerjack chardonnay though when will the shell be cracked open to reveal the sweet and toothsome fruit held within? Give this time.

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John Szabo, MS

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