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90+ Point Wines: What's in a Score?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

Promises of excellence beckon wine lovers whenever wine magazines and retail outlets splash around ratings of 90+ point wines. Today’s wide-spread use of wine scores may make it seem like rankings have been around forever, but it didn’t start out that way. Designed with the consumer in mind and popularized through mainstream wine marketing, understanding how the 100-point wine scoring system works can help you select quality wines with confidence.

a glass of white wine being poored next to tasting notes and a pile of corks

Where did the 100-point wine rating scale come from?

In the late 1970s, an American wine critic by the name of Robert Parker began an independent direct-mail publication using a 100-point scoring system that he had devised. Wines rated below 50 went un-reviewed, so in reality the system was based on a 50-point scale (51-100). Parker’s wine critiques offered both positive and negative reviews, a refreshing voice among his contemporaries in the pre-internet era. Up until this point, wine critics played their role in offering laudatory praise for wines as part of the industry’s wine marketing and promotion scheme. Unbalanced wines didn’t receive critical reviews. This led to inflated descriptions and made it challenging for wine enthusiasts to purchase wines for drinking and cellaring.

At the time, Robert Parker’s goal was to give an equal opportunity to any wine. He criticized the industry for unfairly advantaging some producers and disadvantaging others. One example was the Bordeaux Classification of 1855. This ranking system categorized the top châteaux in Bordeaux based entirely on the châteaux’s reputation and trading price from over 170 years ago. Since 1855, these same châteaux have purchased and sold additional lands, and certainly changed wine makers. What goes into a bottle from their estates today is unquestionably different than what went into a bottle over a hundred years ago. Why then, were these estates given preference over other contemporary producers? This logical thought process played a key role in Parker’s philosophical approach to wine judging. To this end, a rating system where every wine has an opportunity to shine made good sense.

Consumers responded to Parker’s reviews and 100-point ranking system with an eager thirst. Finally, there was a no-nonsense way to understand what’s in a bottle before purchasing. Wines that received high scores went on to enjoy greater publicity and sales, often launching newly discovered producers into the spotlight.

Robert Parker’s ratings were based on his palate alone. If you shared the same taste preferences as Parker, then you would find affinity with his highly-ranked wines. Ranking systems have since evolved in their sophistication and application.

wine sommelier tasting wine and taking notes

90+ Point Wine Today

Fast forward to the present day. The ubiquitous use of wine rating systems may seem like a marketing scheme to inflate the wines’ quality, but in actuality a wine's rating should make you stop and consider whether that wine is worthy of your table or cellar.

How Are Wine Rating Scales Used?

First, wine rating scales are still the domain of specialist wine magazines. Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are the two main publications that focus their industry reviews on 90+ point wines for consumers. These popular wine magazines can receive upwards of 15,000 submissions for review annually. That’s a lot of wine. By necessity, each publication uses an established review system to apply rankings, but their scales and scoring differ slightly.

Wine Spectator 90 Point Wines

The Wine Spectator magazine bases their scoring system off of a blind tasting, meaning that none of the reviewers know the producer. A lead taster for a wine region along with a panel of additional tasters sits for the judging. The lead taster knows the region well and what a wine from that region should typify. The other participants serve as confirmatory reviewers. The overall score is based on quality, value for price, and availability. A great wine that has limited distribution (either based on total cases made or imported into the United States), may not make the list because their readership would be unable to source the wine. The Wine Spectator 90 points and above breakdown is:

  • Classic 95-100: A great wine.

  • Outstanding 90-94: A wine of superior character and style.

Wine Enthusiast 90 Point Wines

The Wine Enthusiast’s scoring system diverges somewhat from its counterpart, Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast focuses on wine quality. The reviewers do not take into account cost when awarding a score, but do add it to wines that receive a Best Buy or Editors’ Choice commendation. Their wine reviews are typically done blind, without knowing the producer or the bottle price. Reviewers are free to use their own rubrics for assessing the wines, but they place emphasis on balance, length, complexity, and intensity, four attributes widely used as hallmarks for assessing wine quality across the industry. The Wine Enthusiast 90 points and above breakdown is:

  • Classic 98-100: The pinnacle of quality. A perfect wine in quality, body, and aromas. These wines are perfectly balanced in acidity and tannin levels and display complex flavor characteristics.

  • Superb 94-97: A great achievement.

  • Excellent 90-93: Highly recommended. This is the "excellent" category for the Wine Enthusiast and comes highly recommended by the magazine.

What Is a 90 Point Wine?

As you can see, scales differ. Wine Enthusiast has three distinct levels for their wines, where Wine Spectator uses the two separate categories for their ratings. For both scales, bottles that rank 90+ points exemplify only the finest quality wines.

a couple in the supermarket buying wine

How to Use a Wine Score when Buying Wine

A 90+ point wine is the initial indicator of wine quality. The score reflects additional nuance, however. Every palate is different and so every interpretation of a wine will be unique. While wine rating scales are subjective, the job of the wine critic first and foremost is to accurately capture their tasting experience in that bottle of wine.

Take time to read the tasting notes to see what characteristics the review panel highlighted in each wine. Wines that look like they should taste the same based on a score and bottle label may be wildly different. For example, 90 point Chardonnay wines will include a breadth of winemaking styles, from rich, full-bodied buttery wines to wines that display crisp green fruit and linear acidity. Both styles encompass classic Chardonnay.

Highly-trained industry professionals review these wines with the singular goal of describing their tasting experience so that you can buy with confidence. You may find that certain wine critics consistently praise wines that you enjoy as well. Their palate may be similar to yours and you can use those reviews as a way to inform your cellar purchases.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that the scores will not be the same between varieties. If you’re looking to invest in red wine, a 95-point Cabernet Sauvignon will be rated using different indicators for varietal typicity from a 95-point Merlot. Regardless, the 90 point score demonstrates that the wine displays balance and elegance in the glass.

Scores can be good guides, but be cautious of marketing gimmicks. Wine rankings take the guess work out of buying wine and high rankings do impact wine sales. Apart from the publicity garnered from a 90+ point wine review, producers and retailers can use a favorable score to promote their other wines, including other unranked vintages of that same wine. You’ll often see high scores attached to store shelves under bottles when you’re shopping for wine. The retail outlet is leveraging that score for additional sales. A good practice is to double check that the wine score in the call-out is actually the wine on the shelf in front you. Is the wine from the year listed in the review? Or a more recent vintage?

Are Certain Wines or Regions More Likely to Get Higher Scores?

Today’s wine judging uses a democratic approach to reviewing wines. While not all panels will taste blind, the rating process typically separates out varietal wines. Pinot Noir won’t necessarily compete with Chardonnay unless it’s a best-of-best runoff for the top wines with that particular review panel. Depending on the review structure, rankings can also be broken down by production region. This is why you see rankings for top California Cabernet Sauvignon, for example.

Of course, in order to get ranked a producer needs to submit the wine for review and not all producers participate in wine competitions. Unranked wines can reflect one of two possibilities: the producer chose not to enter a wine for review, or the wine received a rating score below the cut-off for the review publication. The first scenario is the most likely with the producer opting not to send in a wine for review.

Top-quality producers with a history of earning 90+ point scores will continue to enter their wines for review. This means that you are more likely to see those producers and their wines ranked annually.

a professional photograph of platinum and diamond wines

Interested in Exploring 90+ Point Wines?

Wine scores are popular because they give consumers a quick way to affirm a wine’s value. You have the ability to invest in wine with confidence, knowing that a bottle is backed by the wine industry’s most rigorous review panels. Using 90 point wines as a baseline guide becomes an excellent option to buy wines of distinctive character for that special occasion or to build your cellar with classic, age-worthy bottles.

Love the wine that you drink and celebrate your next special occasion with a little luxury. Gold Medal Wine Club offers you the ability to purchase individual bottles of 90+ point wines in our wine store.

Uncork the joy of wines that have earned the industry’s highest ratings by joining a premium wine club. Gold Medal Wine Club has taken the time to curate these graceful wines for you with two special clubs. The Platinum Wine Club features 90+ point wines of superior character and quality. And for those seeking perfect harmony in a glass, the Diamond Wine Club features hand-selected 93+ point wines.

We invite you to try one of our highly-prestigious wine clubs so you can enjoy the convenience of having these singular wines delivered directly to your door. You, too, can experience the style, elegance, and timeless beauty of wine.