Most wines are judged
in consumer oriented competitions. The results of these competitions are
widely publicized, and the judges are well-known members of the wine
industry. Many wineries submit wines because a gold medal won at these
competitions can double or triple wine sales.
Consumer wine competitions are the most widespread. However, wines are judged
for several reasons, and sometimes wines are judged and the results are never
made available to the public. For example, wines are judged and scored to
facilitate the sale of bulk wines between commercial wineries. The Davis 20-point system
was originally developed primarily for the wine industry to help expedite
bulk-wine transfers between wineries. In addition, a few wine competitions,
like the Orange County Home Wine Competition, are held primarily to provide
encouragement and feedback to aspiring winemakers. In these competitions, the
winemaker often receives a copy of the judge's score-sheet for each wine
submitted. Novice winemakers get unbiased information about their wines and
benefit greatly from participating in these kinds of wine competitions.
Since judging wines
is so subjective, the only credible way of determining wine quality is to
taste wines blind. Here, the term blind implies the judges never see the wine
labels, and the wine producer is unknown. Many large wine competitions use a
double blind system. Here, the wine bottles are covered and given an
identifying number by competition officials. On judging day, the wines are
delivered to the steward's room that is separate from the judging room.
Stewards then pour the wines into numbered glasses and deliver the glasses to
the judges. In these competitions, neither the stewards nor the judges know
the identity of the wines, and the judges only see glasses of wine.
Popular wine publications rate dozens new wines in each issue. Many
publications do these ratings blind and their wine ratings are legitimate.
Unfortunately, some publications do not score their wines blind, so these
ratings are always suspect. A strong correlation was found between wine
scores and square inches of advertisement in a popular publication just a few
years ago. The only credible way of determining wine quality is when the
judges taste the wines blind.
Wine is seen before it is tasted, so our first impression of any wine is a
visual one. Wine is expected to be brilliantly clear and it must have an
appropriate color. Consumers are always disappointed when a wine does not
meet these visual expectations. Even the most zealous wine patron balks at
turbid, dirty-looking wines. Judges at home-wine competitions occasionally
face this problem, and considerable courage is needed to taste a particularly
ugly looking wine.
The olfactory sensors are located in the upper portion of the nasal cavities.
Relatively little air gets to these sensors during normal breathing, so wine
must be sniffed to force wine odors up into the sensors. Two terms are used
to describe the way wine odors. Aroma is used to describe smells that
originate from the grapes. Thus, smells from a particular variety of grapes
are called aroma. Bouquet is used to describe the smells originating from the
winemaking process, and the odors produced by barrel aging are also called
Taste sensors are
located on various parts of the tongue. Only four basic tastes can be
distinguished by these sensors: sweet, sour, salty and biter. Sweet tastes
are pleasant, but sour, salty and biter tastes alone are usually unpleasant
unless they are balanced by sweet tastes, and this balance is very important
to wine quality. In wine, alcohol and any residual sugar provide sweetness.
The several organic acids present produce the sour taste. Potassium, sodium,
calcium and other salts present, produces the salt taste. Phenolic
materials often called tannin produce the biter taste.
Wine flavor is often defined as odor sensation of wine in the mouth, together
with the four basic taste sensations. So, the nose is most important for
evaluating wine flavor and quality. The old saying "I have a cold and I
can't taste anything" is particularly true when tasting wine.
Tip Glass: Most
judges believe the color and clarity of wines are best examined by holding
the wine over a white background and tipping the glass away from the
observer. A wedge of wine is produced allowing the observer to view the
optical characteristics through a different thickness of wine. Even dark
wines show a transparent edge when the thickness approaches zero near the
Swirl Glass: Odors travel from the glass to the observer's nose as vapors.
Swirling causes the wine to climb up the sides of the glass, and a larger
wine surface is exposed to the air. More wine evaporates from the larger
surface, and more vapors are available to the nose.
Chew the Wine: Odors travel from the mouth up into the nasal cavity as
vapors, and large surface areas produce more vapors. Judges take a large
dollop of wine and coat the insides of their mouth by chewing the wine. The
large surface of exposed wine produces more intense odors.
Reverse Whistle: Here is an effective tasting trick. Take a medium size
dollop of wine. Move the wine to the front of your mouth and keep it on top
of your tongue. Pucker your lips as if you are going to whistle, but do not
blow out. Instead, tip your head down, and draw air into your mouth allowing
the air to pass through the wine.
Spitting: Most judges don't swallow the wine. Judges that spit out the wine
are usually asked to judge the following year. Judges that don't spit are
seldom asked to judge again. Experienced judges can spit effectively into
almost any kind of container. Most inexperienced judges have trouble keeping
dribbles of wine off their cloths. Spit into a foam coffee cup is relatively
Wines are judged by
how they look, smell and taste. However, the way wines should look, smell and
taste depends on the type of wine being judged. A light, White Muscat wine
looks, smells and tastes differently than a heavy, red Zinfandel wine. Trying
to compare the qualities of a White Muscat wine to a red Zinfandel is
difficult. This is why most wine competitions divide the wines into different
classes or groups. Smaller wine competitions often separate wines into a few
general categories such as red table wines, white table wines, dessert wines,
sparkling wines, etc. But, larger wine competitions separate the entries by
grape variety to make judging easier and less subjective.
Varietal wines are judged by comparing their characteristics against a
perfect or "standard" wine of the same variety. The characteristics
of these standard varietal wines are defined by popular consensus. Wine
consumers are somewhat fickle and the standards for varietal wines can and do
change over long periods. Big, heavy Zinfandel wines were very popular thirty
years ago. Normal, light-bodied Zinfandel wines won very few awards then.
But, this heavy style of wine does not go well with foods, and now, the perfect
or standard Zinfandel is a much lighter wine. Consequently, judges must be
completely familiar with the types of wine they are judging.
SOME COMMON WINE
Low Acidity: Wines
containing too little acid taste flat or bland or insipid. Big, red wines contain
more phenolic materials, and phenolic
materials together with acid cause harshness. So, big red wines often contain
less acid to balance their higher phenolic content.
High Acidity: Wine made from grapes grown in cold climates often contain too
much acid, and wines containing too much acid taste sharp and excessively
tart. (The wine industry does not use the word "sour" to describe
high acid. Sour is used to describe vinegary wines). Table wines containing
small amounts of residual sugar often contain extra acid to balance the
Acetic Acid (volatile acid): Microbes can convert alcohol into acetic acid,
and acidic acid smells like vinegar. Acetic acid can react with ethyl alcohol
and produce ethyl acetate, and ethyl acetate smells like "finger nail
polish" remover. All wines contain some acetic acid and ethyl acetate,
and in small quantities, both materials can make a positive contribution to
the nose of the wine. But, too much acetic acid gives wine a vinegar
character and produces a hot, burning aftertaste, too much ethyl acetate
makes wine smell like finger nail polish remover.
Astringent: Red wine grapes have clear, colorless juice. The red pigment is
in the grape skins. Red wines are made by crushing the grapes and then
fermenting the juice, pulp, seeds and skins together. Besides the color,
tannin is extracted from the skins and seeds. Tannin produces astringency and
astringency produces harsh, rough wines. Astringency decreases as wines age.
Some young red wines are often too astringent, and some discretion is needed
here. On the other hand, white and blush wines should never exhibit
High Alcohol: The alcohol content of most table wines is about 12%. Some
light, white wines such as White Muscat only contain 8 or 9 percent alcohol.
These wines are so delicate they would be out of balance with more alcohol.
On the other hand, the alcohol content of some big, late harvest red wines
contains 14 or 15%, and these wines remain balanced. Too much alcohol in a
wine produces a hot or sharp character in both odor and taste.
Excess Oak: Most high quality red wines and some white wines are aged in oak
casks, and oak aging can add several desirable qualities to wine. Oak can
produce a faint vanilla character that enhances wine fragrance and
contributes to wine complexity, but too much oak can spoil a fine wine.
Excess oak can produce a "woody" character in wine, and excessive
amounts of vanilla can obscure aroma and bouquet.
Oxidized: When wine oxidizes, some alcohol is converted into a material
called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a volatile liquid with a nut-like odor.
Sherry wines contain much acetaldehyde, and the acetaldehyde gives Sherry its
distinctive character. Although desirable in Sherry, even small amounts of
oxidation are considered a fault in table wines.
Excess Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): Sulfur dioxide is added to wines to help protect
the wine from microbes and excessive oxidation. In small amounts, SO2 is
undetectable in the nose or taste of wine, but too much sulfur dioxide
produces a pungent, acrid odor. The smell of a burning match is produced when
sulfur in the match reacts with oxygen in the air and produces sulfur
Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S): Hydrogen sulfide produces the familiar "rotten
egg" odor. Small amounts of H2S often produce dirty, off or skunk-like
odors. Tiny amounts may not produce any
odor but it can kill
the fruity nose of a wine. Unless removed promptly, H2S can turn into mercaptan, and mercaptan smells
like natural gas, sewer or rotten cabbage.
THE DAVIS 20-POINT SYSTEM
Judging wine quality
is not easy. Substantial amounts of practice (someone has to do it) and a
systematic approach is required. Several wine judging methods have been
developed, but the 20-point system, developed at the University of California
Davis, is the method used by most professional
winemakers and tasters. This system is easily learned, and it provides a
practical and convenient wine evaluation tool. The 20-point system uses ten
descriptive factors to evaluate wine quality. Each of these quality factors
is discussed below.
1. CLARITY /
APPEARANCE: Wine is seen before it is tasted, so our first impression of wine
is a visual one. Today, properly made wines are expected to be brilliantly
clear, and consumers are always disappointed when a wine does not meet these
visual expectations. Even the most zealous wine advocate shies away from
turbid, dirty-looking wines, so appearance is always an important wine
Several common conditions can cause cloudy wine. Clarity is the term judges
use to describe the absence of suspended materials in wine. Suspended
bacteria and yeast cells cause a hazy-white appearance. Similar milky-white
hazes are caused by excessive amounts of iron. Excess copper often causes a
reddish-brown haze. Tiny suspended crystals of potassium bitartrate
can produce a dense, milky appearance in white wines.
Brilliant wines are clear and have a distinct sparkle (2). Bright-clear wines
look like clean glass (1.5). Translucent wines have a dull appearance and may
have a hint of haze (1.0). Cloudy wines exhibit an easily recognized haze
2. COLOR: The hue,
and how much color, constitutes another important wine quality factor. But,
the human eye often has trouble distinguishing the hue in dark red wines.
Hazy red wines often look somewhat darker in color, but wine clarity should
NOT influence the score a judge gives for color. Color should always be
typical for the type and age of the wine being judged.
Appropriate colors for white wines range from light straw to dark amber.
Sometimes white table wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc, are a light straw color
with a slight greenish tint. Brown tones may be appropriate for some types of
white dessert wines, but brown shades are undesirable for white table wines.
Colors for blush and rose wines range from light pink to light red. Brown
shades are never appropriate for these wines, and orange tints are
undesirable. Red wine colors range from light red to dark, almost opaque red.
Purple/violet shades are prevalent in young red wines. Brick or brownish
shades may be appropriate for older red wines. In general, ready to drink,
red table wines show neither purple/violet nor brown colors. Brown or tawny
colors are often appropriate for older, red dessert wines.
When the color of a wine is typical for type and age, the score is (2.0). A
nearly correct color receives a score of (1.5). When the color is slightly
off, the score is (1.0). When wine color is distinctly off, the score is
3. AROMA / BOUQUET:
Wine odors are complex and made up of many different components. To simplify
describing wine odors, winemakers divide normal wine odors into two district
components. One of these components is "aroma," and aromas refer to
the odors in the wine imparted by the varietal characteristics of the grapes.
The aroma characteristics of any wine are present in fresh juice before
fermentation is started. For example, Muscat Blanc wine has a distinctive
smell and most of this odor comes directly from the Muscat grapes used to make the wine. The
best varietal wines exhibit easily detectable and discernable varietal
aromas. Wine "bouquet" is the term used to describe the odors
produced by the winemaking process. Wine bouquet is generated by fermentation
byproducts, oak barrels, controlled wine oxidation, bottle aging, etc. The
term "bottle bouquet" is used to describe the special odors that
develop when some wines are aged in the bottle for several months. Bottle
bouquet contributes to wine complexity.
Undesirable wine odors are occasionally encountered. These off-odors result
from accidents or poor winemaking techniques. Sulfur dioxide, hydrogen
sulfide, oxidized, raisin, green, mousiness, bacterial, rubber, moldy, etc.
are a few of the off-odors encountered in wine.
The nose of a wine is composed of aroma, bouquet and any off-odors. If the
nose is correct and has distinct varietal characteristics, the score is
(4.0). Wines with a fruity nose are scored (3.0). Wines having a clean nose
are scored (2.0). Wines with a fleeting or underdeveloped nose are scored
(1.0). Wines with defective or off noses are scored (0.0).
4. TOTAL ACIDITY:
Wines taste balanced when the total acid, alcohol and body are in the correct
proportions. Wines low in total acidity often taste flat, insipid and uninteresting.
Wines with excessive amounts of total acid taste sharp, under-ripe and
Wines with good balance and appropriate for the type are scored (2.0). Wines
with slightly low or slightly high acid are scored (1.0). Flabby or overly
tart wines are scored (0.0).
5. SWEETNESS: Normal table wines are either dry or off dry. Dry table
wines do not have a significantly sweet taste. Many table wines are finished
with 0.5 to 0.74 % residual sugar. These small amounts of sugar can enhance
the mouth feel but not produce perceptibly sweet tastes. Off dry table wines
such as Riesling have a slightly sweet taste, but an appropriately high acid
content balances the sweetness. Aperitif, sparkling and dessert wines contain
large amounts of residual sugar, and they are expected to taste sweet.
Consequently, some wines contain too much sugar and some wines contain too
little sugar. A sweetness that provides a good balanced wine and one
appropriate for the wine type is the desired condition.
If the sweetness is appropriate and balanced, the wine is scored (1.0). If
the wine is sweet edged (slightly too sweet) or not quite sweet enough, the
wine is scored (0.5). If the wine is cloying, syrupy or lacking, it is scored
6. BODY / TEXTURE:
The body of a wine is a difficult concept to describe. Body is a way of
describing the way wine feels in the mouth. A mouthful of milk feels
differently than a mouth full of water. The milk feels heavier and thicker
than water. The same concept applies to wine. A full-bodied wine feels heavy
and viscous in the mouth, and the drinker is inclined to chew the wine. Dark
red table wines are more likely to be full-bodied than white table wines, and
the body should be appropriate for the wine type.
If the body of a wine is appropriate, the wine is scored (2.0). If the body
of a wine is nearly correct, the wine is scored (1.5). If the body of a wine
is slightly thin or heavy, the wine is scored (1.0). If the body of a wine is
empty, thin or clumsy, the wine is scored (0.0).
7. TASTE / FLAVOR:
Wines have a tremendous range of tastes and flavors, and the flavor changes
as the wine ages and matures. This wine quality factor addresses how well the
various flavors interact with each other. The flavors should be typical for
the type of wine, and the wine should be smooth and balanced In other words,
Sauvignon Blanc wines should taste like Sauvignon Blanc, not like Riesling.
If the flavor is complex, the wine is scored (2.0). If the flavor is fruity,
the wine is scored (1.5). If the flavor is agreeable, the wine is scored
(1.0). If the flavor is lacking, the wine is scored (0.0).
8. BITTERNESS: In
general, bitterness is undesirable in wines because bitterness contributes to
harshness. Most wines should be well balanced with no discernable bitterness.
However, some grape varieties, such as Muscat,
often exhibit slight amounts of bitterness, and skillful winemaking is needed
to minimize this inherent bitterness. In general, these wines should not be
downgraded because of this varietal characteristic unless the wine is
unbalanced and the bitterness detracts from the wine.
If the wine is balanced, the score is (1.0). If the wine is citric or
slightly bitter, the score is (0.5). If the wine is bitter, the score is
FINISH/ASTRINGENCY: Excess tannin in wine produces a dry, puckering sensation
in the mouth, and it gives the teeth a coated feeling. Astringency is the
term used to describe these sensations. White wines contain less tannin than
red wines, and in general, white wines should not exhibit much astringency.
Young red wines often contain excess tannin, and they may exhibit too much
astringency. However, astringency decreases as red wines age, and properly
aged red wines become smooth and round. Since astringency changes as wines
age, some judgement must be exercised when tasting
young red wines.
If the finish of the wine is appropriate for age, the score is (1.0). If the
finish is nearly correct, the score is (0.5). If the finish is astringent or
harsh, the score is (0.0).
10. GENERAL QUALITY:
Many judges use this factor to fudge their scores one way or another. Some
wines may not look very good but taste great. Other wines may score well on
all the above factors but may not taste quite up to par. All of the above
factors contribute to the general quality of a wine, and drinking the wine
should be a pleasurable experience.
Noble, etc. tasting wines are scored (4.0). Charming tasting wines are scored
(3.0). Characteristic tasting wines are scored (2.0). Wines with no
exceptional features are scored (0.0).