3.6 The Winespider System
(Note: It is assumed readers have already read the previous chapter, '3.5 Contemporary Approaches to Wine Evaluation' which outlines the requirement for an accountable wine tasting methodology. The present chapter explains my own approach to these problems that culminated in a new system of wine evaluation in 1996, which I named 'Winespider').
Everyone knows that to be a "critic" is to be a reviewer or judge. However, in clarifying a correct approach to any given subject the etymology of a word is often more illuminating than its definition. 'Critic' comes from the the Greek word 'kritikas' ("able to discern"), which is in turn derived from the word 'kritas', meaning a person who offers reasoned value judgment, interpretation or observation. These qualities not only imply that a degree of experience, knowledge and understanding are bought to a critic's evaluations, but they also assume that a critic approaches their role with a degree of seriousness. Not the kind which looks out from under knitted brows and pursed lips, but rather a seriousness that recognises that every object presented for their professional attention deserves the compliment of being accepted as a 'best effort', and so warrants criticism against the very highest standards.
For a critic working in the visual arts, the forms resulting from certain relationships between elements of repetition, harmony, contrast and unity etc, are essentially identical with the forms in the arts of music, poetry, literature and dance, produced by similar combinations. These forms have the same basic character and accomplish similar effects. The difference lies in the medium in which they are materialised and the in the time element in which they exist. Regardless, at the most basic level, standards for the evaluation of art are determined according to success or failure of the organisation of these fundamental elements.
Something similar is true of wine. (Whether or not one considers great wines to be works of art is immaterial here). All wine can be reduced to four 'elements' which are the building blocks of wine's structure as it is represented to us by the brain:
The winemaker's materials and techniques are naturally very different from the artists. He or she is building what is primarily a chemo-sensory creation from the fermentation of fruit, the implementation of oak or a myriad of other techniques. We can continue to breakdown each of the four elements of wine according to the 'dimensions' they take in the glass:
2. NOSE consists of four categories:
3. PALATE consists of four categories:
4. FINISH consists of four categories:
(c) tannin / phenolics
These categories have not been arbitrarily selected, rather, each has a specific or general relationship to wine quality.
Categories, like 'aroma' or 'concentration' will be familiar to wine lovers and intuitively accepted as given. The validity of judgements with either positive or negative hedonic connotations, such as the intensity of a pleasant sensation or of extreme bitterness, I think, is also self evident, though grounds for the support of many such standards have been demonstrated in Section 1 on 'The Senses'. These and other categories have also been accounted for in discussions of wine quality in previous chapters. For example, we know that there are characteristics in wine that are universally agreed upon as faults - cork taint, cloudiness in young wine etc; as we also know that a certain colour in young Shiraz is indicative of the presence of a pH level essential to its longevity and the development of desirable tertiary flavours. Explanations of each category follow below.
(a) Colour-The acidity of a wine is critical in maintaining colour, particularly in red wines. The normal range of pH in Australian wines is between 3.0 and 4.2. As acidity decreases in reds, the anthocyanins lose their colour and may even turn blue. In addition, oxidation is inversely related to acidity. The less acidic, the higher the degree of oxidation a wine will undergo turning the colour brown. If the wine is still young, a brownish hue indicates the wine has either uncharacteristic pH due to bad viticulture / winemaking, or has oxidised or being exposed to long term heat. (Whereas a wine cellared at 14oC might reach its peak in 10 years, should that wine be stored in temperatures as high as 50C, the wine would show the same colour and flavour as a 10 year old wine in a matter of months). After a little practice, and actually recording the pH value of the wines at tasting (pH values are often stated on back labels or on producers websites) one can quickly develop a mental colour map that can adequately determine the pH of a wine, and thus project its potential longevity.
Note: The human eye is most sensitive to differences in the tint of colour in the green region of the spectrum. The apparent colour can be modified by the background light, and thus, it is important to view colour under hospital grade lights. These can come in fluorescent tubes that give the maximum expression to tint and saturation of colour.
(b) Viscosity - (Perceived): Ethanol (alcohol) concentration which is demonstrated via viscous tears on the glass walls is indicative of a wine produced from fully ripened fruit, a natural byproduct of which is higher alcohol content. It should be noted that 'tears' or 'legs' in themselves have no bearing on glycerol content of a wine but merely demonstrate that wine contains more water than alcohol, and the principle that alcohol evaporates faster than water. (See chapter 3.3 for more.)
(c) Brilliance / Clarity - Brilliance or Brightness refers to the characteristic of reflecting light, while clarity, lack of which nowadays is always considered a fault in young wines, is important in that it can also provide insight into a wines condition and stage of development. Alternatively, a slight haze may indicate that a wine has been left unfiltered in order to maximise flavour, as is often the case with Pinot Noir. (See chapter 3.3 for more.)
(d) Depth -Assessed red wine quality is often directly correlated to colour density and hue (the proportion of red "ionized" anthocyanins). These factors indicate that wine is well made (at an appropriate pH, low in SO2 and at an adequate ethanol concentration) and probably highly flavoured. (1) The grounds supporting this observation are outlined in the chapter 3.3 , and have to do with viticultural practices controlling compounds in red wine grapes.
(a) Aroma - Aroma in young red refers to the complexity and harmony of primary and secondary aromas. Each grape variety has a primary group of aromas which will depend on the level of ripeness of the grapes at the time of picking. The Primary fruit aromas are described through a variety of ripeness in levels in the chapters 2.2 - 24 (Profiling the Major Grape Varieties). Secondary Aromas are due to the wine maker's influence and can include the use of various types of oak, yeasts, fermentation techniques amongst other variables. Tertiary aromas develop with time and are the result of bottle age. Young red wines are highly unlikely to have any tertiary notes. (For a detailed list of descriptors refer to the Aroma and Taste profile charts).
(b) Faults -Potentially there are many 'off' odours that can be experienced in wine including sulphur, mercaptan, mustiness, oxidized characters and many more. Some are caused by bacterial contamination, bad wine making, bad handling or bad storage.
(c) Variety -Varietal characteristics are comparable to, and sometimes overlap the primary fruit aromas mentioned above, however, varietal aromas refer specifically to the degree to which a wine exhibits the classic traits intrinsic to the grape variety or varieties it is produced from. For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon which is dominated by a strawberry fruit character (as opposed to blackcurrant) would be considered an unusual but poor expression of the varietal. Lack of varietal character can also be due to the wine being swamped by secondary aromas (e.g. oak) in which case the wine has been overworked by the wine maker.
See the chapter 2.2 for typical aroma profiles related to each varietal.
(d) Intensity - The intensity of aroma is self explanatory. These can vary greatly depending on factors such as terroir, viticultural practices (esp. watering regime), ripeness levels, cropping levels, pre-fermentation treatment of grapes, types of yeast used, fermentation temperatures and techniques.
See section 2 on winemaking for a discussion of these variables.
(a) Complexity -An exceptionally complex wine can leave a permanent impression that becomes a benchmark by which one identifies less complex examples. As a very general guide, the degree of complexity increases depending on the category of wine. For example, from the relative neutrality of cask wine we move on to commercial wine or vin de pays, then on to more exciting examples beginning with good commercial wine (e.g.- appellation controllee status; complex / village / site specific wines; very complex / single estate or multi regional wines; multi layered, artisan wines / classified growths and finally, exceptionally complex, memorable wines such as would be equal to French First Growths from great vintages. In the book "Wines, Their sensory Evaluation" Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler summarise complexity in a way that is totally satisfactory to my mind: "Like fine art, fine wines are made by impeccable workmanship plus a clear concept of the aesthetic standards by which they will be judged... The components must complement one another synergistically and excite our aesthetic appreciation. A great wine should have so many facets of quality that as we sample it we are continually finding new ones. It is this complexity that enables us to savor such a wine without losing our interest in it."(2) The most ambitious winemakers go out of their way to create complex flavour profiles, employing several clones of one grape variety, sometimes from different districts, multiple picking dates and the inclusion of components of complimentary grape varieties to form a blend. Creative winery techniques are almost endless and include variation on fermentation techniques, different barrels (by type, size and age), different yeasts, racking schedules, minimal or no filtrations and so on. See Section 2 on Making Wine for more.
(b) Concentration -Flavour concentration is primarily the viticulturalist's concern being directly related to terroir and vineyard yield. The great growths of the world all yield at less than 3 tonnes per acre and more often between 1½ and 2 tonnes per acre. The berry sizes are small, the ratio of skin to juice is high and the resultant wines are highly concentrated. In extraordinary cases the levels of concentration can be compared to a purÃ©e of the juice of the freshly crushed grapes, however the degree of concentration is relative to grape varieties - a Beaujolais would not be expected to match a Australian Shiraz for concentration.
See Section 2 on Making Wine for a discussion of viticultural practices influencing flavour concentration.
(c) Fruit -The quality of the fruit from which the wine has been made from is related to its degree of ripeness. The wine should not be over-ripe nor under-ripe, either extreme bestows overstated (jammy, porty) or undesirable flavours (green, herbaceous) to red wine. As with varietal aromas, fruit character on the palate can also be overwhelmed by the winemaker to the point where the wine is so overworked that the fruit is totally masked. See Section 2 on Making Wine for a discussion of these variables.
(d) Length - Length is the persistence with which the wine's flavours linger. To an extent, length and aftertaste work as a pair and a wine may have length, but little aftertaste and vice-versa. The length of flavour is also related to the degree of concentration of fruit, so it is unlikely that a wine will have long palate length if it is delicate or watery in the mouth.
(a) Balance -Balance refers to the juxtaposition of the wine's component parts and of their harmony and ability to co-exist in a way that leads to the 'greatness' of a wine. Fruit, oak derived flavours, acid, tannins and texture should all be present in such a way as to create an overall impression of flavour harmony. If one compont is present in a dominant manner, the likelihood will be that the wine will be out of balance and remain so for the duration of its bottle life. Emile Peynaud in his book"Knowing & Making Wine"suggests a definition of balance according to a "Suppleness Index", which he defines as the perception of sweetness (alcohol + sugar) against sourness (acids) + bitterness (tannins). Thus he connects 'balance' with a balance between the basic taste sensations. However, balance, or lack of, is also concerned with mouthfeel sensations, such as degrees of astringency, heat (from alcohol) etc. working in combination with the basic taste sensations.
(b) Tannins / phenolics -Tannins are complex organic compounds that are imparted into the final wine from the skins, stems and pips of grape bunches as well as from oak casks during maturation. Tannins act as a preservative, and are necessary if a wine is to be cellared for any length of time. A wine with excessive tannin will not precipitate the tannins at a faster rate than the maturation of the wine's other components; hence, if the wine is out of balance in youth, it will remain out of balance forever. There are varying degrees of tannins, based on the tannin compound; some are hard and others appear very soft and indiscernible. Tannin also delivers particulate sensations and so is largely concerned with mouthfeel, especially astringency which, with red wine in particular, can be perceived in excessively negative forms from drying, grippy or abrasive, to positive forms such as soft, fine grained or silky. At the negative extreme, 'puckering' occurs as a reflex action of the mouth surfaces being bought together and released in an attempt to lubricate the mouth surfaces due to an exceptionally tannic, drying wine. A wine with silky tannins, on the other hand, augments a pleasant mouth coating sensation of a film which adheres to the mouth surfaces, and falls from the mouth surfaces with time. Phenolics (which include procyanidins) are tannins and colour compounds. See Section 2 on Making Wine for more detail.
(c) Acid - Acid levels are indicated by the tartness or sharpness of the taste of a wine, usually experienced at the back of the palate. The two main types of acids in wine are tartaric and malic. A wine with low acidity will taste flat whilst a wine with excessive acidity will have a very 'sharp' or 'sour' taste. Consequently, acidity needs to be in balance with other components of the wine.
(d) Aftertaste / After-Flavour -Because taste relates to stimuli that are only experienced on the tongue, cheeks, lips, gums etc, whereas after-flavour refers to the summation of the total smell and taste experience, the latter term, though less commonly used, is more accurate and so preferred. After flavour is also often referred to as 'the farewell', yet another term used to describe the sensations that remain in the mouth after swallowing a wine.
Like length, after-flavour is measured in time.
Absolute 'objectivity' is of course just as impossible to achieve in relation to wine evaluation as it is in the evaluation of works of art, due to the differences and limitations in individual physiology, education and language. Proponents of 'cultural relativism' would argue this point to an extreme, however, I think it's going too far to suggest that we cannot point to, describe and evaluate the elements that make for a great wine, in the same way we do point to and describe the elements that make for a great work of art.
We can move towards objectivity, insofar as this is possible, by working with an instrument of calibration. 'Intuitive' descriptors are replaced by offering a scale, a measure or marks for one's sensations from which a hierarchically structured vocabulary of sensations emerges. Wine is complex, variable and changing. To reflect this reality, each sub-category has degrees. By means of illustration, these are outlined below in relation to Young Red Wine as they are employed in the Winespider Evaluation system.
EXAMPLE: Standards for the Evaluation criteria of Young Red Wines.
(Numerals preceding the descriptors denote the point score).
10 Purple, Mauve, Crimson
9 Crimson, Mauve, Dark Red
8 Brick red
7 Deep Brick Red
6 Brownish Red
4 Deep Sienna Brown
3 Tawny Deep
2 Tawny Light
1 Onion Brown
Viscosity - (Perceived)
10 14%+ Alcohol (approx.)
Brilliance / Clarity
10 Brilliant & Crystal clear
9 Bright 90% (approx.)
8 Bright 80% (approx.)
7 Bright 70% (approx.)
6 Bright 60% (approx.)
4 Flat / Dull
1 Very Cloudy
10 Opaque / black
9 Semi Opaque
8 Very Dark
7 Deep (Saturate)
6 Medium deep ( approx. 90% saturate )
5 Medium ( approx. 75% saturate)
4 Light ( approx. 50% saturate )
3 Very light ( approx. 20% saturate)
2 Semi transparent
10 Exceptionally distinct & complex Primary/Secondary
9 Very distinct and Complex Primary/Secondary
8 Distinct Complex Primary / Complex Secondary
7 Obvious Primary & Secondary
6 Subdued Primary & little secondary
5 Very subdued Primary
2 Almost Indiscernible
10 No Faults
Possible faults : Take 1 point off for each fault
Take 2 points off for bad faults.
High volatility 4 parts/million+
Musty/ mildly Corked/Fusel/Baked/Cooked
Putrid/Weedy/Unripe / Badly Corked
10 Exceptionally powerful varietal character
9 Very strong varietal character
8 Strong varietal character
7 Moderate varietal character
6 Subdued varietal character
5 Very subdued varietal character
3 Barely distinguishable
1 Neutral / varietal character absent
10 Penetrating / Perfumed
9 Very powerful / Pungent
8 Powerful / pronounced
2 Very frail, bland
1 Indiscernible, neutral
10 Exceptional complexity / seamlessly integrated
9 Multi-layered complexity
8 Very complex
6 Good commercial wine
5 Average commercial wine
4 Commercial wine
3 Poor commercial quality
2 Bland / insipid
10 Exceptionally concentrated
9 Very concentrated / powerful
8 Concentrated, very mouth filling
7 Mouth filling but not extraordinary
6 Commercial wine concentration
3 Very dilute
2 Thin / almost watery
10 Voluptuous / perfectly ripe fruit
9 Abundant ripe fruit
8 Very young / ripe fruit emerging
1 No fruit, neutral
10 20+ Length in seconds
1 Neutral 0
9 Near perfect
8 Well balanced / supple
7 Approaching balanced
6 A little out of balance but will come together over time
5 Tannins / acid / oak / alcohol / fruit out of balance (i.e.- one or more of these components out of balance).
4 Tannins / acid / oak / alcohol / fruit strongly out of balance
3 Tannins / acid / oak / alcohol / fruit very strongly out of balance
2 Extreme astringency and/or excessive acidity and slight bitterness.
1 Extreme astringency and/or extremely excessive acidity and bitterness
Tannins / phenolics
10 Super fine / silky
9 Very fine and velvet smooth
8 Fine / soft
7 Fine / dry
6 Firm / Chalky
5 Firm / grainy
4 Very firm / grippy
3 Aggressive, very dry, abrasive
2 Very aggressive / exceptionally dry / harsh
1 Excessive / causing pucker
10 Perfect acid level
9 Near perfect acid level pH 3.4 + / -
8 Sufficient acidity pH 3.2 + / -
7 Sufficient acidity pH 3 + / -
6 Crisp acidity
5 Austere acidity
4 High acidity (steely)
3 Very high acidity (tart, sour)
2 Insufficient acidity / Neutral acidity
1 Extremely high acidity pH 2
Aftertaste / After-Flavour
10 Memorable 20 ++ Length in seconds
9 Multi-layered 15-20
8 Very complex 10-15
7 Complex 8-10
6 Good commercial wine 5-8
5 Commercial wine 3-5
4 Ordinary commercial wine 2-3
3 Cask wine 1-2
2 Less than cask wine 0-1
1 Neutral 0
In the development of the Winespider Wine Evaluation System, these 'units of measurement' evolved into 160 pre-defined criteria for each of the main wine styles: Fortified Wine, Sparkling Wine, Red Wine & White Wine. Represented by words and numbers, the aggregate forms a score out of 100 which in turn is represented by a 'web-like' graph (from which the title 'Winespider' transpired). The complicated facade which Winespider initially presents actually conceals a relatively simple system that does not require much more introduction.
Below is a practical example of the system in action which demonstrates its simplicity.
A Visual Demonstration of the Winespider Evaluation Process.
Using 160 criteria to evaluate a wine might at first seem overwhelming, but after a certain amount of experiment (and inevitable error - none too unpleasant and all forgivable), certain patterns begin to emerge. The most obvious of these is a considerable degree of repetition in one's observations and ratings. In fact, most of one's observations will remain confined to criteria in the 7-10 point range meaning that only a minority of wines will ever rate below 80 points.
Given the comprehensive advances in education, viticulture, viniculture and science, fueled by international criticism and increased competition, this fact is not so surprising. In fact, wine quality has increased to such an extent that serious faults are rarely encountered nowadays. Out of approximately 20,000 wines reviewed and posted on the Vintage Direct / Winespider site between 1996 and 2008, 1777 wines have scores between 70-80 points (approx. 2% of wines tasted), 148 wines have scores between 60-70 points (less than 1%), 16 wines have scores between 50-60 points and the single wine that scored 50 points was well and truly passed its used by date at the time of tasting anyway. Conversely, 7200+ wines rank between 90-100 points with 9500+ wines falling between 80-90 points, making up the vast majority of wine reviews on the site.
These patterns are reflected in the rating statistics of other wine reviewers. For example, the prolific American wine writer, Robert Parker, has not scored a wine below 70 points since 2000. Just 3.6% of all wines listed at his website, erobertparker.com, have ratings lower than 80 points. His highest rated wine in the first issue of The Wine Advocate (1977) was the 1974 Sonoma Vineyards Alexander's Crown Cabernet Sauvignon at 91 points. (3) Since then, Wine Advocate scores have trended upwards suggesting to some commentators that the 'goal posts have moved'. Parker himself has responded to this, writing: "...wine quality is dramatically better today...and there are at least several thousand producers making very good to outstanding wines that were...1. Not even producing wine 15-25 years ago...2. their fathers or mothers or some third party was producing industrial / innocuous swill...I suspect few even remember how appalling much of the wine world's products were in the '70's." (4) Having begun my professional tasting career at almost exactly the same time as Robert Parker , I can only sympathise with his reminiscences of 'the good 'ol days' of wine.
A second pattern that has become apparent is that the Winespider system seems to consistently rate wines slightly higher than other critics. This is largely due to the fact that Winespider places greater emphasis on the colour of wine, especially that of red wines. Studies by Dr. Chris Somers* have demonstrated that wine colour (particularly red wine colour) is related to a wine's pH level, which is indicative of a wine's cellaring potential. In the evaluation process, it is assumed that the winemaker's intention to allow for some degree of tertiary flavour development in the wine. (See: chapter 3.3 for more).
1. Ease of use. With familiarity of the breadth of the Winespider system and with a little practice, using Winespider becomes a bit like painting by numbers. Presented with a series of shapes, we colour in the prescribed colours to form a final picture. So with Winespider, even a novice can fill in the numbers which co-incide with their sensations to produce a profile of a wine which can then be 'hung on the wall', so to speak, and scrutinized by others.
2. Transparency & accountability. The transparent manner by which a wine's rating is arrived at is arguably Winespider's most distinctive strength and separates it from the pitfalls associated with other wine evaluation systems, as identified in the previous chapter. (See: 3.5 Contemporary Approaches to Wine Evaluation)
3. Universality. Where language may sometimes form insurmountable barriers between cultures, a graphical and numerical representation does not - the Wine Spider 'web' is 'transportable' across national and international boundaries, and to our knowledge, proposes the first universal wine evaluation technique.
4. Tracking a Wine's Development. The Winespider graph offers the potential to visually compare changes in a wine's profile over time, for example, prior to bottling, immediately after bottling and some time later again, with the view to creating a visual map of how the component parts are tracking. The system proposed is also a dynamic one and offers the possibility of documenting the evolution of the wine over an extended period.
5. Buying Tool. In a restaurant or wine shop with little opportunity or time to read detailed tasting notes, the Wine Spider web has also proved to be most effective in making buying decisions quickly. To a lesser extent, in terms of matching wine and food, a visual examination of the Wine Spider can reveal a wine's major strengths and weaknesses and help to establish compatible wine and food pairings.
6. Accommodates Regional Individuality. Regional differences are important, and should be recognized as such and encouraged. Wine Spider does not promote the concept of universal wine making by formula; rather, that the component parts that are common in all great wines are observed without prejudice or influence and considered in a learned manner.
By means of a tasting note, numbers and a Wine Spider web we provide a complete portrait of a wine. On this neutral ground of reason the beginner and the expert may meet and exchange mutually helpful ideas.
It's hoped that the structure of Winespider will assist tasters in their interpretation and use of terminology with regard to describing wines and that the standards communicated here should help to assist students, consumers, wine industry personnel and researchers of different cultures to better communicate their responses to wine quality.
"Congratulations on constructing the creme de la creme
of wine rating scales!"
So concluded the authors of a recent study published in the International Journal of Wine Research 2009. Titled "Wine rating scales: Assessing their utility for producers, consumers, and oenologic researchers", the authors studied seven wine rating scales judged to be useful for the wine producer, consumer, or oenologic researcher: (1) My Wine Rating scale; (2) the Amerine and Roessler (1983) wine rating system; (3) the redwinebuzz.com rating system; (4) Robert Parker's wine rating scale; (5) the Wine Spectator scale; (6) the Stephen Tanzer scale; and (7) the Chlebnikowski Winespider evaluation system. The authors commented "...The Winespider evaluation system is more comprehensive than any of the aforementioned scales... [and] is unique among wine rating scales in that it can also be used to track whatever changes may occur in any of the 16 wine characteristics, as the wine, a living organism, changes over time". Download the full article at www.winespider.com and access thousands of Winespider reviews free of charge.
* See his book "The Wine Spectrum", in which Dr.Somers explores the wine spectrum as an index of red wine quality. He proposes that the ultimate aims of oenology - the best possible wines from the vintage, a measure of a wine's potential for development, and an index of red wine quality - can be attained by examination of the UV-V spectrum.
1. Wine Science: Principles, Practice, Perception. By Ron S. Jackson. Academic Press, 2000.
2. Maynard Amerine, and Edward Roessler, in the book "Wines, Their sensory Evaluation" published by W H Freeman & Company 1983
3. Statistics sourced from "Are Ratings Pointless?" W.Blake Gray, San Francisco Gate.com. Friday, June 15, 2007.
4. Robert Parker Jr. writing on the erobertparker bulletin board. A counter argument to this is that high ratings are sensationalised by the wine industry and lead to increased brand recognition for the ratings organisations. These parties then profiteer from new subscriptions to their magazines as a direct result of the publicity, so encouraging ever higher scores.