David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the article which ran on 10/1/2014:
I’m sure you have noticed the little shelf-talkers at the liquor store. These are the little tags that hang under the bottles on the shelves and they say something like, “rated 93 by Wine Spectator,” or “rated 91 by Robert Parker,” or something to that effect. These are very effective tools in marketing a wine. I mean who wants to buy a wine rated 72? Everyone wants to buy a wine rated 93. Have you ever wondered how they come up with these points? They use the 5 S’s or some slight variation. Here’s how it generally works.
To evaluate a wine in an impartial way, this means tasting something you are completely open to without prejudice, it is best to employ the 5 S’s: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor. These form the procedure for scoring Aroma, Acidity, Balance, Complexity and Finish.
See: The first thing you should do is look at the wine. Hopefully against a white backdrop in full light. A romantic candlelight dinner isn’t really bright enough to evaluate a wine. The wine should be brilliant. It should make you want to look at it again and again. It should have nice clarity of color specific to the varietal and style and shouldn’t have anything floating in it or be cloudy. A wine isn’t scored for See unless it’s faulted which often results in a failing grade.
Swirl: This isn’t a category you score, it’s a simple technique. To do this you need to have a good sized wine glass, no more than 1/3 full, otherwise your swirl will turn to spill. The reason you swirl is to introduce oxygen into the wine which helps it release its aromas. Remember, it has been sealed up inside a bottle possibly for years and it needs some swirling action to help it relax. Until you get the hang of swirling a wine glass I suggest placing the glass on a table then make small circles while holding the glass at the bottom of the stem. This will allow you to swirl without spilling. Spilling is not one of the 5 S’s.
Sniff: This is a very important step in evaluating the wine because 80% of tasting is actually smelling. All that swirling released the fine aromas but you should still breath deeply and take your time and try to discern the aromas in the wine. It’s not uncommon to have aromas such as grapefruit, apple and peach to green pepper, honey and butter to leather, ceder and pipe tobacco in a wine. So take your time. If the wine smells great or exhibits multiple aromas it should get a top score.
Sip: This isn’t a gulp, it’s a sip. But don’t swallow too quickly. Roll the wine around in your mouth, some say chew it. Your mouth is 98 degrees and this will release heat sensitive aromatic compounds and hopefully you’ll get new sensations. Sip includes three scorable categories: acidity, balance and complexity. Acidity is important because a wine needs it to balance out the inherent sugars. Balance is the play between sugar, acid, alcohol and in reds, tannins. None of these should be overly prominent. Complexity is the sensation of interwoven flavors that make you want to take another taste. These three form the major basis of the wine’s score.
Savor: This can also be known as finish. A wine sip should leave you with a pleasurable taste in your mouth. It shouldn’t taste like metal, cheap perfume, and it shouldn’t leave any lingering negative flavors in your mouth. If it ends well it’ll get a good score.
By giving each one of these items in the 5 S’s a score of 1-10 for Aroma, Acidity, Balance, Complexity and Finish you should get a number between 5-50. Add 50 to your number and you’ve got a score from 55-100. That’s how the famous wine critic Robert Parker does it and Wine Spectator Magazine follows something akin to this. Now that you know what they are looking for try it yourself and see if you agree that that wine really is 93 points.
David Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.