Monday, March 16, 2020

Is there value-for-money in the Wine Spectator Top 100 List?

There are two extreme ways to purchase wine.

First, wine can be bought using price alone. This appears to be based on the idea that wine is simply flavored alcohol, and any alcohol will do. This may be true, but it does not seem to result in the purchase of wine that is worth tasting, as repeatedly demonstrated by Jeff Siegel in his $3 Wine Challenge.

Second, wine can be bought based on a quality score assigned by some critic. This appears to be founded on the idea that either: the critics know what they are talking about, or my friends and colleagues will be impressed by my knowledge and/or wealth. The latter is called “wine snobbery”, while in the modern social-media world wine critics may be redundant.
Somewhere in between these two extremes is the idea that wine could be purchased on the basis of value-for-money, which is intended to reflect some balance between the two extremes. That is, we buy the cheapest wine that meets some specified standard of quality.

A number of web sites specialize in providing suitable advice, some of which I have listed in a previous post (Finding inexpensive wines). For myself, I have suggested an explicit mathematical approach, which involves looking at the relationship between quality and price for a range of wines (Calculating value for money wines).

I do not expect people to actually do this math for themselves, although it is certainly effective. The idea is to fit an exponential model to a graph of the data. This model assumes that price increases exponentially with quality — that is, for each unit increase in quality the price is multiplied by some constant number, rather than adding a constant price. Sadly, this relationship applies widely throughout the world of economics, although it means that prices increase rapidly with quality.

In this regard, it is interesting to ask whether this idea applies when we focus solely on the high-quality end of the market. The idea might apply across a wide range of quality levels, but does it still apply when we focus on a narrow range?

One way to investigate this for wine is to look at the so-called “best wines” as announced by some set of critics, such as those that congregate in a wine magazine. The obvious one to pick is the Wine Spectator, which produces an annual Top 100 List — this is intended to include what they perceive to be the best 100 wines of those that they have reviewed in the previous 12 months “based on quality, value, availability and excitement”.

The graph below shows those 100 wines for the year 2019 (based on independent blind tastings of >15,000 wines). Each point represents one or more wines, based on its quality score (horizontally) and price (vertically). Also shown is the line for the best-fitting exponential model (as described in the top-left corner).

The idea is that, for wines near the line, you are paying for what you get (in terms of quality) and getting what you are paying for (in terms of money). Above the line, the wines are increasingly poor value-for-money (you can get the same quality for much less money), while below the line they are increasingly better value-for-money (some other wines cost a lot more for the same quality).

The first thing to notice is that the exponential model does fit quite well — 69% of the variation in price is related to quality. In the world of economics, this is pretty good. That is, the wineries really are charging you more money for what the Wine Spectator sees as increasing quality. We could, indeed, use this model to identify those wines that are the best value-for-money.

The next thing to notice is that the biggest range of value-for-money is at 95 and 96 points. There is everything from good value (at the bottom of the graph) to the biggest rip-offs (at the top). The Wine Spectator has certainly not used “value” when deciding to include those wines at the top of the graph (> $140) — it must therefore reflect “excitement”.

On the other hand, up to 93 points the wines are almost all good value. The exception is the Domaine du Castel Grand Vin Haute-Judée 2016, which costs all of $85 for only 91 points.

On the other hand, the best value seems to be the Tenuta Bibbiano Chianti Classico Riserva 2015, which costs a mere $30 for 96 points of quality.

So, there you have it: yes, good value-for-money can be found in this Top 100 list — go for the highest-scoring wine at $20, or the cheapest wine at your favorite score. There is also, of course, some very poor value-for-money, but in those cases you are getting vinous excitement, instead.

In a future post, I will look at the whole range of Wine Spectator Top 100 lists over the past 32 years.


  1. If The Wine Advocate published a "Top 100" annual list similarly based on criteria used by Wine Spectator, how many nominees would be wines that garner "bonus" points for their ability in improve with age in the bottle?

    Would you be equally "excited" by the style of some of those "high-quality end of the market" wines?

    The extreme example is the 1986 Mouton.

    Awarded "100 points" -- and a tannic monster.

    See my next note for 1986 Mouton tasting notes over the arc of time.

  2. Here’s a follow-up review of the 1986 Mouton at TEN years of age:

    Score: 100 Robert Parker, Wine Advocate (106), August 1996

    “After stumbling over some wines I thought were high class Bordeaux, I nailed this wine in one of the blind tastings for this article. In most tastings where a great Bordeaux is inserted with California Cabernets, the Bordeaux comes across as drier, more austere, and not nearly as rich and concentrated (California wines are inevitably fruitier and more massive). To put it mildly, the 1986 Mouton-Rothschild held its own (and then some), in a flight that included the Caymus Special Selection, Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, Dunn Howell Mountain, and Joseph Phelps Eisele Vineyard.

    “Clearly the youngest looking, most opaque and concentrated wine of the group, it tastes as if it has not budged in development since I first tasted it out of barrel in March, 1987. An enormously concentrated, MASSIVE Mouton-Rothschild, comparable in quality, but not style, to the 1982, 1959, and 1945, this impeccably made wine is still in its infancy.

    “Interestingly, when I was in Bordeaux several years ago, I had this wine served to me blind from a magnum that had been opened and decanted 48 hours previously. Even then, it still TASTED LIKE A BARREL SAMPLE!

    “I suspect the 1986 Mouton-Rothschild requires a minimum of 15-20 more years of cellaring; it has the potential to last for 50-100 years!

    “. . . I wonder how many readers will be in shape to drink it when it does finally reach full maturity? Drink 2011 – 2096”

  3. Here’s a follow-up review of the 1986 Mouton at TWENTY years of age:

    Score: 100 Robert Parker, Hedonists Gazette, February 2006

    “Still tasting like a BARRELL SAMPLE, the 1986 Mouton Rothschild is a monumental Bordeaux that WILL UNDOUBTEDLY OUTLIVE ANYBODY ALIVE TODAY. Amazingly youthful, with a dense purple color, it is an extraordinary wine that SHOULD AGE FOR A CENTURY OR MORE. Tasted blind, I WOULD HAVE GUESSED IT TO BE A 2 – 3 YEAR OLD FIRST GROWTH BORDEAUX.”

    A second opinion from Jancis Robinson, MW tasted at TWENTY years of age:

    Score: 18.5 Jancis Robinson MW,, October 2005

    “Quite exceptional depth and youthfulness of colour — it looks younger than either the 1989 or 1990, and possibly even than the 1995! Still quite amazingly closed on the nose. There is obviously quite a bit of alcohol in this wine, perhaps a note of licorice again. Thick, deep, brooding, this wine hardly seems to have changed over the last 15 years. Very, very dry with LOT OF TANNIN ON THE FINISH WHICH I AM FORCED TO WONDER WHETHER THEY WILL EVER BE RESOLVED? This is like very dry blackcurrant essence with a note of menthol. Overall at the moment this is still a bit of a BRUTE and I DO WONDER WHETHER IT WILL EVER SOFTEN?Drink 2009-2025. Date tasted 19th Nov 04.”

  4. Here’s a follow-up review of the 1986 Mouton at THIRTY years of age:

    100 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate

    The 1986 Mouton-Rothschild is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot that was picked from 2 October until 16 October. Winemaker Philippe Dhalluin, who was not working at the property back then, told me that the pH was fairly low at 3.54 when it is usually around 3.75, due to the natural tartaric acid in the vines. It has a powerful and intense bouquet as always: exemplary graphite and cedar scents, a touch of black pepper and incense. It seems to unfurl in the glass, like a motor revving its engine. The palate is beautifully balanced with its trademark firm tannic structure, a Mouton-Rothschild with backbone and masculinity. Layers of black fruit intermingling with mint and graphite, a hint of licorice emanating from the Merlot, gently fanning out and my God, it is incredibly long. It is not like the 1985 Mouton-Rothschild that is so fleshy and generous. This is serious, aristocratic Mouton, a true vin de garde and yes, I DO THINK DRINKERS WILL HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL IT REACHES ITS TRUE PEAK. SOMETIMES THAT'S JUST THE WAY IT IS. (NM) (12/2016)

  5. ob2:

    If you are on The Continent, you can "vote with your wallet" and acquire the 1986 Mouton "Cadet" bottling (not the First Growth) here:

    SoDivin (France)


    No other sellers found on Wine Searcher:


  6. ob2:

    More reviews on the 1986 Mouton: