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WINE SAVVY: The five S’s and wine scores

David Devere

I’m sure you’ve 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 five 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’re completely open to without prejudice, it is best to employ the five S’s: see, swirl, sniff, sip and savor. These form the procedure for scoring aroma, acidity, balance, complexity and finish.

r 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, which 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 and it shouldn’t be cloudy. A wine isn’t scored for “See” unless it’s faulted, which often results in a failing grade.

r 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 making 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 five S’s.

r Sniff: This is a very important step in evaluating wine because 80 percent of tasting is

actually smelling.

All that swirling released the fine aromas of the wine, but you should still breathe deeply and take your time to try to discern the aromas.

It’s not uncommon to have aromas such as grapefruit, apple and peach — to green pepper, honey and butter — to leather, cedar 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.

r 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 score-able 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.

r 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 or 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 five S’s a score of one to 10 for aroma, acidity, balance, complexity and finish, you should get a number from 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’re looking for, try it yourself.

David Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at or visit