Wine Competitions & Awards - are they all hype?
Should you buy a wine based on a wine competition medal?
I have to confess my position upfront - since 2014 I have been acting as a Judge at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (the IWSC), qualifying to do so because of my studying for (and passing in 2011) the Diploma in Wines and Spirits.
It is always an interesting experience to see how the competition process works, to get some good tasting experience and it's an excellent opportunity to meet some great characters from the international wine world; it is something I contiunue to do despite the huge amount of criticism that arises every year about the worth of such competitions.
Judging wine - the process
Criticism about the judging process is a fairly regular theme in the wine press and social media, in particular the consistency of the judges' evaluations. In fact a study in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009 concluded that the medals were awarded more by chance than by consistent judging because a gold medal winner in one competition might not win a medal at all in another.
In the best competitions wines are tasted blind by a panel of judges - in the case of the IWSC, five to seven judges are selected from a list of over 300 experienced wine industry experts so that medals are not decided based on one opinion but on a majority view; in that panel of five to seven judges, two to four might be Masters of Wine who ought to know a good wine when they taste one.
In my experience there are few disagreements and where there are, this is usually only a difference of a few points e.g. between a silver and a bronze medal rather between a gold medal and a non-medal position, and it gives rise to some healthy debate. Any samples where a decision cannot be reached are put before another panel or a committee of judges. And, to make sure they themselves are not entirely out of kilter, the judges for the IWSC have their scores and comments monitored. Judging the judges if you will.
I can understand criticism about judges only having one chance to taste the wine because bottles can vary, palates can become dull after tasting many wines and judges may have "off" days (they are only human after all). For the Wines With Attitude portfolio, I taste each of the wines several times and test them on volunteers with diverse tastes and varying degrees of wine knowledge; some wines that initially make the grade are subsequently dropped from the list as the quality and/ or the character of the wine proves to be inconsistent. Judges have to be objective about something that is very subjective.
In judging wine, what exactly is being judged?
Which brings me to what judges are actually judging - they are not expressing a preference for a certain taste or style of wine but evaluating the quality of the wine based on appearance, aromas, palate, body, balance, complexity and any wine judge should be worthy enough of making such a judgement.
What's in it for those running wine competitions?
That it is a good thing for the organisers of the competitions goes without saying; if they were not sustainable economically, we would not see the proliferation of international and national wine competitions that we see today.
What's in it for the winemaker?
I can fully understand why some winemakers, especially smaller producers, want to enter these competitions; it can sometimes seem as if the majority of wines on the supermarket shelves are medal winners. A medal or commendation can give wines and wineries recognition with consumers and distributors that might otherwise have taken several years to build and, provided they market their success wisely, an uplift in sales and revenue. There is also a view that competition between producers keeps standards high.
How useful is a medal for the wine consumer?
Win-win so far but for the "everyday" buyers of wine, standing at the supermarket or wine merchant shelves or looking online for their purchases, are medals a useful indicator for their choices?
The cynic might say that the proliferation of wine competitions and winners of medals in those competitions means that the awards have limited value. They are not necessarily the best way to find the best wines - many producers simply don't enter competitions and so the winners are not necessarily the best wines in the world but the best of the wines that were entered. But, although there are valid criticisms of the general process of wine competitions, I am not sure that there is a better and economically viable or fairer way of operation. Having a panel decision surely reflects better the difference in tastes amongst the wine-drinking population.
Should you take notice of medals when buying wine?
My advice would be to use the top-ranking medals from the top competitions (the IWSC, the IWC and Decanter World Wine Awards) and most importantly, use them as just one of a number of tools for selecting your wine, as a validation of a certain level of quality. But for evaluating flavour, at the end of the day, you are the best judge of what you like and don't like.
© Wines With Attitude Limited, www.wineswithattitude.co.uk
Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.
Medal images adapted from image by Alexei Hulsov from PixabayRead More of the Latest News