Wine Competitions, medals & awards You will have seen numerous wine bottles on supermarket or wine shop shelves with shiny stickers indicating that the wines have won a medal or award in one of the many wine competitions. The question is, should you buy a wine based on a wine competition medal or ignore the wine award winners placed in prime eye-line position especially given the criticism of even the most prestigious wine competitions? Are the wines without stickers worse than, as good as or maybe even better than the wine medal winners? Join me as I delve into the wine judging process, the judges, what exactly is being judged in a wine and the frequent criticism of wine competitions. WINE COMPETITIONS There are many, many wine competitions. The best known in the UK are the large international competitions like the International Wine Challenge (“IWC”), Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine & Spirit Competition (“IWSC”) for which I have been a judge several times, qualifying to do so because of my attaining the Diploma in Wines and Spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. Other prestigious wine competitions include the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the Concours General Agricole de Paris and Mundus Vini and there are scores of other wine competitions with a local or themed focus like the New Zealand Wine of the Year Awards, the Brazil Wine Challenge and Concours Mondial des Féminalise in which the judges are all women. The goal for a winemaker entering any of these competitions is a shiny sticker to be displayed on the bottle representing the (usually) gold, silver or bronze medal it has been awarded or the commendation it has received if it didn’t quite make the medal table. Of course I am being flippant because that shiny sticker brings with it prestige, attention from consumers in a very crowded market place, attention in the press and perhaps even representation if they don’t already have someone in the big wine-consuming countries importing and promoting their wines. JUDGING WINE – THE JUDGES In the best competitions wines are tasted blind by a panel of judges from wine industry experts. One notable exception is the People’s Choice Drinks Awards, launched in 2017, which includes keen wine enthusiasts in the first round of judging.  In the case of the IWSC, panels consist of five to seven expert judges, two to four of whom might be Masters of Wine who ought to know a good wine when they taste one. Using a panel ensures that medals are not decided based solely on one opinion but on a majority view. After tasting the wines initially without discussion, each judge usually writes a few notes and scores each wine, after which they join in a discussion of the merits or failings of each wine; sometimes, to save time, only the wines that have a large divergence in scores are discussed. 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. The process can give 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. What’s in it for the judges? Most wine competitions don’t pay the judges so they generally are doing it for their love of wine; I find judging gives me some good wine tasting experience and it’s an excellent opportunity to meet some great characters from the international wine world. JUDGING WINE – THE JUDGES At the IWSC each panel of judges tastes circa 60 to 100 wines per day; in some other competitions it can be as many as 200 per day. The use of spittoons is therefore essential! Wines are usually served in small groups or ‘flights’ of up to circa 15 wines with a common theme which is usually known to the judges e.g. wines from the same region or wines of a similar style. Having a common theme is useful for comparison purposes. In some competitions judges know the price of the wines; personally I prefer not to know this as I think it can subconsciously affect the scoring. The location of the competitions varies but all should be held in venues with neutral smells (similarly judges are asked not to wear strong-smelling scent). Natural light and a white table (or piece of paper) are required to make an assessment of the colour of the wine. Talking of colour, it may surprise you to know that white wines are often tasted after reds, rather than before. This is because white wines can liven up a palate that is a bit jaded after tasting a large number of red wines. Sparkling wine has the same effect so these often also come after the reds. What is more important in the order of wines, is that heavier, more intense reds come after lighter reds as they could mask the more delicate features of the wine and similarly oaky white wines are tasted after lighter whites. What is essential is that sweet wines are tasted after everything else as sweet wines can really alter the taste and mouthfeel of dry wines. IN JUDGING WINE, WHAT EXACTLY IS BEING JUDGED? Which brings me to what judges are actually judging. In most wine competitions, judges are not expressing a preference for a certain taste or style of wine but evaluating the quality of the wine based on its appearance, aromas, palate, body, balance, complexity and any wine judge should be worthy enough of making such a judgement.  The IWC website states that in its judging process wines are assessed for their “faithfulness to style, region and vintage”. London Wine Competition goes