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.
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.
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.
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.
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 further, rating wines not just by quality but also by value and packaging.
Criticism about the judging process is a fairly regular theme in the wine press and social media, in particular criticism about the consistency of the judges’ evaluations. Various studies over the years including one by 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. A study in 2018 by Emmanuel Paroissien and Michael Visser concluded that “only a minority of competitions attribute medals that are significantly correlated with quality (primarily the ones founded a long time ago, and whose judges are required to evaluate relatively few wines per day)”.
Others have concluded that individual judges can rate the same wine very differently when samples of it are tasted blind in the same flight. Judges are human and therefore largely inconsistent. Usually they have just one chance to taste each wine and bottles can vary, palates can become dull after tasting many wines and judges may have “off” days. Judges have to be objective about something that is very subjective.
The inherent subjectivity in judging also leads to accusations of bias by judges: with so many wines usually tasted just once in a limited timescale, snap decisions may be made and inevitably some judges may let their personal wine preferences or peer pressure interfere with the impartial nature of the judging role.
Objections to the number of medals awarded in wine competitions are also frequent. In researching the subject I was shocked to learn that some of the newer wine competition give awards to over 85% of wines entered. The average amongst all competitions is estimated to be somewhere between 30% and 50%.
That it is a good thing for the organisers of the wine competitions goes without saying; if they were not sustainable economically, we would not see the proliferation and increasing number of international and national wine competitions that we see today. And, of course, if you hand out prizes to over 85% of wines entered, there is more incentive for winemakers to keep coming back and pay to enter their wines next year.
For the chance to win a prize, winemakers send in two to four bottles of each wine they want to enter (in case one is faulty) and pay an entry fee for the privilege – c.£160 per wine is the current going rate for a number of competitions and there are shipping costs on top of that. This is how the wine competitions make their money; the more wines that are entered, the better for them. Award winners also have to pay for those shiny stickers.
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 (and the wine competition itself) market their success wisely, an uplift in sales and revenue. Paroissien and Visser’s 2018 study estimated that “producers, having earned a medal at a competition can increase their price by 13%” though of course it is not a guarantee. The extent of any uplift in pricing is probably influenced by which award a wine receives and whether it is from one of the more prestigious competitions.
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. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the majority of 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. And they are just a tiny percentage of all wines of that category that are available. If a wine bottle doesn’t display a shiny award sticker, it doesn’t mean it’s worse than those that do – and in fact it could even be better.
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. There is also a view that competition between producers keeps standards high, creating a benchmark for a particular wine style or wine region.
If you know very little about wine, then choosing wine award winners could be a useful way of starting out on your wine journey but for consumers with some wine knowledge and experience they are just one indicator of the quality of a 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 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!
I am passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers. If you’re feeling sociable why not follow me on social media or share my blog with others?
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