Wine awards - real quality or hype?

We’ve done the research to guide you through the wine medal jungle.
 
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  • Updated:30 Sep 2008
 

01 .Medals of distinction

vineyard

In brief

  • A gold medal is better than a silver, from any show; a bronze indicates it’s of sound quality, but not much more.
  • Australia's wine show system has been criticised for having become too commercial, but shows are addressing these concerns.

Over the past two decades our wine industry has grown so much that we’re now one of the major exporters of quality wines. Grown, too, has the number of medals that adorn wine bottles on retailers’ shelves.

But are all these medals just a marketing ploy? Or are they a genuine indicator of a good quality wine? As is so often the case, the answers are not a simple yes or no. There are, however, some awards worth looking for and some issues to be aware of when choosing a wine you don’t know.

There’s certainly no shortage of wine shows — there are 62 in Australia alone plus many more overseas. There’s at least one major wine show in each state and nationally, and many more shows for local wines in our key wine-growing regions.

Other shows are open to specific varieties only, such as the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge, or to wines from grapes grown in a particular region only, such as the inland or cool climate wine shows. It seems for every group of people who produce a certain type of wine, there’s an appropriate wine show to showcase their product, whether it’s made from an alternative variety or organically grown grape, by a small or boutique winemaker or an amateur.

For a complete overview of and links to all the relevant wine shows, check out the website of the Australian wine industry portal.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


No medal?

Winning an award doesn’t usually increase a wine’s price, but it’ll certainly increase sales. For wines that sell for less than $25, a wine medal is an effective marketing tool that helps draw people’s attention to the wine on the bottleshop shelf.

People like medals, retailers told us, and they ask for them if a wine is advertised as a medal winner but doesn’t show the award on the bottle. In such a case, check with the retailer. You may be looking at stock from the same vintage that was bottled before the wine won the award. If in doubt, check with the show. It should have all award winners listed on its website.

But don’t be concerned if the wine you like boasts no medals. Not all winemakers agree with the wine show system and prefer the customer to judge their wines, at the cellar door, for example, or they simply mightn’t have had a sample ready at the time of entry into a show.

 
 

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02.Wine shows draw criticism

 

The major state wine shows, run by each state’s Royal Agricultural Society, have traditionally been aimed at producers (winemakers in this case) to help them benchmark their product, promote it and improve on style. The wines — usually of the current vintage, the previous year’s wines and mature ones — were judged by their peers, and the results gave winemakers an idea of how the current harvest was going and how the previous and older wines were developing.

More recently, however, this established wine show system has come under fire from many corners. One of the major criticisms is that it’s grown into a big, commercial enterprise, where major wine producers who enter large amounts of wine dominate, and the more individualistic wines from small, cutting-edge wineries are judged unfairly.

Just imagine, more than 4600 wines can be accommodated at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. So the number of wines a judge has to assess in any one day can be dauntingly large. In these circumstances, if the judging panel gets tired, critics say that the bigger, oaky, full-bodied styles — the commercial show ponies, as some would say — tend to do better than the more elegant styles.

Making shows more relevant

Many of the shows have taken these criticisms on board, however, and are implementing changes that should not only improve the show system for the winemaker but also make it more relevant for consumers. Some of the changes include:

  • Keeping the numbers down in any one class for judging.
  • Dividing the classes into smaller, more specific ones so the results make more sense for the consumer.
  • Broadening the field of judges to include more consumer-oriented experts such as wine writers, sommeliers and retailers.

Gold, silver, bronze and trophies

At the Olympics it’s easy to keep track of the achievements: gold for the winner, silver for the runner-up and bronze for the third place-getter. With the wine show system it’s not as simple as choosing the best, second and third in each class.

  • The number of wines that win medals is generally not set, although there are some exceptions. So in theory, if there were, say, 20 unwooded chardonnays in a certain class, they could all receive a gold medal, if they were of the appropriate standard. That’s rarely the case, though. In reality it’s more likely that about 30%–40% of all show entrants receive a bronze medal, and a much smaller number get a silver or gold.
  • While the entry conditions and judging protocols vary from show to show, the wines are usually divided into appropriate classes, which are either defined by grape variety and vintage, or by general descriptors such as mature dry reds, aromatic whites and so on.
  • The judges blind-taste all wines, awarding points (out of 20) for each wine’s appearance (maximum 3), aroma (7) and palate/flavour (10), just as we conduct our wine tastings at CHOICE.
  • Only the best wines in a class, the gold medal winners, are considered for a trophy. These are the stand-out wines in the show.

The prestigious Jimmy Watson and Stodart trophies (from the Royal Melbourne and Royal Queensland shows respectively) are perhaps less relevant for consumers than for winemakers, as they’re awarded to one-year-old reds, which are still undergoing maturation and may have changed their characteristics by the time they’re bottled for sale.

Buying tips

  • Looking for a really good drop? Go for a trophy winner, they’re reserved for the best gold medal wines in the show.
  • A gold medal from a major state capital city show is a good indicator that the wine is of high quality and has been compared with many others in its class.
  • Don’t ignore gold medals from regional or other reputable wine shows, especially if you’re after a particular style. For example, a gold medal from the Hunter Valley Wine Show is probably more relevant and valuable for a Hunter Valley Semillon than one from a large state show, just as a medal from an alternative varieties show is more relevant for a Tempranillo or Sangiovese, simply because they’ve been judged with similar wines.
  • Silver medals are easier to achieve than gold, but a bronze medal simply indicates the wine is of sound quality, perhaps a bit above average.
  • Never heard of it? Ask your wine retailer about a wine you don’t know, or Google it and read reviews. The wine label and back of the bottle is also a good source of information. Here the winemaker will tell you if it’s a consistent wine show medal winner, even if this particular vintage hasn’t (yet) won a medal.

Multiple medals

multiple gold medal labelMultiple medals are a good indication that a large number of judges have thought this wine to be worth a medal. This Shiraz Viognier (bought for $28 at Dan Murphy's in August 08) boasts one trophy plus three gold medals, including one from a large international show.


 

Quality at low cost

Multiple gold and silver medal labelNot all award-winning wines are in the premium price bracket.

This shiraz cost us less than $10 (at Dan Murphy's in August 08) and it boasts seven medals: three gold from Australian wine shows, including one trophy for the best shiraz over one year old, and four silver medals, including one from a prestigious international show.





Double gold medal

Double gold medalThe prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition judges thousands of wines and awards a Double Gold Medal when all judges on a particular panel agree that the wine deserves a Gold Medal.








 

Top 100

Top 100 medalAn award-winning wine from the Sydney International Wine Competition has been judged alongside appropriate food — a unique feature among major international shows. This show concentrates on the top 20% of wines in the show and has its awards capped at about 15%.

The top 5% of entries receive the ‘Top 100’ award.


 


Don't be fooled

Medal-shaped stickerNot all gold stickers are wine show medals; this one just lists the vintage, others we saw promoted a producer’s 25 years of winemaking, or that it’s been imported.