Wine awards - real quality or hype?

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  • Updated:30 Sep 2008

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.


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