Wine Competitions and Awards

The 2020 wine award competition season is now underway.  The number of wine competitions each year has been on the rise.  While no one really knows how many there are, the number has grown rapidly in the past several years. In many cases, over half of entrants are getting medals.

At the same time, the 10 most respected international wine competitions have similarly seen an increase in the number of wines entered each year.

The arguably top award events, where competitors appear by invitation only are:

  • Sommeliers Choice Awards
  • London Wine Competition
  • Decanter World Wine Awards
  • International Wine Challenge
  • International Wine & Spirit Competition
  • San Francisco International Wine Competition
  • Cyprus Wine Competition
  • The Balkans International Wine Competition
  • The Berlin Wine Trophy
  • The International Wine Contest Bucharest
  • USA Wine Ratings
  • Brazilian Sparkling Contest
  • Thessaloniki International Wine & Spirits Competition

And for those that don’t get to go to the big leagues there are national and regional competitions.  In many of these competitions wineries only need to register and pay the entry fee in order to partake. In Canada there are:

  • National Wine Awards of Canada
  • All Canadian Wine Championships
  • Ontario Wine Awards
  • British Columbia Lieutenant Governor’s Wine Awards

Entry to national or regional competitions is often limited to those wineries produced in the named region.

There are also a few competitions which are limited to one type of wine, like the Canberra Riesling Challenge in Australia or Chardonnays du Monde in France.

Are the results from wine competitions something you should pay attention to when searching for wines to enjoy?   Here is some information to help you decide.

How They Work

Wine competitions are blind tastings in that the judges don’t know whose wine they are tasting. All of the wine samples are poured by staff members in a separate room.  The glasses are identical and coded by number or letter, and then brought to the judges’ tables – normally about 10 glasses at a time.

Within the parameters of each competition, it is really the wineries themselves that determine the wines that are tasted.  Some wineries submit many wines in many competitions; others just a few wines in a few competitions; and still others don’t take part at all.  The decision may depend on the winery’s size, marketing strategy, or opinion about the value of wine competitions in its overall business plan or philosophy. It comes down to a question as to whether the associated costs return appropriate business value.

The judges are a diverse group of “wine experts” from many different professional areas, whether they be wine makers, wine educators, wine writers, sommeliers, or wine retailers.  They all have two things in common: a passion for wine, and daily exposure to it.  In most competitions the judges also represent many regions and countries, which provides a broader perspective and protects against viticultural prejudice. Some judges have specific academic credentials like Master of Wine or Master Sommelier, but the majority are simply individuals whose profession involves regular wine tastings.  Ideally, the panels have judges from different aspects of wine’s professional life because they bring different perspectives to the event.

Judging occurs in two phases, the medal round, and the “sweepstakes”.  For the medal round, the judges are split into panels of 2 to 6 people.  Some competitions prefer the odd numbers because it’s easier to get a decision by a simple majority.  Others prefer panels of 4 because when there is a split, it must resolved by discussion and consensus.

Each wine is judged on its own merits, colour, clarity, aroma, bouquet, taste, finish (aftertaste), and overall quality.  In a particular flight, there might be 1 Gold, 3 Silver, and 2 Bronze medals, for example, and 4 receiving no award; but there are no predetermined numbers or percentages of medals. 

Normally, sparkling wines and white wines are tasted first, followed by Rosé and red, and finally dessert wines.  When there are different levels of sweetness, with Riesling for example, the wines are tasted from dry to sweet, because tasting the sweeter wines first would make the dry wines taste bitter.

The judges are presented with flights (groupings) of about 10 wines of the same type (e.g. Chardonnay) in coded glasses which each judge separately tastes in silence, making notes and deciding on the appropriate medal for each wine on its own merits, Gold, Silver, Bronze, or No Award. Some competitions have a Double Gold category, which requires unanimity among panelists that the wine deserves a Gold medal, whereas a Gold medal just requires a majority.  Simplistically, you might consider Double Gold as “exceptional”, Gold as “excellent”, Silver as “very good”, and Bronze as “good”.

When all judges have finished tasting, they compare notes to decide on a final, group medal for each wine.  When there is agreement on their individual scores (80-90% of the time in most cases), no discussion is needed and the medal is assigned.  When there is significant disagreement, the judges discuss and often retaste the wine to arrive at a consensus

In addition to the medals given to each wine, the panels normally determine which Gold medal wines advance to the “sweepstakes” round to determine the Best of Class, Best of Category, and at some competitions Best of Show.  The “sweepstakes” round is the grand finale of the competition, with all judges tasting all the wines that have been advanced.

In the “sweepstakes” round all of the wines to be tasted are the best wines of the competition.  One way to determine the best wines in large categories is by “acclamation voting”.  Each judge may vote as many times as he or she likes, since the wines are of different types (Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon etc.).   

Many competitions end with a Best of Category (e.g., Red, White, Rosé), and some also select a “Best of Show” among them as well.

Interpreting the Results

A wine competition is one moment in time.  The results reflect the collective opinions of expert judges about a specific group of wines on a particular day.  But there is a lot of consistency among different competitions held in different places at different times, so wine competitions do provide good guidance for purchasing wines.

Wine competitions provide a unique blend of objective and subjective opinions.  The objectivity involves several people in a blind tasting process which eliminates personal bias for a region or winery.  The subjectivity involves the personal taste sensitivities and preferences of different people.

The judging panel may be as few as two or up to six tasters or even more; the larger the panel, the less discussion.  Differences in judges’ tastes can relate to where they live; Europe, Australia, North America, or South America.  Taste can even differ based on a region within a country.

There are also differences between people who are wine makers or vineyard owners and those who are sommeliers, retailers, or writers. The winery related judges tend to focus on the technical qualities of the wine, whereas the consumer-focused ones are looking for a good wine for their customers to enjoy.

Over the years due to changes in the industry the wines from around the world have become so much better.  There used to be much more variation in quality, but research into grape growing and winemaking, plus the commitment to quality by producers worldwide has raised the bar, making it harder to distinguish and identify what separates a Gold from a Silver, or a Silver from a Bronze.  This is good for consumers, and it’s good for producers because consumers are more likely to see wine as a positive experience.

A medal can be of great value to a winery, otherwise they wouldn’t be paying the registration fee per wine to enter. Getting a medal can translate into higher wine sales, since the medal is usually mentioned in press releases and shown on the winery website.

However the all-important question is whether a wine is or isn’t an award winner, impacts your decision to purchase a particular bottle of wine.  The decision is yours.

It remains to be seen how COVID-19 will impact this year’s competitions.  While some of the European events have already taken place others, such as the Ontario Wine Awards, are being postponed until further notice.

Sláinte mhaith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s