Bottoms Up: The skinny on wine competitions

I think most people would agree that if a bottle of wine one is considering purchasing wears a decal saying it won a Gold Medal in a competition, one would be more inclined to buy it. And why not? Since our school days we have been hung up on grades. The higher the grade, or in wine’s case, the score or medal, supposedly the better! For producers, medals won in competition and displayed on labels, are great marketing tools.

All wine competitions cover one or both of the following categories: varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.), and wine styles (bubbly, sweet wines, blends, etc.). Some are regional (product from a specific region within a country), national (product from an entire country) or international (product from around the world). The odd one focuses on value for the dollar, like within a certain price range or occasionally on food-friendliness. Most competitions are judged by a group of folks in the wine industry, usually from different areas – winemakers, wine journalists, wine retailers, wine educators, wine scientists, etc. This way, different perspectives of wine all play a part in the final analysis. Sometimes, these judges come from different parts of the world (especially important in international competitions where wines are entered from all over the globe). Once the judges are chosen, they are usually divided into panels so not every panel/judge will taste every wine entered. A tedious and unrealistic concept at the best of times! Each panel is set up to include a judge from different areas of the industry to bring their unique perspective to the analysis. All wines are served blind. The only information provided the judge is generally the wine style/grape variety and vintage. All marks of a panel are averaged out and a corresponding medal awarded. In some instances, before a panel’s final overall mark is awarded a wine, the members will discuss the wine so that if any one judge is out in left field with it, an adjustment can be made.

Plain and simple, a wine competition is only as good as the judges doing the evaluation. Because someone is in the wine business doesn’t necessarily make him or her a good judge. A solid understanding of wine, much experience with tasting all grape varieties/wine styles, a good palate and consistency are essential. Many competitions invite judges based strictly on their reputation, position, public persona or celebrity status. Certain competitions actually test their judges beforehand to make sure they have what it takes to do the job. There’s even the odd competition that continuously tests their judges throughout the competition by giving them the exact same wine at different points throughout the judging to see how consistent their analysis are.

In international competitions where wines come from all over the globe representing varying winemaking styles, a judge’s global tasting experience is especially important. Most New World (not Europe) judges usually have access to wines from all over the world on a regular basis so they are very familiar with international and regional styles and varietals. (Just look at all the choices available to you from all over the globe at your local LCBO.) European judges are not as fortunate. In most European countries, you’d be hard pressed to find any other countries’ wine available other than the country you’re in. Unless judges from these countries travel a lot, one would have to wonder how adept they are in evaluating international styles and varietals as they are rarely exposed to them. This is one reason why international judging panels are set up to include a combination of Old and New World tasters.

A final aspect of wine competitions to note is the number of wines entered in a specific category. A Gold Medal won in a competition where only 10 wines were in the running in a specific category may not carry the panache of one obtained where there were hundreds.

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