There are two types of people in the wine-buying world. There's the "it wouldn't have won this many awards if it wasn't a good wine" camp, and then the "wine awards can tell you nothing aside from the size of a winery's budget" camp. Which one are you? Are those shiny medals useless, or a handy shortcut when looking for a quality wine? Welcome to Part 3 of Lifehacker's wine guide, where we decipher what -- if anything -- a wine's medal collection can teach you.
Photo: Briarrose Winery
Australian wine shows
First off we have to ask -- where do all these medals come from? Australia hosts over 100 wine shows alone, with even more awards coming from international wine shows. Big Aussie events include the Royal Adelaide Wine Show, Sydney Royal Wine Show, Perth Royal Wine Show -- and a couple of others with very similar naming conventions.
Aside from these big shows, you also get smaller regional events like the Hunter Valley Wine Show, or type-specific ones such as the Australian Fortified Wine Show. With so many events across the country, it's impossible to rate every show for its reliability and credibility -- even some of the bigger ones have come under fire for their unreliable outcomes -- so it's far more important for you to understand how the wine show system actually works.
Medals vs trophies
There are two main types of awards you might see next time you pick up a wine bottle -- which may be listed on the label, or denoted with a shiny round sticker. These are medals and trophies. Trophies are the more prestigious award -- only one of each trophy is awarded each year, picked from among the gold medal wines of the show. Trophies are usually something along the lines of 'best red in show' or 'best white in show' -- and these are the real winners.
Medals, on the other hand, are less like the Olympic gold, silver, bronze system that the average consumer would think of, and more like a school grading system. In the classic Australian show system, wines are given a score out of 20. We'll get back to the scoring system later, but for now it can teach us a little about how medals are awarded. Every wine above 18.5 points gets awarded a gold medal, those between 17 and 18.5 get silver and the rest between 15.5 and 17 get the bronze. So a bronze medal on a bottle of wine doesn't mean it's the third best wine in its category -- it just means that the judges found it drinkable.
Categories or 'classes' are another thing to keep in mind -- wines are often sorted into classes by variety and price, such as 'Best Shiraz Under $10'. Some of the largest wine shows could have hundreds of classes, often splitting wines into different categories based on features that the average consumer would never even consider to be significant. Is a trophy for 'best shiraz under $10' worth more than a gold medal in the 'shiraz under $25' class? A few more unusual medals you may encounter include the double gold -- given by some shows when all judges unanimously agree that a wine deserves a gold medal -- and the increasingly prevalent blue-gold medal that indicates the wine was judged with food. This, according to some, is the superior way to judge a wine.
Vintage is one more thing to think about while deciphering the medals and trophies a wine has been awarded -- if they're displaying an award won on a different vintage than the one you're buying it should be soundly ignored, for one. Something you may not think about, however, is the validity of a medal awarded in the same year as the vintage. This means that the judge was most likely tasting a sample from the barrel, rather than the bottle, and renowned wine critic Huon Hooke points out the flaws in this practice on his blog:
"There is many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, as the saying goes. And a lot can go wrong with a wine between the time a critic tastes from the barrel and the time the wine is finally blended, bottled and put on the market. Wines can be manipulated or adulterated, and faults can creep in. As well, the phenomenon of the critics' barrel is well-known and rightly derided in the wine trade. A winery owner may have 100 barrels of what is ostensibly the same wine, but unblended. In reality each barrel will be slightly different, and the best will be substantially different from the least. Winemakers and proprietors are only human, and who can blame them if they choose to draw the critic's sample from their best barrel?"
So yes, sometimes winemakers are a little dodgy with the way their wines are tasted and judged, we can't deny that. Many of the big names in the wine community would therefore recommend having a closer look at the scores a wine was awarded, if the winemaker decided to include that information on the bottle.
Scores and points
In the classic Australian system, wine is typically given a score out of 20, as mentioned above. However the American system -- which sees wine being ranked out of 100 -- is becoming increasingly popular with Australian winemakers. In fact, it is this system which is more popularly recognised by the general public, which is why you'll probably have seen many wines advertised as having been awarded scores of 95+. Some wine critics have even started translating their scores from one system to the other, like Huon Hooke, who goes into some detail as to how he converts a score out of 20 into one out of 100 on his website. So what do these scores actually mean?
Scores of 95-100 usually denote a highly recommended wine -- 98 is fantastic, while 99 and 100 are all but unheard of, but occasionally awarded to particularly good vintages. Anything above 90 is still classed as outstanding, while 85 to 89 is very good. 80 to 84 creates your baseline for a good wine, something that you'd still be inclined to reach for again. 75 to 79 is the somewhat condescending 'drinkable' category, and everything below that is generally not recommended.
While some wineries will put their scores out of 100 on the bottle, they most likely won't bother unless it was something over 90. Penfolds vintage releases in particular like to boast scores in the high 90s, but if you're reaching for a Penfolds vintage release then you're already all but assured a quality wine. For other wines that have been awarded scores of over 90, however, it can be a far better indicator of a recommended wine than the regular medal system.
Until this point you may say that yes, medals and awards can help you pick a decent wine, but there are oh so many caveats to the system. For one, some of the best wines may not be entered into shows at all -- so if a wine has no medals on its bottle, does that mean that it's been entered and failed to win anything, or simply that it's never been entered?
Another thing to note is that, after a couple of glasses of wine they will invariably all start tasting the same. As the wine industry explodes, judges at big shows are having to taste hundreds of wines a day, so their palette may well be muddied despite their best efforts at being impartial. This 'wine fatigue' means that bigger, bolder wines are likely to win the top prizes - so if you're a fan of softer, more elegant wine, medal winners might not be entirely to your taste.
In the end, medals and awards will at least tell you that yes, someone has tried this wine, and yes they liked it enough to give it a decent score. Stick to silvers and golds perhaps -- as it is widely reported that anything even slightly better than vinegar is liable to slip into the bronze category. If you're after a quick, casual wine that'll be pleasant and drinkable, by all means look for those medals. For something more special, you're probably better off doing a quick bit of research on your phone.