Do Medals Matter: Deciphering Wine Awards

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

[If you're feeling a bit behind in your wine knowledge, catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 before reading on.]

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.

Caveats

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.

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Comments

    Awards are for impressing friends or choosing wines you cant taste before buying. Its better to go for a wine tasting and finding wines you actually like rather than relying on reviews or opinions.

    Another thing to note is that, after a couple of glasses of wine they will invariably all start tasting the same

    So true.

    Hayley - is there a part 4, 5 and so on of these awesome posts, just like my nightly glass (bottle) of wine, I am starting to crave your knowledge, you can never know too much about this topic.

      Glad you're enjoying them! There'll be a part 4 and 5 for sure.

        Well, that's awesome.

    Worth noting that there is typically a large entry fee for wineries into these shows. And many restrictions on what/how/when etc.

    Smaller or boutique wineries often won't bother as the returns are simply not worth it. Hence medals often tend to be garnered by labels belonging to the big players like Treasury, Pernod Ricard, etc.

    Wineries with existing good reputation (e.g. Rockfords) tend to rely on people knowing this and go on word-of-mouth and expert reviews instead.

    I can assure you than in Australia, Bronze medals are not handed out to anything slightly better than vinegar.. It's a rather ridiculous statement. Perhaps overseas the standard is lower for each medal category but the Australian shows are pretty tough and some unreasonably so.

    It must be remembered that the wine is judged on a given day and reflects the wine as per the judges tastes on that day... Whilst the wine is supposed to be judged based on it's own merits within a certain criteria...it's inevitable a judges personal tastes may affect the score.

    The bigger problem than so called barrel tastings is that the big commercial companies bottle in batches and it's long been rumoured that some will set aside the best tanks/barrels/batches to be bottled and sent to shows and critics.. whereas the public get arguably a different wine... I have come across this more often than one would believe. The little guys can't do this due to volume and cost factors.

    I have come across plenty of high scoring wines by critics and judges that i've later purchased as a result of that critique or awards only to wonder if i'm even remotely drinking the same wine.

    The variances in scores amongst critics can be vast and polar at times..
    I have seen Huon Hook score a wine 95 whereas Halliday scored it 84 and vice versa.
    I have seen Judges trash a wine at a wine show only to award the same wine a gold medal at another show.

    It must also be pointed out that the critics 100 point system does not correlate with the show system at least certainly not the 20 point system...
    15.5 By 5 = 77.5 which would be considered faulty beyond drinkable by the above critics yet supposedly good enough for a Bronze..

    Sadly the 90 + point phenomenon which would considered to be a silver by most critics even know it doesn't convert.. has resulted in many good wines 85+ been dismissed as not good enough and often dismissed by critics even if they've awarded it the equivalent of a bronze medal.

    A Bronze Medal basically means an above average wine which would/should show varietal and regional characteristics.

    It would be rare for the Wine companion to score a wine below 84 which they consider a bronze medal but most would not necessarily pick up a bronze at an australian wine show..

    Further just because a bottle hasn't got medals attached doesn't mean it hasn't beaten those that a laden with medals just because they have the budget to print and attach them..

    Remember wines are bottled and labeled then often not shown for a year or longer... it's really not cost effective for most wineries to print .. unpack label and repack.... or they simply don't have the volume left to justify the cost.

    I'd be wary of any company that puts Winemaker of the year or similar.. Why because it doesn't necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with that wine.

    Whilst one could assume a 5 star winery would be of a certain standard, it must be remembered that that is an overall rating not for any particular wine.. they could have a crap vintage on a variety or they may have lesser quality wines that are pretty ordinary and it was the higher quality range that got them the rating..

    Further Just because a wine has won a medal of any colour or a trophy does not mean you will like it.. It is merely a guide as to what standard one thinks that wine is..

    It's not uncommon to see the wider public that usually drink more commercial wines try gold medal wines or aged wines that are usually more refined.. not to like them.

    At the end of the day.. if you know the varietal and region you like i'd go with that first, then if it's won a medal at a show or a critic with similar tastes has given it rap that lines up with your palate.

      Of course, when it comes down to it, wine is incredibly subjective and there are a whole host of reasons why one wine may or may not win an award ranging from regional preferences differing to the mood of the judge on that particular day. I think the main takeaway from this article should be about the way that the wine show system works more than anything else!

    I think that you are selling Australian Wine Shows short. If the purpose of the article is to understand how the wine show system works, then you need to go a bit deeper.
    The significant point of difference between the wine show and the individual point scoring judge, eg a journalist, Dan Murphy's tasting panel is:
    1. Foremost, the wines are assessed by a judging panel of 3 judges which helps address issues of favourite regions and so on.
    2. The wines are assessed "blind", ie the judge has no idea of the Region, the Brand, etc. All the judge is presented with is a glass of wine on a number. A truly independent assessment.
    3. Judges discuss the wines only after they have assessed the wines independently, this results in faulty wines being rejected.
    4. A medal is the result of the 3 judge's results, not an individual score.

    I can assure you that a bronze medal is of value. Most judges I have worked with consider a wine with points of 14.5 to 15.0 to be sound commercial wines, to be awarded a bronze medal a wine needs to be not only sound but to go that step futher with the beginnings of complexity.

    All the wine shows that I have had the privilege of being associated with are run professionally with a strong focus on acheiving reproducable and sound results.
    They are often run by independent bodies, eg Show Societies and have no commercial axe to grind. They have been instrumental in today's customer having the high quality wine that is produced by the Australian Wine Industry. Thirty years ago upto 30% of entries could be faulty, to-day that percentage is less than 5. The system has done a great job for the customer.
    The wine show system is also where new styles in winemaking emerge, fostering development within the industry, all for the customer.

    The consumer should take confidence that a wine with a bronze medal or better has acheived a level that produces a wine of interest and soundness. If a wine does not have a medal, it does not mean it is faulty (though it could be), the chances are that it will be a sound commercial wine, or possibly better if the brand owner chooses not to enter wine shows.

    Finally, it is upto the individual to decide the worth of a wine and, as you mention, taste is highly subjective. A medal is an independent assessment of a wine that does give the consumer a good guide on the wine's quality.

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