Andrew Polmear

Wine, Judges and Medals

Summer is special for us all. For some it’s the outdoor life, for others it’s the Tour de France, but for wine lovers there’s the publication of the Decanter World Wine Awards! 275 international judges taste 17,000 wines blind and make their awards accordingly. Almost all the wines are available to us, either online or in the shops. If you subscribe to Decanter (“the world’s best wine magazine”) you get the printed report free. If you don’t you can view it free online at awards.decanter.com. Never again need you be disconcerted by the huge array of wines offered to you in a supermarket, a wine merchant or online.

To test this out I went into Waitrose with my copy of the awards. I wanted a full-bodied red. Waitrose had two reds that had won gold medals and two that had won silver. I bought one gold, a South African from Stellenbosch at £9.99, and one silver, also South African, from Cederberg at £8.99. The silver was good; the gold was exceptional. Without the awards I would never have picked them out.

But, the sceptic in me asks, isn’t this all one huge advertising stunt? Out of 16,972 bottles only 2,500 received no award or commendation. So the important thing to realise is that it’s the strength of the award that counts. A simple commendation by the judges means the wine scored 83-85 points (out of 100) and was judged “acceptable and simple”. A bronze medal means the wine scored 86-89. That makes it “well-made, straight-forward, and enjoyable” but no more than that. So if you want something special you have to go for those with silver medals and above. Only 3,454 silver (90-94 points) and 439 gold medals (95-100 points) were awarded; that’s only 20% and 2.5% respectively. And the golds were re-tasted by other judges, still blind, before they could be confirmed or upgraded to platinum; and they were tasted again before being judged the “best in show”.

There are still two problems with the awards. First, the judges can only judge the wines sent in by the wine producers. Producers don’t send in wines with an established reputation because those wines don’t need the publicity (and wouldn’t want to take the risk of not winning gold!). So the best wines are missing. Indeed, the wines are biased towards those the producers (wine-makers or retailers) think are good but need publicity.

The second point is a bit complex but really important. The wines are tasted in groups, so that like is tasted against like. So wines are grouped according to country, region, colour, grape, style, vintage and price. The judges are told these details, so they are not totally blind, and they taste wines of the same style and price bracket together. So a £9.99 wine is tasted against other wines all costing £8 – £14.99. I think this explains why my Stellenbosch red got a score of 95. It might not have done so well if it had been tasted against wines costing over £50. There’s nothing absolute about wine tasting; our standards vary according to many things, especially according to the other wines we have just tasted.
Despite these two issues I think the Awards are of huge value. If you access them at awards.decanter.com you can search by wine, by producer or by stockist. It’s this last that’s most useful. Choose UK then scroll through the stockists until you find the one where you plan to shop. Easy!

Andrew Polmear

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