How important is winning medals?

The recent medal-mania from the London 2012 Olympic have turned our thoughts to the equivalent in wine – medals from competitions. The point of these competitions is to assess the quality of wine on offer and there are plenty of South African wine competitions to help consumers decide on what to buy. But should the consumer care? Is winning a medal what producing wine is all about? Is it just a marketing tool?

Competitions have their flaws but, like it or not, they are a valuable tool both for the consumer and the winery. A double gold Michelangelo medal  or Veritas gold for example is a trusted mark of quality from an external expert panel – it tells you loud and clear that the bottle in your hand is of exceptional quality, something special, you don’t just have to rely on the winemakers blurb on the label! So for consumers looking for something new or to broaden their knowledge of wine along with their palate, trying a ‘recommended’ medal winner is an excellent place to start. And it stands to reason that if consumers didn’t value competitions, there wouldn’t be any. The market doesn’t reward things for which there are no demand. Competitions also encourage wine makers to make fantastic wines and these events, as a whole, raise the standard of the wine making industry by holding it to new benchmarks and making sure the industry as a whole strive to improve.

Most competitions are ‘sighted tastings’ where the judgement about the contents of the bottle will naturally be influenced by the reputation of the winery which produced it. But some specialist expert wine judges taste wines ‘blind’ so they must make their assessment based on the contents of the glass rather than any preconceived ideas about the brand or the prowess of the winemaker. It’s not entirely egalitarian though, even in the blind tastings – certain styles of wines tend to perform better in competitions because they can make their presence felt amongst the throng. Very ripe and oaky red wines do well, as do herbaceous, acidic Sauvignon Blancs and ‘showy’ flamboyant, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. And of course, as with anything judged by a panel, there is a ‘median effect’ whereby anything controversial gets weeded out.

Shockingly, it has been known for some cellars produce special vats that are only entered for competitions. Their award winning wine is in fact something else entirely from the bottle available on the shelves. Of course, it’s tricky to catch them out without a chemical analysis of the ‘winning’ wine and a comparison to the ‘normal’ wine.

The alternative to the panel judgement are the one-on-one sighted tastings by experts. The value judgement of the wine is by one person so will be relatively consistent – although if the judge doesn’t like the style of wine, s/he’s not likely to change their mind in a hurry. As they won’t be fatigued by marathon wine tastings subtle wines are more likely to stand a chance.

Does all that mean that a wine which doesn’t have a string of competition stickers isn’t worth drinking? Not at all, winning competitions isn’t everything. The non-decorated wine may well be really delicious but it just didn’t stand out in the competition; and with some major competitions attracting hundreds of entrants side by side, it’s pretty hard to stand out from the crowd. The wines which do battle their way to the winner’s podium are not necessarily to your, the consumer’s, taste.

From the other side, sales rates are a good stamp of approval –  if the wine is selling well, it must mean that people enjoy drinking it. With increasing participation online through social media sites, as well as those dedicated to wine and wine reviews, direct feedback from the consumer is becoming a big part of reviewing the quality of the wine.

Excelsior performs consistently on the competition circuit – we’re not up there with the double gold winners every time but we are a solid and reliable presence among the winners. We aim for consistent results across our range of wines, rather than one off big results.

As a consumer, your first task is to find which wine competition you find most useful. It’s trial and error but once you have found a one that suits you, have a look online for the results and try some of the wines you’re not familiar with – you never know, you might just find something you like!

Further reading

Wikipedia – South African Wine – South African Wine Competitions – Wine Competitions can be useful. No really. They can. – Entering Wine Competitions – Wine Competitions are not charities

Best Value Wine Guide – Excelsior Purebred Red

Steve Heimoff – Big wine competitions have lots of problems


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