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On Tasting
What Do Show Medals Mean - Part 2
Tuesday, 7th December, 2004  - David Farmer

More often than not if a wine does well on the show circuit a small, ‘award’ sticker will appear on the bottle. This label will mention the award grade, normally a trophy, gold, silver or bronze; the name of the show, such as Melbourne 2004 or Clare Valley 2004; plus the entry class of the wine. The best wines can win trophies that will say ‘Best Sparkling Wine Under $20’ or ‘Most Outstanding Red or White Wine in Show’. There are a vast number of classes, for example the Royal Adelaide Show 2004 had 61 classes. Thus different varieties are judged separately and blends of varieties will form another class. Older vintages are often judged in another class. One important division splits wines into two rough camps which may be called commercial, which is large volume and limited which is for more expensive wines. This distinction is beginning to fade and makers will enter the class that gives them the best advantage. Thus your best chardonnay may have been made in sufficient volume to enter the large volume commercial class.

Now this is most interesting as it opens up the debate about the ‘value’ of a medal from class to class. Do we agree that a hand made small volume Cabernet from Coonawarra will be better than a huge volume Cabernet made for the mass market? Both can win gold medals and are normally judged in different classes. That seems fair. But are the gold medals of equal weight? We now enter the interesting field of how a wine is scored. Is there a final standard against which all the wines of the world can be judged or do you take a smaller view and judge wines in a class on a day?

In the last decade a view has developed, championed in America, that all the worlds wines, reds, whites, sparkling, it makes no difference; can be judged against each other with the score of each being marked out of 100. In this case you could eliminate all classes and with white wines for example split them into convenient brackets for judging. I am not comfortable that this is the best outcome and for want of a better name belong to the ‘English’ school, which believes that accuracy comes from judging like with like.

It is interesting though to think that all the wines made can be lined up in some giant sequence of quality. It would stretch forever. I’ll return to this ideal of judging in another article.

Being human we seek certainty when we spend our money. Why not take the advice of the latest ‘medal result or point score from the American ‘Wine Spectator’ which gives you a thumb’s up that this wine is the best. Experts are telling you so. And on the whole they are more right than wrong and I place great value on our show judge’s results. It is though very easy to overlook quality and every judge would admit to awarding an average wine the top points. I recall a few years ago the American, ‘Wine Spectator’ pointing Penfolds Club Port above the icon Penfolds Grandfather.

I believe our judges should continue to be tough in the show circuit. A gold medal in any class is now much closer to gold in any other class. They are trying to point to an absolute standard so that a gold won by a giant, factory size run of say 100,000 cases will point well against a gold won in a class which contains wines made in small volumes to exacting standards. To judge to this level is not easy and many anomalies are thrown up. It’s doubtful that all gold’s from various classes can ever carry equal weight as there are just too many variables. If there is a certainty about judging it is that humble wines often get awards way above there true quality.

Evaluating wine is natural and good fun, though so full of subjective views that a great number of people are kidding themselves a great deal of the time. Developing a decent palate has given me a lot of pleasure and you will enjoy it also. In the mean time wine judging results are very useful as a buying tip.

Here are some helpful buying hints.

1) Most wines we drink cost under $10.00. They are worth about what you pay. You will not discover a great ‘gold medal’ wine that will cellar at this price point. Those with the odd medal indicate that they may taste marginally better than those with no medals. Medals don’t mean much at this price. If I find a gem I will let you know in GLUG’s ‘What the Market Says’ and ‘What We Drank Last Night’.

2) The more medals the better. It means that in its ‘class’ many judges approved of the flavour. If you enter enough shows you finally get lucky. Several medals of bronze and silver standard are better than a lonely gold. Play the averages game.

3) Many wines are not entered in shows so you will have to make your own judgement on their quality. This opens up the chance for many consumers to pretend or be mislead as few have the skills of our judges. This is good as it causes little harm and many of our small wineries would have few customers if they posted a ‘professional’ view of their wines on a board outside the winery. Wine guides such as ‘Winewise’ or the yearly roundups in the major papers and magazines like ‘Winestate’ try to provide this view as do our wine writers in books and articles. All of these are a form of judging after all.

4) Yes, medals have a connection with quality. Though what is the connection of quality to price? How much should I pay if the wine has won heaps of medals? Here we start to run into trouble. The linkage of price and quality gets confused with lots of emotional issues such as the status of the winery and scarcity. This is a topic for another day.

Lastly the best wine judging story I have heard was told by Bill Hardy. Australian judges acting 3 to a panel can each taste 300 wines in a day. A French panel of 12 judges takes all day to judge 12 of their own wines. I think both methods have merit.

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