Wine Competitions Demystified

What do all Those Wine Competition Medals Mean Anyway?

We have all seen wineries proudly proclaim that their wines received a medal at this or that competition, and you will undoubtedly see this during tours of Vancouver Island wineries. While generally it means the wine is better than average, it is helpful to know the basics of wine judging and how medals and rankings are determined. It can also assist with awareness in your own wine sampling during your Vancouver Island wine tour.

Ranking Systems for Wine Competitions

The most common type of competition is that using a nominal rather than an ordinal ranking system.

Wine competitions with a nominal ranking system judge a wine based on its attributes and give a cumulative score. The cumulative scores from all the judges as a percentage of the total (if high enough) ranks the wine gold, silver or bronze. This means there could be multiple wines in the same competition earning the same medal. Many of these competitions award a “Best of Class” or “Double Gold” rank to the best wine in that category and thus overall winner. Think of it like a classroom, where there could be four “A” grades ten “B” grades and so forth for a test. However, there would still be someone who received the highest mark of the “A” grades and would be “Best of Class”.

In wine competitions with ordinal rankings, wines are ranked highest to lowest. So in a ten wine showdown, there would only be one gold, bronze or silver medal. This can be a good ranking system and facilitate consumer choice, but the problem lies with a stable of wines that are all very good. The perceived value of a wine ranking first is much higher than that of the last placed wine even though in overall quality they may be very close.

Usually both types of ranking are blind which means the judge is aware of the wine category or type but does not know the producer.

In both forms of wine competitions, the judging is designed to create an even playing field. However the individual preferences of the judges may influence the success or failure of a wine in that competition. For this reason, multiple expert judges with years of training and tasting a wide variety of wines are used for wine competitions. Results are then averaged between the judge’s cumulative scores.

Scoring Criteria

Wine competitions and judging come in different formats, but all judging is designed to assess the following quality and characteristics of the varietal before the judge:

  • Appearance (colour and clarity)
  • In glass characteristics (nose or bouquet)
  • In mouth characteristics (palate, flavour)
  • Finish or aftertaste (residual flavour)

Based on these guidelines, the overall character of the wine can be determined such as complexity, balance and finish. From individual observations, faults are established that detract from the overall score. Faults may also have practical applications such as the unsuitability of a wine for long term storage.

Wine Competitions Ratings Scales

There are a number of rating scales from 5 to 160 points, but two of the most common are the 21 and 100 point systems. Some countries such as Australia plus many smaller regional to club-level competitions employ a 21 point scoring system. However, most wine markets worldwide now use a 100 point system (or a variation) originally developed by American wine critic Robert Parker. This made it easy for consumers to rank wines based on the higher number they would see in literature or on tags on liquor store shelves, and arguably gave more flexibility to the rating system resulting in less over inflated ratings. The reality is most wines score above a 70, or at least those you would want to review. Plus marketers love marketing a 96 point wine. It looks terrific on the tag and helps sales volumes. For example, Robert Parker’s System starts at 50 and moves up from there, so even a mediocre wine will score a 70-79.

Wine competitions—medal haul

Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery medal haul — Comox, BC

Vancouver Island Wine Medal Winners

While sampling Vancouver Island wines, you will notice a number of them sporting medals from the Canadian Wine Championships and the Northwest Wine Summit. The Canadian Wine Championships are held annually for wines from across Canada, and the Northwest Wine Summit holds an annual competition for wines from Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. These competitions award gold through bronze medals as well as “Best of Class” and awards such as “Gold Medal Winning Wines under $15”. Both nominally ranked competitions, there are award winners sprinkled throughout the Island.

Score is Not Everything

As always score is not everything and it is your individual preference that determines what you take home. Use rankings and a judges experience as a guideline, but don’t let that detract from your experience. Remember, wines are living things and change over time. What may be a young, mediocre wine today could age very well to become a standout a few years down the road. In general, wines with higher acidity (low pH), good tannin structure, alcohol content below 13% or so and a higher residual sugar content (slightly sweeter) will age best. Happy tasting!


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