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Tuesday 18 October 2016

What, exactly, do those gold stickers mean on your bottle of wine?

You've probably read a story in your local newspaper about how an Australian cabernet or chardonnay was named “best in the world”. But it isn't.
You've almost certainly walked around your local wine store admiring the little shiny stickers on wine labels and believed that a gold medal indicates a wine won its class in a show. It didn't.

Many Australian wine companies are obsessed with their show results, covering their labels with gold, silver and bronze stickers from a multitude of shows.
But while the industry sees stickers as a major sales tool, the reality is that most consumers do not understand how the Australian show system works – and are easily manipulated.
You'd probably imagine that a wine that won a gold medal was first in its class, like at the Olympics, a silver medallist was second and a bronze medallist third. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
In wine shows any wine gaining a score of 18.5 out of 20 (or 95 out of 100) from the judges gets a gold medal. That could be as many as 20% of all the entries. Any entry scoring between 17 to 18.4 and gets a silver, and so on. 

At the 2015 Royal Melbourne Show, to take one random example, 169 gold medals were awarded, 314 silvers and 857 bronzes. Almost half the entries got a medal.
At shows, all the wines are tasted “blind” - without the judges knowing what they are.
The outright winner in any class earns a trophy – which is what you should be looking out for after the judges have finished sipping, swirling, tasting and spitting.
But the problem is that there are still hundreds of trophy winners out there in retail land.

There are over 70 officials wine shows in Australia (some far more important than others), several unofficial regional shows and dozens overseas.
Bigger companies can afford to enter their wines into myriad different shows (it is an expensive and time-consuming business), making themselves almost certain, by the law of averages, to earn some bling to enliven their labels. Others prefer to let their wines stand on their own merits.
You need to look very carefully at those label stickers to determine whether a wine won a bronze medal at Pine Gap Show, some tasting in Moldova, or a trophy at one of the major shows like Sydney or Melbourne.
I receive regular press releases saying: "Our shiraz is the best in Australia after winning the trophy at the [Insert Any Name You Like Here] Wine Show."

Or, if the show is in London, New York or Ljubljana and has an international field: "Our shiraz is the best in the world."

It's all nonsense. Winning a trophy at a wine show does not make your wine the best in Australia, or the world. It makes it the favourite of the small group of judges who tried it at that show. Usually at room temperature, and almost certainly without food.

Most wines, as you know, are enjoyed with food. And the whites and sparkling wines are almost always drunk chilled by consumers.

The reality is that a wine can win a trophy one week, and get a score of 14/20 the next. Different judges; different scores. But no one ever sends out a press release saying: "Our wine wasn't even good enough to win a bronze."

The wine show system in Australia is extremely good, particularly at the regional level, for winemakers to benchmark their wines against others from the same area. And for keen consumers to get to know some new producers who shine against their peers.

If more than a couple of panels (different judges; different shows) award trophies or gold medals to a particular wine then there is a pretty strong basis for assuming that it is a wine of excellent quality that appeals to winemakers, sommeliers and, sometimes, wine writers with educated palates.

If the judges of one show share similar palate opinions to you; excellent news all round. But they may not.

And remember that gold medal does not mean that a wine was the best in a show. It merely means it was in the top bracket.

And bear in mind that many wineries, particularly those in the upper echelons, do not enter their wines into shows. At all.
Penfolds would be on a hiding to nothing entering its benchmark Grange red in shows, only to see a barrage of “better than Grange” press releases from rivals should it fail to win.
Other wineries, particularly small ones, find entering shows is just too expensive. They prefer to persuade wine lovers to try their wines and make up their own minds.

The fact is that a lot of very good people with excellent palates give up a lot of their time to judge at shows "and help improve the breed". I'm in awe of the number of wines they can taste each day.
Stickers help sell wines. And that's the bottom line. But look closely and that gold-coloured sticker on your bottle may just say "Good with fish". Buyer beware.


  1. Thanks for this, Winsor. I was among those who misunderstood how it all works.

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