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Thursday 22 August 2019

How Australian wine shows really work

We are in peak Australian wine show season right now. From Sydney to Tasmania, judges have been swirling, sniffing and spitting. 

There are literally dozens of Australian wine shows every year – but the wine-drinking public generally have no idea how system works. 

First wins gold, second gets silver and third gets bronze? Nothing quite that simple. You can win a gold medal for coming 15th in a particular class. Sounds crazy? Stay tuned. 

Wine shows are designed as ways to sell wines using little gold stickers. 

From those run by Royal Agricultural Societies (e.g. Sydney Royal Wine Show), to smaller regional shows; niche shows like the Australian Sparkling Wine Show; private shows such as the Sydney International Wine Competition (where finalists are judged with food), and specialist international challenges (the Canberra International Riesling Challenge, for instance) the judging process is pretty consistent.

That's the case even at tiny sub-shows like the Taste of Tasmania, or even the Bream Creek Show.

To ensure that they are judged fairly, wines are grouped into classes according to their variety (or blend - and sometimes, their vintage). 

The judging panel comprises three industry experts (winemakers, media etc), who taste "blind"- with no knowledge of what the wines are - and in silence. 

Once all the wines from a class have been tasted, the panel compares scores and impressions, and, in consultation with the panel chair, agrees a consensus score.

The highest scoring gold medal winners advance through to Trophy judging at the end of the show. Trophies, not gold medals, are the most coveted awards in the Australian system.

At the recent Royal Melbourne Wine Awards, no fewer than 32 trophies were awarded. 

It is possible that a panel could award a dozen gold medals in any particular class - or hundreds during one show. Any wine scoring over 18.5 points using the traditional 20-point system is scored gold. It takes 95 points under the the 100-point system. 

Winning over 17 points earns a silver medal and 15.5 or more merits a bronze. So not like the Olympics at all. 

There are also several other issues. Panel chairs may instruct judges to look for certain characteristics, perhaps ruling out very good, but heavily oaked wines. And some judges are able to identify wines from their winery - or even region - at 20 paces, giving them high scores and arguing their merits. 

Also, no judge's palate can hope to be as sharp on shiraz No.80 in a line-up as it was on No.1.

So if you are buying gold medallists thinking you are drinking the best of the best, think again.    

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