Dodgy Gold Medals

Some wine-show medals are more credible than others. If wine shows are to be gauged by their results (and they are), a European judging named Berliner Wein Trophy is looking a bit shaky.

Angove’s Butterfly Ridge Chardonnay 2009 (tasting) is a perfectly serviceable, well-made, but ultimately rather ordinary quaffer; fair value at a recommended $6.99. In a blind tasting of chardonnays of all price-levels I scored it 15/20 – below a bronze medal – and described it as competent but simple. Imagine my surprise then, when the bottles were unmasked, that it proudly wore three gold-coloured discs. One was for a gold medal at Selections Mondiales 2009 in Brussels; one for a gold medal at the 14th Berliner Wein Trophy 2010. The third gold disc – probably not an award at all, but certainly looking like one – read “Unter der Schirmherrschaft der OIV”, which I assume is a reference that one (or both) shows were run under the auspices of the OIV, the Office Internationale des Vins. A number of wine shows around the world, especially in Europe, are supervised by the OIV.

Having judged in quite a few of these over the years (in Brussels, Montreal, Santiago and Ljubliana) I’m familiar with the OIV system, and when I saw the Angove wine bearing these accolades I could only sigh. Because I know how it happens that undeserving wines such as this get to win high awards in such competitions. A look at the Berlin show’s website reveals other Australian wines to win gold medals: Yellow Tail ’09 Cabernet Sauvignon (tasting which has 11 grams per litre of sweetness) and Barokes Bubbly Chardonnay Semillon, a cheap and very ordinary (I’ve tasted it) non-vintage wine which comes in a 250ml can.

My heart sinks when I see evidence of these aberrations, because they help undermine the public credibility of wine show awards in general. I’ve been active in show judging for 24 years and would like to think gold medals won in any arena are roughly equivalent – notwithstanding that in some foreign competitions a gold is only the second-highest medal (with ‘grand gold’ at the apex).

The problem is that the competence of judges in many wine shows is sub-standard. This is heresy, of course. It’s a kind of unspoken rule on the wine judging circuit that one doesn’t run down anyone else.

I’ve long felt that the ability and experience of some of these judges is suspect. But you never know for sure, because there’s no way to check on the work done by judges in these shows. You never get to discuss wines, so you cannot tell what your fellow judges think of any wine, nor how competent their palates are.

The judging is conducted quite differently to the Australian and New Zealand system, which emphasises consultation – following a blind tasting, of course. In the OIV system, a large jury of about six or seven people (itself a problem, in my view) tastes one wine at a time, and each juror scores it on a template; the glass is taken away and the next one is brought, and so on. No comparison is possible between samples, which is a shortcoming. And there’s no discussion, during or after the tasting. Worse, from my viewpoint as a writer: even after it’s all over and you’ve gone home, you’re not allowed to know what you’ve tasted.

As well, the wines are arbitrarily bracketed. So, for example, in one class I judged there were Australian shiraz, Barolo, Californian cabernet and zinfandel, and more, all intermingled. We should judge apples with apples and oranges with oranges.

But to return to the judges. The numbers on the score-sheets are fed into a computer and a result is spat out. Lack of discussion is meant to rule out the risk of a single, highly-vocal juror swaying other jurors with a persuasive tongue. But it also means consensus is unlikely. From what I’ve seen of the way these multi-national panels judge, the scoring can be all over the place, and the wine that triumphs is likely to be the one that offends the fewest judges. Hardly a recipe for finding great wines.

The scoring templates usually include a mark for such considerations as limpidity, intensity of aroma, freedom from faults, and so on, and at some shows we had a template which required a mark for something called ‘franchise’. But nobody was able to illuminate me as to what was meant by franchise! At another show, a fellow juror swallowed everything and by the end of the morning was drunk – and probably not very useful.

Under this system, a $7 wine made from Murray Valley grapes, probably high-yielding and heavily irrigated, with residual sugar, no complexities from winemaking techniques, and no contact with high-quality oak barrels, wins gold medals. What sort of message does that send to the consumer?

No judging procedure is perfect. But I firmly believe that the Australian / New Zealand show judging system is the best in the world. And our judges are also some of the best.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, February – March 2011.


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