Australian wine shows — a judge’s view

Most of Australia’s wine shows are packed into the last six months of the year to allow whites from the current vintage to be shown. From this burgeoning wine show scene come all those trophies, gold, silver and bronze medals adorning labels.

But what does all this glitter mean to a wine drinker? Are gongs really a good indicator of quality? The short answer is yes, but with some caveats, perhaps best illustrated by a judge’s eye view of a particular class being assessed.

Judges see nothing but wine-filled glasses lined up on numbered squares on a white table. Judges know that the wines are, say, dry rieslings from the current vintage – but nothing more.
Each of three judges and one or two associate judges, working in isolation (no discussion allowed at this stage) awards each wine a score out of 20 points.

Most Australian shows use this 20-point system. In theory this is sub-divided into three segments: a maximum of 3 points for appearance, 7 for aroma and 10 for flavour. In practice, most judges simply award an aggregate score based on an overall impression of a wine. 15.5 points equals bronze medal standard; 17.0 points silver and 18.5 gold.

After assessing the wines, judges and associates convene to compare notes.

The panel chair (the senior of the three judges) tallies the points as each judge calls a score for each of the wines. Typically, the majority of wines attract a narrow range of scores. These ‘consensus wines’ are simply aggregated (the associate judge scores are not included) to determine bronze and silver medallists and the also rans.

After this initial tally, the panel chair asks stewards to serve fresh glasses of all wine attracting a gold medal rating from any of the judges.

The judges and associates gather at one table – generally with the Chairman of judges — and now taste and discuss each gold-medal candidate in turn. This group tasting and discussion usually sees one or two gold medals awarded and another few candidates dropped back to a silver medal aggregate.

And what’s in the results of wine show judging for the consumer and the producer?

For the consumer, there’s a pretty reliable form guide. But it’s a guide to be viewed with healthy scepticism. To begin with, it’s not a race where there can be only one winner. In wine judging, in theory at least, every wine can be a gold medal winner.

And there’s the fact that the same wine receives variable scores in different wine shows. In part this reflects evolving aromas and flavours over time. But more than anything it shows that judges’ perceptions vary. As a general guide, a wine that wins medals consistently in a variety of shows is usually well ahead of the pack.

As well, bear in mind that many producers of benchmark wines choose not to enter wine shows. So trophies and gold medals, while a reliable guide to superior quality, do not imply that a wine is the best of its kind – just the best of its kind on a particular day in the opinion of a particular group of judges.

Producers enter shows both to win gongs and to benchmark. Hence, makers generally attend the exhibitors’ tasting after a show tasting their own wines against those from other regions and other makers.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007