For Sale: Wine Awards

If you’ve been following any wine media recently you might have noticed that it is currently the season of wine awards. The time of the year where medals are handed out to wines from all over the world by various wine award groups. Or perhaps you’ve just noticed them in the supermarket or your local wine shop and have always wanted to know more.

While medals and honors certainly serve a purpose to some wine consumers, wine producers and the award issuing groups themselves (more on that later), there are people on either side of the fence when it comes to their reliability. I, for example, am automatically biased towards wines that have award stickers on them, specifically the ones that have more than one and believe me, I’ve seen some with TEN! On a recent trip to Franschhoek, South Africa; Annabelle and I visited a popular producer to taste some of their wines. We were presented their Chardonnay which was covered in golden stickers from top to bottom, arranged in a pyramid shape. Our pourer introduced the wine and exclaimed “these are all of the wine’s awards, shaped like a Christmas tree and the present lays underneath” and he pointed to the label under them all. It was awfully cheesy. We cringed, hard. Were we supposed to think that this was the best Chardonnay in the world? I’ve never seen a wine with that many awards, so it must be, right? But that’s obviously not the case. This wine wasn’t being traded like hot stocks, as many French Chardonnays do, so what’s going on here?

In this post I set out to find out, are these awards really worth anything? Does it mean those wines are better ? And how do the award systems really work? If you are curious too; read on!

Image via WOSA_NL Instagram

While there are many different groups handing out medals, for the purpose of this post I am going to focus on the two of the largest organizations; Decanter World Wine Awards & the International Wine Challenge.

Decanter World Wine Awards

DWWA 2018 Results

Total wine entries: 16,903

  • Commended: 3395
  • Bronze: 7073
  • Silver: 3447
  • Gold: 439
  • Platinum: 149
  • Best in Show: 50

Out of the 16,903 entries, a whopping 14,553 walked away with some kind of medal. That equates to a 86% chance of any wine getting some kind of award. Admittedly there are fewer Best in Show and Gold than Silver and Bronze and so on, but the total number of medals given out just seems far too high – considering that most consumers will see any of these awards, see the Decanter logo and assume that they are great. I am not saying that these wines are bad, actually at least one wine I know which received a Best in Show medal, I do think deserves it, but the other 16,902? Hm.

For the wines to be entered for the competition there is an entry fee of EUR 200 per bottle. For the 2018 run of 16,903 bottles, that netted Decanter a cool 3,380,600 EUR.

Then let us not forget that the wineries now have incentive to purchase the medal stickers themselves! Another incentive to give out as many medals as possible. Via the Decanter shop, the wineries can purchase medal stickers and their website specifically mentions how to order of up to 250 000 (per wine) – so just think of the income they are making in total.

Decanter medal award shop.

I am aware it must cost a lot to run such a large tasting and it does give budding winemakers much-needed exposure but you always have to keep in mind that there is usually a commercial interest in mind with such wine awards.

International Wine Challenge

The IWC do not release the number of total entries that they receive for judging but it’s likely below the number of entries that Decanter receive. As they are technically in competition with other wine challenges, it wouldn’t look good to admit that they receive fewer wines. If they did receive more, you can be damn sure they would mention it.

IWC 2019 Results

  • Trophy: 126
  • Gold: 420
  • Silver: 2,141
  • Bronze: 3,209
  • Commended : 2,657

Excluding their separate Great Value award category, for 2019 that’s a total of 8,553 awarded wines. IF they did receive as many wines as DWWA 18, that’s still over 50% wins. Just like Decanter, they charge an entry fee for every bottle as well as the medal and trophy stickers for all six categories.

In closing, you simply can’t take for granted that every wine with an award sticker is better than one without.

In fact, the best wines out there are almost guaranteed to not enter their wines into award competitions like these. You can read about two great examples in our next article about Vina Tondonia & Torroja, which are absolutely stellar wines at great value that you would completely miss out on, if you only shop for medals.

What are your thoughts on wine awards? Let us know in the comments!