The Confusing World of Wine Competitions

Medals and scores help sell wine. But it’s not that simple. Not all competitions or critics are equal and, just as crucially, they do not necessarily operate in the same way.

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Scoring wine quality
Scoring wine quality

Where a gymnast or a skater would expect judges at a regional, European, international or Olympic event to follow a common process, a wine producer submitting their wine to a number of wine competitions may have little idea of the diverse ways in which it will be assessed and possibly rewarded.

Various scoring rules

For example, a wine that has been given a gold medal at one of the 20 or so competitions operating under OIV rules must have received at least 85 points out of 100. A wine with that score would only win a Bronze at the Decanter Wine Awards or the International Wine Challenge in London. For Meininger’s Mundus Vini in Germany, the requirement for Gold is 90. The small number of wines that get 95 points or more receive a Grand Gold, an award also given by OIV events — for wines with a score of 92 or more.

Background information 

The information provided to tasters varies too. If one compares a contest that follows the OIV rules with, say, the Decanter Awards, in the former events panels are not told whether they are tasting a German Riesling or a Washington State Chardonnay or vice versa. All they know is that the contents of their glass are white and of a particular vintage and that they fall within one of three levels of sweetness. At the Decanter event, by contrast, they will be told the country and most likely region where the wine was produced, and the panel chair, who usually has some knowledge and expertise in those factors will generally be expected to provide some background to the wines. In other words, typicity is treated as a predominant factor. There are positive and negative implications to this. A highly ‘typical’ example might delight fans of a particular style while having little appeal to a large number of wine drinkers.

Different evaluation methods

Mundus Vini and the IWC both take a middle ground between these approaches, but they differ in the way their judges assess the wines and allocate awards.

  • At the UK event, which drew its inspiration from competitions in Australia and New Zealand, tasters are simply asked to give each sample a score, bearing in mind the medal it would give. They then share their verdicts and agree amongst themselves what award – if any – it should get. There is no limit to the proportion of medals that are given, but in practice, it is usually between 35-45%.
  • Mundus Vini began as an OIV competition and tasters there still have to complete a rigorous scoring sheet that allocates marks for appearance, nose and palate. They are also required to indicate specific aromas and flavours, allowing the competition organisers to produce the descriptive pictograms for every medal-winning wine that appear on the website. A strict 40% limit is also applied to the number of medals.
MUNDUS VINI Summer Tasting 2023 (Photo: AD LUMINA)
MUNDUS VINI Summer Tasting 2023 (Photo: AD LUMINA)

Local or international tasters

At an Australian or US competition, almost all of the judges will be from the ‘home’ country. At Mundus Vini – and at all OIV events - there will be a large number of international tasters, each of whom brings their own experience. Again, there are arguably positive and negative arguments for both models. In Australia, historically, especially, where the same tasters often judged at several competitions, there was said to be the danger of ‘group-think’ that could jeopardise the chances of unusual styles. On the other hand, this tended to mean that wines would get similar medals from several contests. Having a broader range of palates may improve the chances of a wider range of wines, but it also explains why each may end up with a wider range of awards.

Number of samples

The way the wines are presented and the number varies too. Australian competitions, in particular, famously used to subject their panels to what seemed to be ludicrously large numbers of wines. On occasion, this meant them having to assess up to 200 samples in a single day, including, for example, 150 examples of ‘current vintage Chardonnay”. These numbers were only possible because so many of the tasters were winemakers, often from big companies, who were used to this kind of challenge.

These leviathan sessions are now a thing of the past, but judges in many competitions will still have to taste significantly more than the 45 maximum imposed by the OIV.

At Mundus Vini, samples are brought individually by service staff who pour them into the tasters’ glasses. They are then judged one at a time. At the IWC and a number of other events, the bottles are brought to the tasters’ table – in bags to hide their identity and in batches of around a dozen. This allows the judges to choose the order in which they want to assess the wines which, again has its pros and cons.

Discussion rules

One rule that all serious competitions naturally share is the ban on discussion during the tasting of each sample. But some events ensure this by placing the participants in individual booths, while most allow them to share the same space. At some competitions tasters stand; at others they are seated. In many New World events, white laboratory coats are customarily worn.

Finally, there is the role of the panel and, if there is one, general president or chair. Under OIV rules, “If the President of the jury deems useful, he/she may ask the director of the competition for a second tasting of the sample by another jury. In the case in which the director of the competition responds to this request, only the score of the second jury shall be taken into account.”

In Australia, the overall chair of the competition has the authority to personally override a panel verdict. At the IWC, a group of ‘super-jurors’ retaste every sample and, if two agree, have the prerogative of giving a higher or lower award than the panel judges – or denying one completely. At Mundus Vini, the competition directors take a similar collegiate view but only retaste wines where there has been a very significant variation in scores. Where appropriate, they can decide to send controversial wines for retasting by another panel.

Reputation, seriousness and integrity

Wine tasting and assessment is a human activity and there is no perfect way to do it. Unsurprisingly, given their varying methods, wine competitions come to varying verdicts, as do individual critics. In both cases, however, ultimately what matters is the reputation they have earned for seriousness and integrity.

Since its launch Mundus Vini has become Germany’s number one competition and arguably the most respected in Europe. The wine producers who submit their wines to its Spring and Summer tastings know that its medals are hard-won and that they are sufficiently respected to help them sell wine. And ultimately, that’s what matters.

HERE you find the results of the MUNDUS VINI Summer tasting.

1,676 award winners from 36 countries, judged by 140 international wine experts: that's the result of the second MUNDUS VINI tasting of 2023. 

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