Winners and losers at the Wine Olympics

WINE: Bland wines that offend nobody tend to do well in panel-based awards

WINE:Bland wines that offend nobody tend to do well in panel-based awards. But that said, wine awards offer a certain reassurance

A BOTTLE SITTING ON my desk has no less than eight gold medals displayed across its chest, a true Michael Phelps of a wine. Walk through the aisles of your local wine shop or supermarket and you will see bottle after bottle with a circular disk boasting of an award of some sort. But do they actually mean anything?

There are a few dubious competitions where any wine entered will win a prize of some sort. The proud producer can then market the wine as award winning. However, most competitions take themselves more seriously. In France, there are a number of wine fairs, with the Concours des Grand Vins de France Mâcon probably the best known, and frequently seen on little round stickers decorating bottles.

The Australians adore their wine competitions and hold a series of hotly contested mammoth taste-offs every year. The ultimate prize is the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy, awarded to the best young red wine at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. The winning producer can expect a massive boost in sales and a place in history. It has been rumoured that some winemakers are offered a large bonus if they succeed in winning the prize.


In the UK, the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards both claim to be the largest wine competition in the world. The International Wine Challenge boasted 9,000 entries this year with 120 trophies and a host of other awards. Decanter claims 14,120 wines, 400 judges and 146 trophies. Cynics point out that, as stickers are sold to producers or importers, there is an incentive to hand out as many awards as possible. However, too many awards will result in the value of the accolade decreasing over time.

All of these competitions are judged blind or “half-seen”, meaning the tasters will be given some information, such as the grape variety or the region. This isn’t cheating; it simply gives you an idea of what you should be looking for in the wines. It also means you don’t spend time trying to guess where the wines come from. Panels of experts assess wines from various parts of the globe. The winners receive regional awards or move on up to the overall finals, where the big trophies are given out.

Having sat on many wine-tasting panels in the past, I find that there are certain disadvantages to them. Tasting by committee tends to do away with the really interesting wines, leaving only bland wines that offend nobody but don’t really excite either. Frequently a very good young wine does badly, as it really needs time to open up. Equally, at times more traditional, less obvious wines lose out to big powerful fruit-bombs, which invariably taste far less impressive over dinner.

With the demise of The Best of Wine in Ireland, a book I edited for several years, we have fewer wine awards here. One annual event is the National Off-Licence Association (Noffla) Gold Star Awards. I have been a judge in this competition several times. A number of importers, all of whom are members of Noffla, select wines for consideration by two panels. The wines are tasted blind in specific categories, such as New World red under €8, with a winner in each of 15 categories. More than 600 wines are entered in total. This may not be as comprehensive as the bigger competitions, but the wines are all available here, unlike the winners of some of the “foreign” awards. It also means plenty of good, reasonably priced wines are included.

Are jury-based awards, done under blind-tasting conditions, better than a personal opinion? It depends on the opinion, but if you use a book analogy, the winner of the Man Booker Prize sells in massive numbers each year. However, books, like wine, are a matter of personal taste. Sometimes I would prefer to read the views of one trusted writer than listen to the combined wisdom of many. But we all seek superlatives in everything – and wine awards seem to offer a certain reassurance.


Amalaya White 2011, Cafayate, Argentina, 13.5%, €12.99This wine was the winner of the Decanter international trophy for best dry aromatic under £10. Cafayate, in the far north of Argentina, has a cooler climate than Mendoza, the country's main wine-producing region. It is proving ideal for white wines and lighter reds. Torrontes is Argentina's answer to Sauvignon Blanc. This is one of the best examples I have come across this year, with a floral nose, lively refreshing orange and peach fruits finishing dry. Interestingly, the winemaker blended in a little Riesling to give the wine backbone, and it works a treat. Stockists: Matson's Wine Store, Bandon; Red Island Wine, Skerries; Enowine, Monkstown and IFSC; Mitchell Son, Chq and Glasthule; JM Vintners, Rush; Fallon Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin.

Domaine de Villemajou 2010, Corbières, Gerard Bertrand, 14%, €18.99This won two pieces of silverware at the International Wine Challenge: the Carignan trophy and the Corbières trophy. It is a big wine, rich in dark fruits, liquorice and herbs, with some spicy new oak, and a dry finish. This is one to try with beef casserole flavoured with Mediterranean herbs. Stockist: O'Briens.

Tiki Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough, 13%, €14.99This won Noffla white wine of the year. I handed a glass of this to my in-house Marlborough Sauvignon expert, who said "it tastes just like Marlborough Sauvignon should". So, fresh aromatic with decent clean, green fruits, and a squeeze of lime. This is a well-made wine to enjoy solo or with fish. Stockists: Wicklow Arms, Delgany; Deveney's, Dundrum; the Vintry, Dublin 6; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Londis, Malahide; On the Grapevine, Dalkey.

Cousino Macul Cabernet Sauvignon Antiguas Reserva 2010, Valle del Maipo, Chile, 14%, €14.95This was named Noffla red wine of the year. It is an attractive medium-bodied cabernet with slightly earthy but elegant blackcurrant fruits, hints of spice and a smooth dry finish. Try it with roast beef or lamb. Stockists: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Deveney's, Dundrum and Rathmines; the Vintry, Dublin 6; McCabes, Blackrock; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Sweeneys, Hart's Corner, Glasnevin; McHughs, Artane and Kilbarrack; Martin's, Fairview; Lilac Wines, Fairview; Baggot Street Wines; Hollands, Bray; O'Donovans, Cork; McCambridge's, Galway; Grenham's, Ballinasloe; Knights, Shannon; Macguinness Wine Merchants, Dundalk; Next Door off-licences; the Old Stand, Mullingar; Paul's, Donegal.

John Wilson

John Wilson

John Wilson, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a wine critic