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The Bacchus Awards: The Question of Validity in Wine Competitions

Gabriella and I were recently asked to help judge at the UEC’s (Spanish wine tasting union) bi-annual Bacchus awards. Held in Madrid at the posh and very right leaning social club “The Casino”, whose membership is no longer open to anyone other than the offspring of current members, the judging took place in a room that could host court for any royal wedding, coronation or banquet ball. The event is a bit over the top.

The tasting itself is held double blind, meaning we know nothing of the wines region, producer, or country of origin and only grouped into “styles” something that is at times very loosely defined (semi sweet sparkling), I dove into the first 40 wines.

The first day was exhausting, which I know is a term that those not in the wine world laugh at when told that I had to taste all these wines, but the truth is, is that tasting like this can wipe you out. Each sip you find yourself straining to differentiate the current offering in your mouth from the countless others you previously imbibed. Also, because I’m not a wine contest believer, it felt like I was cheating myself when I occasionally made snap judgments that I knew effect the possible sales of the wine. Each wine is opened, poured, judged, within the span of 10 minutes or so, leaving my mouth raw from tight tannins and my nose numb from powerful fruit bombs.

This year, 1,624 wines entered from 21 countries. And of those 1,624 only a max of 30% will win awards. Consequently, many regions that would normally avoid entering a wine competition, for reasons of cost or otherwise, find themselves stuffing the ballot box. Slovenian wines, Brazilian wines, Estonian wines, Greek wines, etc. all hoped to grab a little slice of fame, while bringing light to their yet undiscovered corner of the wine world. The break down of wines entered were: 336 white, 93 rosé, 1017 red, 107 sparkling, 48 fortified, 14 late harvest, and 9 dried grape wines. As you can see, this is hardly a full snapshot of the wines produced internationally. And for this reason, I want to quote a fellow judge who when asked if the wines selected as “tops” were really the best, his answer was, “They are the best wines submitted to the contest”, a lofty but fair critique, and there in lies the rub.

First off, the wines submitted that did not win an award will never be known beyond the winery who submitted them and the sommelier who dutifully poured them to us. So there is no way to know what wines showed poorly. Second, of the wines that won, more than one wine, I believe, achieved its award ahead of someone else’s who is more deserving. Here are our reasons why this occurred:

  • The toughest critique of the system is the speed with which we all judge. More than once, as we were marking down our scores, I wondered what would happen if we let the wine sit and open up. Testing this theory, I revisited several reds 10 minutes later only to discover that a few had completely changed. Experienced tasters may be better at telling which will open and which will not, but having tasted with experts many times, one of the reasons why we all love wine is its ability to surprise! Without more time, only first impressions will ever earn the wine an award or banish it to the spit bucket. If this logic were applied to my own life, my lovely wife of 7 years would not be beside me today! Our love blossomed after a few back and forths and at least one point where we both found the other less than desirable.
  • Another issue is one of typicity versus uniqueness, which should be rewarded? A wine that is typical to its style, and fits its category, will often blend into a backdrop of similar wines, but does that make it unworthy of an award? Whereas after 30 wines, all in the same style of heavy reds, a “strange” or “unique” wine with a swagger to its walk will often catch your attention and lead you to either mark it a bit higher or lower. For example on the day of the big reds these are some of the countries wines we tasted: Spain, Portugal, France, Macedonia, Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Greece and Slovakia! In Spain alone, we had wine from over 11 DO’s. Now while we were supposed to be judging wines on their merits, no matter how experienced one is as a judge, you cannot help but be influenced by wines prior to even tasting them. Plus, if the wine is quite different from other wines previously tasted, the difference alone will be enough to influence your score, regardless of its quality.
  • Finally cultural experiences can sway you one way or the other. At my table of tasters, we had a Danish wine maker who lives in Spain, a Venezulan sommelier, a Spaniard who lives in Portugal, myself and a few other Spaniards who had wineries or were sommeliers. I know the diversity is there to balance out any biases, and to give a better average as it were. The problem though is that at PX phase of the tasting (yes this was incredibly difficult, and I’m glad it was the last round), there were people who it appeared had little experience with PX’s and therefore none of us agreed on much of anything. Some of the tasters were overwhelmed by the style, while others like myself found that while i know the style quite well, the back and forth between different weights caused me to question my own judgment. A style that is so strong and striking in contrast to others led me to think that these wines really deserve a better group of judges to discern the quality across the group. As trained judges, we should have the experience and training to discern and recognize quality when we see it, but imagine Retsina – a pine flavored wine from Greece – being sandwiched between two Sauvignon Blancs. Same styles, weights, and acidity levels, but the pine flavor could be considered a flaw if you thought these were all from the same region, while in reality for the retsina it would be considered a point of pride! The person with experience with Greek wines, would see this, but the person who only had an academic understanding the style might not.

Generally, the wines that won were all good wines. The greater issue is that the rare treasures may have slipped through the cracks because of their uniqueness. Sales will increase for the wines that won, but we hope that you the reader look past these “easy sales” and continue to seek out the wines without a medal or shiny ribbon. These are the wines that may have been more difficult to understand, or the ones not entered by a wine maker who felt his wines did not need scores or ribbons to sell!

Awards and competitions are a tool for the lazy salesman, and the non-inquisitive wine drinker. They are ready made “drink me” stickers to make your purchasing a bit easier. While sometimes these wines are indeed wonderful wines that deserve recognition, more often than not, they are no better than their sticker-less shelf companions. Go explore…


Ryan Opaz

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