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AWARDS WINE: Top drops

Fionnuala Synnott asks whether the benefits of winning an award extend beyond promoting the brand

Winning an international wine award, whether it’s from the IWSC, the IWC or Decanter, is a great achievement for a winery, both in terms of building its reputation and increasing its sales. A medal on a wine label can act as the ultimate USP on an otherwise anonymous supermarket shelf. But in addition to raising consumer awareness of the winning brand, international awards can raise the profile of a country by drawing attention to the quality of its wines.

In it to wine it

One of the downsides to these competitions and the commercial potential engendered by a win is that some wineries are criticised for making wines solely for the purpose of winning trophies and not to satisfy consumer demand. Paul Schaafsma, of McGuigan Simeon, is less convinced: “The results of these wine competitions can sometimes force people to question the criteria of the wine judge. I’m not sure I would react to what the judge thought unless he was particularly well-informed and knew what consumers really wanted. A lot of people are cynical about these awards and how they relate to commercial reality. The results often won’t be reflective of what consumers are looking for. For instance, Australian Syrah is often criticised by judges for being big and bold but consumers love it.”

Fistonich adds, “The wine industry tends to react to Parker, but if everyone just made wines in the style that he liked drinking, wine would be very dull.” 

By creating competition among wine producers, these awards can encourage producers to raise the bar when it comes to their winemaking. George Fistonich, founder of New Zealand winery Villa Maria, agrees: “Good people like a bit of competition. It’s a big buzz for winemakers when they win. If you don’t win a competition, it makes you question where you went wrong. Most winning sports teams watch replays of competitors’ performances – it’s the same with wine. People look at the different styles of wine that are winning. We always buy our competitors’ wines to see why they have won these prizes.”

This focus on quality winemaking can elevate the reputation of the category as a whole. In fact, according to Fistonich, “a huge amount of credit for the rapid rise in quality of New Zealand wine can be given to these competitions”.

Wine competitions can draw attention to any technical improvements that need to be made, be it in the winery or in the vineyard. “At one stage, New Zealand winemakers were overoaking their Chardonnay. They were also cropping their Pinot too heavily, which meant the wines didn’t have enough weight. New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon also tended to be a bit green so winemakers started to lengthen the ripening process. All of these things came to light thanks to the judges’ comments,” says Fistonich.

Paul Meihuizen, business development manager at South African winery Spier, agrees: “While they are a part of doing business in the UK, awards such as the IWSC trophy or similar do bring the focus back to quality. Awards competitions by their very nature keep producers’ eyes on the ball and can act as a benchmark.”

Paul Dunn, European director of Chilean brand Valdivieso, thinks these competitions are very important, even if they are subjective. “Major international competitions such as the IWC, Decanter and the Brussels competition add a lot of credibility, even if they are difficult to quantify in terms of sales.” In his opinion, these awards serve to reinforce the winery’s message: “We, as a winery, have been jacking up our quality and image in the past three years but the awards we have won this year show the trade that there has been an improvement in the quality of our wines. In this way, the international wine competitions endorse the message we are trying to get out there.” In Valdivieso’s case, the awards have also had very tangible commercial follow-up. Dunn explains: “Following our win, we are meeting with a major off-trade buyer, who used to stock Valdivieso wine but felt that the quality had slipped. I met him at the IWSC dinner and I am now about to carry out a tasting with him.”

Neil Hadley MW, export manager for Taylors Wines in Australia, says, “We run a simple but effective business plan that works on the idea that if you get the wine quality and value right, then everything else follows relatively naturally. Wine shows that recognise quality, sometimes in absolute category terms and sometimes in relative terms (eg, a category may be defined within a price band), are of tremendous importance to us because they endorse to the trade, media and public that we are doing the very thing that we claim – putting the wine first.”

He continues: “By aligning our entire reputation with this [quality] position, it tends to drive our focus on wine style and quality ever further, so in many ways, it’s a strategy which fuels wine quality improvement and thus customer satisfaction, which in turn fuels growth and business success. With a basic plan to build our business on wine quality, it is of great value to us that a worldwide wine show system exists that gives objective third-party endorsement to achieving our aim.”

Country focus

Wine competitions can put a country, particularly one whose wines are relatively unfamiliar, on the map. “New Zealand became exposed to the world through these competitions. A number of Masters of Wine, including Jancis Robinson, Robert Joseph and Anthony Rose, came out to New Zealand to do some judging. They then went back and spread the word, which has given New Zealand a fantastic reputation in the UK,” says Villa Maria’s Fistonich.

Paul Schaafsma, regional director, McGuigan Simeon, adds, “When an Australian wine wins an award, it does give some kudos to Australia. It is essential that all wineries, even boutique ones, enter these awards as they can raise people’s quality perception.” Dunn remarks, “In the past, Chile has been seen as good and constant but probably a little bit boring. But thanks to the work of Michael Cox, as the Wines of Chile ambassador, it is now seen as a very exciting category. These awards have made people think twice about Chile.”

But Spier’s Meihuizen disagrees: “In general, awards such as the IWSC are very much brand-focused rather than country-focused. Any award will help to raise the profile of the brand with the consumer. However, it is highly debatable as to whether this flows through to the country in question.”

Consumer reassurance
A gold medal on a bottle offers consumers reassurance that they will not be disappointed by their purchase. This is particularly important in the UK, where competition is rife and the sheer variety of wines on shelf often bewilders shoppers.

“The awards give consumers security. We can get a bit complacent but the reality is that, from a consumer perspective, there is a multitude of wines to choose from. Apart from the odd funny one, you have to be pretty good to get through these competitions,” says Fistonich.

There is no doubt that, when it comes to promoting your brand, wine shows and judges can be useful. “If you can put an award on the label, people will see it as an independent assessment of the value of the wine,” says Schaafsma.

Awards clearly raise awareness of the winning brand but they also serve another, less commercial, purpose. International wine competitions can act as a showcase for a country by showing off the quality of the wines produced there. As well as giving less established countries a boost by helping them build an international reputation, these competitions help to promote the wine industry as a whole. In a market that is often price-driven, international wine competitions bring the focus back to quality.  Whether or not this is a number one priority for consumers is another matter.

© db November 2007

Awards at a glance

International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC)

• The International Wine and Spirit Competition was founded in 1969 with the aim of promoting the quality and excellence of the world’s best wines, spirits and liqueurs

• The competition includes a two-stage judging process of professional blind tasting and technical (chemical and microbiological) analysis

• In 2005, the competition received approximately 5,000 entries from over 50 countries

• Entries are judged in award categories divided by variety, region and vintage

• Products with the highest mark are awarded “Best in Class” and are tasted a second time for national and international trophies

• Special Trophies are also presented, representing the very best of the year’s entries

Key dates

Northern Hemisphere Wines
Entry and samples delivery deadline: 1 March 2008

Southern Hemisphere Wines
South Africa: Entry and sample deadline, 1 July 2008
South American Countries: Entry and sample deadline, 5 August 2008
Australia: Entry and sample deadline, 12 August 2008
New Zealand: Entry and sample deadline, 26 August 2008

Entry and samples deadlines:
Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados, 29 February 2008

All other spirits
Entry and sample deadline, 30 April 2008

The Decanter World Wine Awards

• Entries are logged, wines are categorised and coded according to origin, type and price

• Wines are tasted in flights of 12, grouped by region, and in five price bands: up to £4.99, £5-£6.99, £7-£9.99, £10-£19.99 and £20+

• Wines are scored and given a grading: no award, commended, bronze, silver or gold

• Gold-medal wines are tasted a second time by the regional chairs for confirmation

• During the taste-off of gold medal-winning wines for each region, the best of each style is awarded a regional trophy

• Regional trophies are pitted against each other to decide the international trophy winners

Key dates

• Start date to submit entry form: 2 January 2008

• Final date to submit entry form: 7 March 2008

• Final date for wine delivery: 19 March 2008

• Judging week: 21-26 April 2008

• Results announced to trade: 20 May 2008 at the London International Wine Fair

• Results published: 3 Sept 2007

The International Wine Challenge (IWC)

• Over 9,000 entries received

• More than 40,000 bottles are logged, categorised and coded by grape variety, style, country and region of origin

• For the tasting process, wines are “flighted” into groups of eight to 14 wines of the same category, wrapped in a bag (to ensure the tasting is blind) and tagged

• In 2007, over 465 winemakers, merchants and writers from around the world took part in the judging process

• If a wine is judged faulty at any stage, a replacement bottle is found and the suspect bottle sent to the faults clinic for analysis

• First round, all wines entered are tasted and wines from particular regions are tasted against each other. Wines scoring above 85 points are deemed medal worthy and sent to the second round to join the “seeds”. Wines that score less than 84 are sent for re-tasting by the co-chairmen to ensure that a good wine has not been missed

• Second round: wines scoring above 84 points in round one are assessed again. Co-chairmen re-taste all wines to endorse judges’ decision, medals are confirmed, then the bottle’s identity is confirmed

• Final round: co-chairmen taste all gold medal winning wines against others in the same category, with the best considered for a trophy

• Judges decide the winners of special trophies and the champion wines

Key dates

• Final date for submission forms: 7 March 2008

• Final date for wine samples: 21 March 2008

• Judging: 14-25 April 2008

• Results announced to trade: 20 May 2008 at the London International Wine Fair

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