Award-winning wines: Points scores, medal wins and what they mean

How to Drink Better: A competition win can mean soaring success for a wine, but not all present themselves for judgment

Q. If a wine has a medal on it, signifying success at a competition, does that mean it will be good?

A. Have you ever found yourself in a wine shop or supermarket, facing shelves filled with unfamiliar wines and wondered how to choose a decent bottle? I know how you feel. Even the world’s greatest experts do not know every wine from every producer in every vintage. To help you make a decision, some shops will display tasting notes or wine scores. Some bottles will have one or more stickers boasting a medal or trophy of some kind. Are these simply a marketing ploy or a genuine aid to buying wine?

Competition medals can be a useful guide to quality. For these, panels of experienced judges taste the wines ‘blind’ and award scores. The highest scoring wines win medals or trophies. Beware though, some competitions are cynical money-making exercises, where producers are charged a fee for each wine entered, and then receive a medal for virtually every wine. Both producer and organiser win – at the expense of the consumer. It is also worth remembering that most of the really good wines will sell without the aid of medals, so many producers never enter competitions.

The other sales aid is wine scores. Here, a small group of men and women exercise a huge influence on how well a wine will sell. The first journalist to use a points system was American critic Robert Parker. Back in the 1980s, he first wrote about Bordeaux in The Wine Advocate, his subscription-only magazine. Parker gave each wine a tasting note, often pulling no punches, and also a score out of 100 points. This was unheard of at the time. A wine receiving 80-89 points was judged to be between “barely above average’” to “very good”, 90-95 outstanding and 96-100 extraordinary. Anything less than 80 wasn’t really worth drinking.


For the first time, consumers could get a simple value judgment. Parker was fiercely independent at a time when many critics also worked in the wine trade. The magazine was a huge success, building a following among producers, trade professionals and consumers alike. A high score would lead to a stampede of buyers and make the reputation of a wine. A low score had the opposite effect.

Other publications such as The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have followed suit. British writers such as Jancis Robinson tend to prefer a 20-point system, others a three- or five-star rating. More recently, online sites such as Vivino and Cellartracker, where consumers post their tasting notes and scores, have become hugely successful.

Wine scores can have drawbacks. Critics try to avoid personal bias, but we all have favourite styles, and writers often give these wines higher scores. This is not a problem if you know their individual preferences. Parker for instance was known to prefer rich smooth alcoholic wines with lots of oak flavours. He didn’t like light, elegant wines. Many producers tailored their wines in the hope of improving their ratings.

A score cannot explain the style and character of a wine, only a tasting note can do this. And of course, sometimes critics are wrong. Tasting wine is subjective and depends on the time of day, the surroundings, how the taster is feeling and many other factors. I score every wine I taste to force myself to come to a qualitative decision, but I rarely print these.

Back to your experience in the wine shop. As the vast majority of wines are never tasted and critiqued, a wine that doesn’t boast a medal or high score may not be in any way inferior. These days, there are very few really bad wines, so if you know what grape varieties or regions you like, you are unlikely to go too far wrong.