Does a wine with a medal guarantee success?

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Geschatte leestijd: 15 minutes

Discover the secret behind the brilliance of a medal on French wine bottles: is it just a shiny lure or a real promise of quality? A glimpse into the world of medals and wine competitions, where expert judges decide which bottles are worth their weight in gold.

Especially in the French supermarché, you come across them a lot: bottles of wine with a medal. For most consumers, an excellent help in the often difficult choice of a fine bottle of wine. After all, a medal is more or less a guarantee that the wine is “technically” good. The color is good, the aroma intensity and fragrances are fine, and the taste is clean and flavorful. In short, the wine is balanced. A good buy.

A medal is called in French: macaron
In French, a medal is a Macaron

However, the medal says nothing about value for money. And about whether it’s your taste, not at all. But during a wine competition – called a Concours – an expert jury agrees that appearance, aroma and taste form a harmonious whole. The wine throws high marks in that regard.

With a medal wine, you almost never buy a pig in a poke. Of course, a single bottle may have something wrong with it. And the taste may disappoint, or the wine may not match a dish. But the wine on its own is generally fine. In other words, if you’re at a loss and want to go on a sure thing, buy a bottle of wine with a medal.

But when does a wine get a medal? And what is a Concours? Who are the dégustateurs, the tasters, the judges? How objective is the organization? And who has an interest in a medal?

A Concours is a wine competition

In France, wines may receive a medal after a jury has judged the wines during a Concours – a wine competition. A Concours is an annual event where professionals, semi-professionals and highly experienced amateurs judge wines supplied by wine producers according to a certain system. These are major events where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of judges taste thousands of wines.

A Concours is there for consumers on the one hand because medals are an excellent guide in the often not too transparent wine world. And on the other hand, it encourages winemakers – mostly from a competitive point of view – to produce the best possible wine.

There are currently over 100 Concours in France each year. Some examples.

Paris – Concours Général Agricole

Probably one of the oldest in France, the Concours Général Agricole in Paris is over 150 years old. At least the largest. This year (2023), 13,319 wines were judged of which 1,552 received gold, 1,348 silver and 543 bronze medals; a total of 3,443 wines.

Mâcon – Concours des Grands Vins de France

A somewhat smaller but still very authoritative one is the Concours des Grands Vins de France de Mâcon (since 1954, and is the largest in the eastern part of France. In 2022, 1,850 judges tasted 7,863 wines. Overall, 29.5% of the wines received medals: gold for 1,084 wines, 572 received silver and 640 received bronze medals.

Lyon – Concours International du Gamay

A good example of a somewhat smaller and specialized competition is the Concours International du Gamay in Lyon. Only wines made from the Gamay grape qualify. In January 2023, at the 13th Concours International du Gamay, 168 judges rated 729 wines. The wines come from France, Switzerland, Italy and the United States. A total of 229 wines received medals: 119 gold and 110 silver.

At the end of this Concours, a “grand jury” composed of several experts – two sommeliers, an oenologist, a cellar master and an experienced amateur – again blindly tasted a number of the gold medal-winning wines, to finally choose the best Gamay in the world 2023. Winner this year was the Côte de Brouilly 2020 from Domaine Nicole & Romain Chanrion.

Organization and methodology

For the organization of a Concours, it is very important that a Concours be as objective as possible for both the consumer and the winemaker. Because a medal is particularly commercially attractive. It is almost a guarantee, especially with limited editions, that the wine will sell out in no time. And consumers must be able to trust that with a medal wine they are not still making a bad buy. Hence, there are strict requirements for the organization and judges.

The way to rate wines varies by Concours. The Concours in Mâcon lets judges judge the wine’s appearance, aromas, taste and harmony by ticking whether the perception is Excellent, Très Bien, Bien, Convenable or Médiocre (excellent, very good, good, suitable or very poor). The assessment of the wines is somewhat general.

Armonia, organizer of Concours with a high standard

The Concours International du Gamay in Lyon and the Concours des Grands Vin du Beaujolais, organized by Armonia of Limas, have a high degree of “demonstrable and visible” objectivity. They clearly go a further than the Concours of Mâcon.

For example, every competition organized by Armonia has ISO 9001 certification and is officially approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

In addition, medals may be awarded only if the wine competition appears on the DGCCRF list of approved competitions of the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Both of Armonia’s Concours are on this list.

Systematics Armonia

Wine review form as used by Armonia
Wine Review Form

Competitions at Armonia have a points-based system that meets the requirements of the OIV in Dijon, the International Organization of Vine and Wine. In a simple way (with smileys), Armonia lets the judges judge the wines. By noting corresponding points and adding them up, judges get an idea of whether a wine might receive a medal.

By the way, the wine bottles are packed beyond recognition. The original capsule has been removed, and the wines are all uncorked and fitted with new seals. There is a number on the neck of the bottle that corresponds to the number on the assessment form.

Judges judge the wines based on:

  • appearance – color, thickness, brightness
  • the intensity of the aromas – the “fragrance volume”
  • aroma quality – complexity, purity, fragrance richness
  • flavor intensity – the “flavor volume”, onset and finish
  • the quality of flavor – acids, tannins, sugars, complexity, purity, richness of flavor
  • the harmony of the wine – balance, integral assessment

Award points

A limited number of points can be awarded per subject; in total, a wine receives a maximum of 100 points. Furthermore, the form indicates whether a wine has cork or flaw. The wine is then out of competition.

Wines with 86 or more points receive a gold medal. Wines with 75 points or more receive a silver medal. A wine with more than 75 points does not automatically receive a medal because the number of medals is limited. The final verdict is the average number of points awarded by the jury from a panel of judges, with the French government stipulating that a maximum of 1/3 of the wines offered at a competition may receive a medal.

According to the instructions for judges, the gold, silver and bronze medals are not comparable to places 1, 2 and 3 in a competition, but represent the level of quality.

The origins of competition in the Beaujolais

Victor Gomez, owner and director of Armonia of Limas, France, talks about how, at the beginning of the last century, Beaujolais winemakers developed the habit of getting together as soon as harvest and vinification were complete, and before the hard work of pruning. ‘Each guest took two bottles, to show his colleagues the quality of that year’s production. A great time to compare the wines with the others.

In the 1920s, under the leadership of French senator and mayor of Odenas and son of a winemaker Émile Joseph Louis Bender, this friendly competition was transformed into a competition – a Concours – reserved exclusively for winemakers.

The Concours des Grands Vins du Beaujolais is a unique Concours in France given the number of samples presented, more than 700 samples from the same wine region: Beaujolais.

The judges, the dégustateurs, who are they anyway?

Well, I am one of them by now. And by now I have had the opportunity to participate in several Competitions. Always a special and very educational experience.

I sat at jury tables with, among others, a lab assistant who does technical wine analysis, an oenologist (winemaker) in the Mâconnais, a salesman of wine from Lyon, a wealthy wine collector of mostly Burgundies, an owner of an installation company, a lawyer from Sion, Switzerland whose father owns a vineyard, a buyer for a supermarket chain and a graphic designer who is an ambassador for Hungarian wine in France. In short: a motley crew of wine professionals, semi-professionals and highly experienced amateurs.

The credibility of the judges – and the medals they award – is based on the skill and experience of those tasters. The Concours Grands Vins de France (Mâcon) has established criteria. A juror must:

  • belong to the wine sector
  • have taken a trial course
  • being a member of a tasting club
  • preferably also be official in other competitions

When does a vintner enter a competition?

Self-selection

Before a wine producer sends a wine for a Concours, a sort of self-selection takes place. Because even though the winemaker takes pride in all his wines, he often knows all too well where his wine stands in relation to previous years or from other winemakers.

And just sending a wine is a waste. The cost of entry is easily €70 per wine, and if a wine does not receive a medal, there is no feedback of tasting notes. So the winemaker then knows nothing; except that he did not get a medal.

Her customers are not medal-buyers

A few months before the Concours des Grands Vins de France 2022 in Mâcon, I was in the Beaujolais. I asked Célia Matray, winemaker at Domaine Matray in Juliénas, whether she was going to compete in the Concours of Mâcon. No, was the simple answer. ‘My customers are not ‘medal buyers.’ I supply the regional hospitality industry and sell a lot to individuals.’ She can imagine, though, that wine producers who supply to the retail channel could use a medal because it definitely boosts supermarket sales.

(What is notable, by the way, is that the large, prestigious wine producers are consistently absent from these types of wine competitions. After all, they have more to lose than to win).

Cave du Château de Chénas

After the 2022 Mâcon Concours, I spoke to Didier Rageot, oenologist at Cave du Château de Chénas, they manage 210 hectares of vineyard and produce all ten Cru’s from the Beaujolais. ‘The main reason for participating in a Concours is to let consumers discover the quality of our wines. We can also benchmark with the competition and continue to improve the quality of our wines based on the results.’

Rageot continues: “We participate in quite a few Concours, because in addition to Mâcon we are also present at Concours Général Agricole de Paris, Concours des Grands Vins du Beaujolais, Tastevinage des Chevaliers du Tastevin, Grumage des compagnons du Beaujolais and we send wine to the International Challenge Gilbert et Gaillard. The Concours in Paris is one of the most important, though. For Mâcon we sent in 16 wines of which 4 got a medal, which was a little less than usual.’

Château de Chénas received gold medals at Mâcon 2023 for the Juliénas Château d’Envaux 2022, silver medals for the Juliénas 2022 and Fleurie 2022 and bronze medals for the Régnié 2022 and the Moulin-à-Vent 2022.

Nice video about Cave du Château de Chénas in which Rageot emphasizes the importance of medals.

Critique

Disqualification

What is striking is that it is mostly people who criticize wine competitions, who think that they are good tasters themselves and that you have to be a professional above all to be able/authorized to judge wine. What’s unfortunate about that is that by doing so, they actually declassify the average wine lover as an ignorant and incompetent wine drinker. Because apparently a small elite gets to decide which wines can be drunk. All the while, it’s about the wine-drinking consumer; not the egos or the drive for recognition of a small group.

Transparency

Yes, it is true that there are many wine competitions – even outside France. So it is complicated for consumers to determine which Concourses matter. And wine competitions may not be comparable among themselves because of different criteria and judging methods. In addition, the assessment is somewhat subjective. Because it is quite dependent on personal preference, the competition between judges and different conditions worthy of tasting, such as light and temperature. On top of that, consumers often think a wine with a medal is of higher quality than it actually is.

It is also true that there are many different types of judges; which, by the way, is a good thing in my opinion. Indeed, an exclusive jury of only professionals would give a distorted picture. Because in the end, what matters is the consumer who drinks the wine. So wine competitions benefit from a balanced mix of professionals and knowledgeable amateurs.

Been fooled

The playful hoax of the Belgian consumer program On n’est pas des pigeons with the participation of Eric Boschman, Belgium’s best sommelier in 1988, caused a stir. The program’s editors sent the most inexpensive wine from the Delhaize supermarket to the prestigious Gilbert et Gaillard magazine. The €2.50 wine was given a new label with the resounding name Le Château Colombier, a nod to the name of the consumer program – pigeons are pigeons and colombier is a dovecote.

To complete the falsification, they attached a laboratory report of a much more expensive quality wine. And what even the editors didn’t think possible: the wine received a gold medal.

What is forgotten in the criticism of medal awards in this case is that Gilbert et Gaillard is a publisher. Their modus operandi is simple. Wine producers, importers and merchants send a bottle of wine for a fee to be reviewed by a tasting panel. Gilbert et Gaillard is not transparent about who is on the tasting panel and how the wines are judged. There is no control. It is an extremely lucrative revenue model for these types of publishers.

So to now compare medals awarded by an interested publisher to medals as the result of judging by hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer disinterested judges is out of place.

French government

And perhaps contrary to what is often suggested, the French government is closely involved in wine competitions. In order to organize the competitions and award medals, a Concours must be registered with the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The list is published in the Official Bulletin for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention of the Directorate General CCRF. Incidentally, publisher Gilbert & Gaillard does not appear on the list.

Enrollment must meet a number of requirements:

  • Where and when the competition will take place
  • How jurors are selected
  • Enclosing the by-laws
  • Wine rating information sheet
  • A model of the awards given
  • Afterwards, a report and results of the competition

All’s well that ends well

Despite the jumble of Concours and the criticism, medals are still very useful as a kind of basic indication of quality, especially for consumers not very familiar with wine. However, it is always a good idea to consult multiple sources when choosing a bottle.

But even better is to still visit the wine store for sound advice; and the perfect wine and food combination.

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