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How we judge wine at Decanter World Wine Awards

The aim, back in 2004, was a simple one. If ambitious: to create the world’s best wine competition. How was Decanter going to do it?

Competition founders Steven Spurrier and Sarah Kemp quickly realised that meeting this challenge depended on two key elements.

First, global talent. Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) had to attract the best wine judges: acute, experienced and wise palates, not just from the UK but from all around the world.

Secondly, the competition protocols had to help and guide those judges towards reaching conclusions, and making medal awards, that the wine world could and would respect.

The protocols, too, needed wisdom.

A little United Nations of wine

How, two decades later, has DWWA done? We can always improve – and that’s what we try to do every year. But in our 20th competition (in 2023), 45% of our judges travelled to the UK from around the world to judge with us, as many have now done for a decade or more.

Among our total judging cohort of 236 judges, we had 53 MWs – and many more leading specialist judges: not just respected journalists and authors, but also those from the buying community and the sommelier community (including 17 Master Sommeliers) whose daily work involves both scrutinizing wines and tracking the evolution of consumer tastes at first hand.

We’re immensely proud of our judging pool: a little United Nations of wine. If DWWA is the largest wine competition in the world (as it has been since at least 2013), those judges are a key reason.

We are also, after 20 years, very proud of our Senior Judges and Regional Chairs and the long-serving expertise and collegiate skills they bring to the competition.

All of our five Co-Chairs were originally Regional Chairs, and in their hands (and palates) rests the all-important, challenging task of ensuring judging consistency between panels, as well as eventually deciding which wines should compose our Best in Show selection and pick of Top Value Golds.

Discover DWWA judging in pictures

Competition protocols

Let’s start with first principles.

The main purpose of DWWA is to discover and draw attention to good or great wines of every sort, no matter what their origins, and regardless of producer identities.

It seems simple – yet there’s a potential conflict hidden inside those aims. Of course, DWWA has to be a strictly blind tasting, in order to conceal producer identities: this is sternly policed, and any tampering with bottle bags will lead to a judge’s immediate dismissal.

Yet a ‘totally blind’ tasting in which origins were also concealed or muddled would produce chaotic results. Imagine a Hunter Valley Semillon attempting to look persuasive among Condrieu or Pouilly-Fuissé wines, or a Nebbiolo from the Valtellina trying to fight its corner surrounded by Napa Valley Cabs.

Wines need their cultural context to be intelligible.

One of the key stages as the team prepares DWWA every year, therefore, is ‘flighting’: putting every wine into a regional flight in which its qualities have every chance to shine. This is always done in consultation with the relevant Regional Chair.

Vintage, varietal blends and ageing details also form part of that context, so that information, too, is available to judges, as is residual sugar levels and alcohol levels. Many of our judges are specialists, with palates finely tuned to the categories of wine they are judging.

A flight of wines set up for tasting at DWWA. Credit: Ellen Richardson

Quality at every price matters

There are compelling arguments both for and against supplying judges with price information. We know, though, that price matters enormously to wine consumers – so for that reason we group the wines into price bands.

Is a £100+ wine judged in the same way as a wine at below £15? Certainly not: adjusting expectations in order to be fair to each wine in its price bracket is another of the skills we demand of our judges. Sub-£15 wines, for example, can never be complex, subtle, layered and refined in the way that £100+ wine might and perhaps should be.

Instead, we will be looking for fruit purity and excitement, youthful energy and generosity, or a delicious early-drinking appeal (as ever, everything depends on category and context). There is such interest in our modestly priced categories that we mark ‘Value’ wines as such, and single out the Top Value wines every year.

A day in the life of a DWWA judge

In order to avoid palate fatigue, we don’t ask judges to assess more than 90 wines a day. There’s a break for lunch, and wines are brought to judging stations and poured by runners (to avoid judges possibly encountering ‘giveaway’ bottle shapes).

A judging panel is made up of at least three judges, usually working with a Regional Chair or, in the case of larger categories, a Senior Judge, who in turn reports to the Regional Chair.

Two or three wines from a flight are tasted and initially discussed to calibrate scores and assessment criteria. The panel then tastes the rest of the flight: each taster, using a computer and keyboard, writes a description of the wine, and gives it a score out of 100.

DWWA’s customised software calculates the initial and provisional group score (enabling Regional Chairs and Co-Chairs to follow a panel’s work remotely in real time). Faulty or questionable bottles are quickly replaced by table runners.

Panels of judges during DWWA judging week. Credit: Ellen Richardson

What the medals mean

Wines scoring 85 points or fewer receive no medal. Wines scoring 86 to 89 points should be ‘well-made, sound and satisfying’ within their categories, and are given a Bronze medal; those scoring 90 to 94 points should be ‘high-quality wines of excitement and personality’ within their categories, and are awarded a Silver medal.

The rare Gold medal wines (95-96 points, and just 3.86% of all the wines entered into DWWA 2023) must be ‘outstanding and memorable wines’ within their category. The decision about whether a wine merits a Platinum medal (97-100 points, and just 0.68% of the 2023 entry cohort) is taken later during the judging process, but the initial panel is able to suggest a score above 96 points if it wishes.

The final medal decision, though, only comes after an all-important panel discussion has taken place. This discursive stage has been a hallmark of DWWA since its earliest days.

When all the judges have marked a flight, each wine in that flight will be debated before its final score is assigned, with the conversation being led by a Senior Judge or Regional Chair.

Every wine, in other words, is assessed not only individually by judges but then together with panel peers: we’re convinced that only via this collegiate process can a sound and trustworthy verdict be achieved.  No palate is ‘always right’, and it is in discussing and re-tasting that many wines eventually make their way up the scoring hierarchy. Disparate scores can also be reconciled via discussion, and Co-Chairs are always available to help in cases of significant disagreement.

All Silver medal-winning wines, in any case, will be re-tasted and confirmed by the Regional Chair if he or she has not had an initial chance to taste the wine, and any wine given a Gold medal or a 94-point Silver medal score will be re-tasted and confirmed not only by the Regional Chair but also by one of the DWWA’s Co-Chairs.

Confirmation usually follows, as panels work slowly and thoroughly – but if a Regional Chair has serious misgivings about a Silver, or a Co-Chair about a Gold, this can be further discussed with the panel before the final medal decision is reached.  Promotion to Gold of a 94-point Silver is possible at this stage, too.

This is how all of the wines entered into the DWWA each year (and there were 18,250 in 2023) are judged during ‘judging week’.

That, though, is not the end of the process.

Gold-awarded wines ready to be re-evaluated by the Co-Chairs. Credit: Ellen Richardson

Awarding the best

There is then a second round of assessment for all Gold medal-winning wines, both as a final push for judging consistency and as part of the search for excellence.

Over three days, five panels made up of selected Regional Chairs and led by a Co-Chair will re-taste all of the Gold medals – with three outcomes in mind.

The very finest wines are promoted to Platinum and given a commensurate score, with the best of these in turn being marked for consideration as part of the Top 50 Best in Show selection.

Most of the wines not-so-promoted will remain at Gold, with their scores being confirmed at 95 or 96. Uncommonly, though, if a re-tasting panel has serious misgivings about a Gold medal, that wine will be reclassified as Silver and given a new score within the Silver band.

Over the following two days, the five Co-Chairs meet with two remaining tasks. The first is to re-taste all the Value Golds (wines awarded a Gold medal under £15 a bottle) with a view to establish a top selection of these.  After that, all of the Platinum medal-winning wines which were marked as potential Best in Show wines are re-tasted in order to select a Top 50 Best in Show, and to decide on a final Platinum score.

At that point, judging is complete and each year’s DWWA concludes, with broad smiles of relief all round.

A final word on scoring

The DWWA’s conception as an awarding competition means that success for those entering has always been predicated on medals rather than scores. We still regard the medal a wine achieves, rather than its score, as being the primary DWWA accolade.

As with all wine-scoring systems, the DWWA score relates to a peer group.

It’s important to remember that the cohort in question for DWWA and its expert judging teams is not ‘all of the existing wines produced by a region’ (since we have not had a chance to taste those), but ‘all of the wines entered into our competition’.

This is the peer-group context in which to view the tiny annual percentage of Platinum and Gold medal-winning wines, and the modest percentage of Silver medal-winning wines (30.71% of entries in 2023).

As for Decanter magazine’s panel tastings, too, remember that the score doesn’t tell the whole story.

All of our Platinum and Gold medal-winning wines are annotated in the DWWA Awards Supplement, and it’s by reading those descriptive notes that you will be able to tell if a wine might suit your palate or not.  Notes for Silver and Bronze medal-winning wines are available online following release.

DWWA 2024 entries are open now until 15 March 2024. Learn more and enter today at enter.decanter.com

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New Co-Chair to join Decanter World Wine Awards: Welcoming Beth Willard

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How we taste wine at Decanter

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