In the world of wine there’s a vast disconnect between price and quality — as savvy wine buyers are happy to remind their more profligate friends. Despite this, there’s no shortage of consumers who make price (a higher rather than a lower one) their primary criterion when confronted with a purchase decision.

Some restaurateurs readily exploit this, using it as a strategy to sell higher-margin items. They know their customers suspect the quality of whatever appears to be cheap. By the same token, they are unlikely to buy whatever is the most expensive. Accordingly, they place the wines carrying their highest markups a few notches above the cheapest wines on the list.

If you are not going to use price to determine what you should be buying, how else can you go about making your selection? There’s an Irish adage (about burgundy admittedly) that says you should pay for the wine only once you’ve drunk it. This doesn’t help to address the problem of how to make sense of the 7,000+ different wines produced in SA. Only a fraction of this vast number finds its way onto retail shelves. Many are produced in such small quantities it’s unrealistic to describe them as commercial. Others enjoy a cult following, which means that most of the stock is sold by mail order.

An event like WineX, the biggest show of its kind in SA, typically presents 500-700 different wines, a mere 10% of the potential universe. Even the most enthusiastic scout cannot reasonably expect to sample more than 20% of what is on offer over the three evenings of the event. Perhaps another Irish proverb applies: “There are more fish in the sea than have ever been caught.”

Clearly, it’s not easy for shoppers confronting unfamiliar bottles in supermarket aisles. If they seek visual clues to guide their purchasing decision, they have to resort to packaging hints, shelf-talkers or competition stickers. But the past few weeks have brought some useful insights — at least for wine drinkers inclined to defer to show judges for guidance.

During this time the National Wine Challenge (previously the Top 100) announced its 2024 results, awarding “Grand Cru” status to its best-in-class entries and Double Platinums to the top 100 wines. While it’s worth looking at the Challenge’s laureates, I would treat the “Double Platinum” moniker with caution. Until you know how many wines were judged it’s hard to see how the top 100 wines in any competition can automatically be as good as the award implies.

The results of the Trophy Wine Show, which reviewed almost 650 wines, came out last week. Fewer than 5% obtained a gold medal. As show chair for more than 20 years, I can hardly pretend to be impartial. The Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson — who has judged at it three times — offers an independent endorsement. She has described it as “possibly the toughest wine competition in the world”.

Any wine that has been awarded a gold medal by the primary panel at the Trophy Wine Show is still subject to review and verification by all the judges before it can be awarded a best-in-class trophy. This makes the controversy about the price point of the show’s best red wine (Nederburg Winemaster’s shiraz, which sells for R115) a measure of how successfully marketers have indoctrinated wine consumers over the years. A wine does not have to be expensive to be good; nor does it need to be in perpetual short supply.

What is important is that the wines are judged blind by competent panellists. That way you know that the score reflects what’s in the glass, rather than what is promised by the label.

The public tastings of the trophies, gold and silver medallists from the 2024 Trophy Wine Show were held on June 12 at the Sandton Convention Centre. They will be held on June 19 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Tickets are available through Webtickets.

This column originally appeared in the Business Day. 

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