Tuesday, 6 May 2008

And the winner is...

OK, you’re scanning the supermarket or off-licence shelves for a nice bottle to take home that evening. Such a lot of choice, so many bottles: how to decide? That one’s got a pretty label, this other one’s discounted, but does that just mean they want to be rid of it? Hold on, this one’s won some sort of gold medal at a competition, obviously someone thinks it’s good, let’s go for that one.

Have you ever been swayed by the fact that a wine has won a medal in a competition? And have you ever wondered just what winning a medal means – what has the wine been through to deserve one?

Well, having just completed participating as an associate judge in the International Wine Challenge 2008, I have a better idea of how those medal stickers get onto the bottles. The Wine Challenge is the biggest and best known wine competition in the UK and has been dubbed “the Oscars of the wine world” by Jancis Robinson MW.

What do the judges know about the wines they are tasting?
All wines are tasted blind: judges do not see the labels, or get any hints of the identity of the wine beyond the fact that they are, for example, Syrah-based blends from the Languedoc. Wines are grouped together in “flights”, so that New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are judged together, rather than mixed in with white Burgundy, for example. There is no information regarding price of the wines: judges do not know if they are tasting a £40 bottle of wine or a £5 one.

So does one person’s taste decide the fate of a wine?
No: the wines are tasted by a panel of 4 or more judges. All wines in a “flight” are tasted and rated by the panel independently, then scores are compared and each wine discussed in turn. Like a jury in a court case, the panel tries to come to a consensus on each wine, though sometimes a “majority verdict” is the only way to move forward if there are differences of opinion. The International Wine Challenge employs experienced Panel Chairpeople, a fair dollop of Masters of Wine among them, to manage each panel, so plenty of knowledge, experience and expertise is lavished on the wines.

How many wines does a judge taste in any one day?
You might be surprised or horrified to find that many judges assess around 100 wines, or more, a day. How can they possibly maintain judgment and critical faculties by the 99th wine? Don’t forget, the judges at this competition will be very used to assessing this quantity of wines on a regular basis as part of their jobs – yes, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. And of course all wines are spat out!

Can competitions like this ever be fair?
Wines do get more than one bite at the cherry. During the first week of tasting, wines are either rated as potentially medal-worthy, Commended, or dismissed as not up to scratch. The potential medal winners will be retasted during the second week and assigned either a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal – or downgraded to Commended, or even given nothing at all. A wine will be assessed at least twice on two different days if it is to be judged worthy of any colour of medal.

Equally, wines that have walked away with nothing after the first tasting are all retasted by the inner circle of wine experts who run the competition – to make sure a panel hasn’t been overly harsh and to ensure consistency.

Do the medals mean anything?
During three days of tasting at the Wine Challenge, and well over 200 wines, the panels I sat (or stood) on discussed the possibility of only 2 or 3 gold medals. So medals are not given out lightly, just to reward a certain percentage of the entries. Gold medals in particular are hard to earn and reflect truly impressive wines – regardless of whether they cost £5 or £50.

No competition is ever perfect but, having had the opportunity to peek under the skirt of this particular one, I feel wines are judged as fairly as possible, from the Indian Chenin Blancs (yes, they exist) to the vintage Champagne.

Results of the International Wine Challenge are available from 20th May on www.internationalwinechallenge.com.

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