And the winners are…

(by peter)

I suppose it’s fair enough that, in our wonderfully wine-addled profession, we can rarely expect much sympathy when we claim work overload.

Last week, as part of the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), I tasted, re-tasted, evaluated, discussed and rated over 300 wines.

I was chairing the Chile panel at the DWWA, something I’ve done for the past few years. This year, the DWWA received over 12,000 entries, making it one of the largest wine competitions in the world.

After last year’s competition, I wrote a piece pondering the value – strengths and weaknesses, if you like – of such competitions. You can read it by clicking on the following link – Insider View: Wine Competitions. It’s an opinion piece that is just as applicable to the new competition that Susie and I are launching this year, What Food What Wine?

Ultimately, all these wine competitions are fascinating events.

Thousands of wines are thrown into the competitive arena. A huge logistical effort sustains an intense period of judging, when fierce wine minds come together to scrutinise the candidates – swirling, sniffing, spitting and, most importantly, discussing impressions, opinions, comparisons and context. Verdicts are issued, results compiled…and then, later in the year, amid much pomp and circumstance, the awards are announced, winners feted and backs rightly slapped.

The DWWA takes place in a large series of studios in south-west London. Sometimes people working in other studios, or people viewing them for other bookings, peer into the rooms when the competition is going on. Their faces make quite a picture when they are confronted by a room that smells like a fermenting wine vat and is populated by a sea of wine glasses and a bevy of wine geeks.

It is, nonetheless, exhausting work.

If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be doing our job properly, or being fair to all the wines. Sustaining such levels of concentration, focus and tasting over this period of time takes makes considerable demands on both mind and body. Some wines can be re-tasted many times and discussed in the most intricate detail as tasters deliberate over the results.

The results of such competitions are not definitive. Nothing is ever definitive when it comes to wine.

But well judged competitions do provide a very useful guide to wine drinkers as to the best wines in any given category at any one point in time. Wine drinkers appreciate a bit of help when it comes to discriminating between the hundreds of bottles that are on the shelf – and competitions like the DWWA, IWC and IWSC do a good job of this.

The names that emerge on top of the pile tend to be a mix of consistently good producers, rising stars and complete surprises, which is just as it should be. Perhaps the best example of the latter was when a wine by the mass-market brand Yellow Tail – albeit a ‘Limited Release’ one, their Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 – won one of Australia’s most prestigious wine competition prizes, the Jimmy Watson Trophy.

Blind tasting is a very valuable practice because it forces all judges to leave their preconceptions aside and simply evaluate each wine on its merits. And if the results then lead to soul-searching or honest re-appraisal of the wine world’s most highly and lowly regarded wine producers, regions or countries, then that in itself is a hugely valuable outcome.

One particular example of the value of such awards was when I judged at the Annual Wines of Chile Awards in Santiago. It was the competition’s second year, and we awarded ‘Wine of the Show’ to a wine no-one had heard of, and few even knew where it was produced. It was a beautiful, scented, savoury Syrah from the Elqui Valley. The producer hadn’t even sent anyone along to the awards ceremony, so sure it was that it wouldn’t win in the midst of so many souped-up, polished wine specimens on show.

The result of this award was that the Elqui Valley suddenly became a hot-spot on the Chilean wine map and its notably elegant style of Syrah became a fixture on the modern Chilean wine scene. The drive to explore new and exciting uncharted territory for wine gained extra momentum. In short, it helped consolidate Chile’s drive for diversity, which is what is making it such a fascinating wine producer at the moment.

As for the DWWA, I’m afraid I can’t reveal any results yet on pain of excommunication. All I can say is that this was a bumper year for Chile, with some outstanding wines taking the top gongs. Strong categories as ever were Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, but the likes of Carignan, Pinot Noir, Carmenère – even Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – did well too. Hell, we even had a beautiful sweet wine…

My sincere thanks, as ever, go to the superb team at the DWWA, our outstanding ‘red shirt’ Lisa Lewis, as well as my brilliant judges, who were:

  • Hector Riquelme – Chilean sommelier and writer
  • Terry Threlfall – sommelier, formerly at Chez Bruce, now setting up his own ventures in Vancouver
  • Martin Lam – chef restaurateur at Ransome’s Dock
  • Junior Vianna Dirceu MW – Coe Vintners
  • Jo Ahearne MW – buyer/technologist, Marks & Spencer
  • Becca Reeves – buyer, Direct Wines
  • Ben Cahill – buyer, Co-op
  • Dawn Davies – Selfridges
  • Laura Rhys MS – UK sommelier of the Year, Hotel TerraVina
  • Madeleine Stenwreth MW – consultant
  • Jean-Pierre Rabaste – Top Selection
  • Annette Scarfe – consultant