Insider view: wine comps

(by peter)

Though the wider world may be blissfully unaware of it, it is wine competition season in the UK.

Behind closed doors in warehouses and halls across the south-east of England, hundreds of wine experts (and a few lucky punters) have been sniffing, swirling, cogitating and discussing the merits – or otherwise – of thousands of wines. This as part of the UK’s three major wine competitions: the Decanter World Wine Awards, the International Wine Challenge and the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Come to think of it, it’s probably a good thing the public don’t know about it, otherwise there might be riots outside these venues, brimming as they are with open wine bottles, some of them very pricey indeed.

Who knows, you might even be walking past them on your way to work…the tell-tale signs are buildings that give off subtle but distinct aromas of wine even at 8am in the morning, and from which emanates the gentle thrum of wine speak.

Although all these wine competitions are subtly different, the basic concept and processes are similar.

Wine producers the world over pay to send in their wines – often around £100-150 per entry. The wines are then judged by panels in flights of similar wines. Those considered worthy of high awards (silver, gold medal or trophies) are re-tasted. The awards are announced and handed out at glam dinners; smiles, flash bulbs and many press releases ensue.

Such wine competitions are both a good thing and bad thing.

Bad because they have their limitations, which are often not recognised sufficiently.

Their primary purpose is to make money for the organisations running them. The sums are sobering: £100-150 per entry on anywhere between 9,000 and 11,000 wines – that’s a lot of money.

However, in our view, that’s fair enough: these are businesses (often owned by publishing companies for whom profit from magazine sales is never easy to generate); they need to make money to survive, plus the costs involved are significant.

Nevertheless, it’s a factor that’s important to recognise in all this – yet is rarely discussed.

Much also depends on the kind of judges on each panel, their tasting ability and knowledge of the wines they are adjudicating, and any palate fatigue they might be experiencing.

A recent study in America showed that the same wines often were awarded radically different marks when put before the same panel on different days.

This of course brings into question the validity of such awards – and also the inherent difficulties that wine critics have when pronouncing very definite scores on wines.

Wines change; so do people. It’s a truism, but often worth repeating: there is no such thing as a great wine; only great bottles.

There’s also the issue that some of the top estates don’t submit wines to the competition, as they have more to lose than gain, so it’s arguably not a wholly representative picture of any region or country in its entirety.

But what these competitions do offer, we feel, is a very valid picture, at any one time, of excellence and interest in world wine. It’s not an infallible judgement, nor a permanent one, but all the same it’s a judgement that’s usually been arrived at through methods that are as scrupulous, and honourable, as possible.

And if you look at the past list of winners in these competitions, especially the ones that win year-in-year-out, they do tend to be some of the best producers around.

I chair the Chile panel at the Decanter World Wine Awards; Susie is a panel chair at the International Wine Challenge (though she took this year off because she’s pregnant). And, as we’ve just won the IWSC Communicator award, we’ve also been learning a lot about that, too, recently (plus Susie used to judge there).

So we feel we have a good insight into all three of the UK’s major wine competitions.

The DWWA is much more focused on countries and regions, using judges that are experts or knowledgeable in a specific field to judge purely in that category. So, for example, as Chile chair I taste nothing but Chilean wines all week – apart from a few other gold-medal winning wines from other countries and regions, which I always like to check to benchmark our own golds.

The IWC is more generalist in its approach, so on any given table you could be judging anything from English Madeleine Angevine to a flight of Martinborough Pinot Noirs in a day. Though you don’t have specialists judging each category, it could be argued that one benefit of this system is that palate fatigue is less likely to occur as judges are constantly tasting different styles of wine as opposed to judging, say, red rioja for an entire afternoon.

The IWSC also includes spirits and is now conducting judging in both the UK and the US (and its HQ is right next to the Top Gear test track, apparently: the cause of much office entertainment).

All are very worthy in their different ways, but there is little in the way of blissful co-habitation between the three. Inter-competition sniping is all too common, especially among the senior echelons of the respective organisations.

In our opinion, that’s a great shame, because these competitions could, and should, sit very easily alongside one another, and prosper accordingly.

The results of all three competitions are announced later in the year.

In the meantime, I can reveal that the Chilean wines at the DWWA this year showed some breathtaking highs (as well as the usual thundering lows), and the results will be well worth scrutiny in the autumn.

(The following is a light-hearted video of the moment we awarded a gold medal to a Chilean wine in the Decanter tasting this year. Mock trumpet noises by Hector don’t come across as well as they should.)