Thoughts on: Judging with the IWC

Last week I took a break from my relentless studies and headed to London for my first ever experience of judging a wine competition, in this case with the International Wine Challenge, or IWC. A friend of mine had done it previously and highly recommended the experience, both from a learning and networking point of view, and with my final exam around the corner, the opportunity to taste 150+ wines in expert company was obviously quite appealing. I was booked onto Tranche 1 as an ‘Associate Judge’, the lowest rank, and scheduled to judge on both Thursday and Friday.

Before I go any further, I suppose this is a good opportunity to look at the concept of a wine competition. When you go into a store and see medals pinned to bottles, or shiny stickers extolling how well these wines scored, chances are they were placed into a wine competition of some sort. On a commercial level, this sort of stuff genuinely helps to sell wines so wine competitions are still important to producers who want to stand out in an increasingly crowded market-place.

The general idea is that a producer will pay a set amount of money to enter their wine into a competition, and supply around 4 bottles of that wine to be tasted and judged. This is where everything deviates depending on the organisation in question, as some are very professionally ran, with all wines tasted blind by a large number of professionals from different backgrounds and some.. well… let’s just say that some local fairs are a little less discerning. I’ve heard stories of a 4 man judging panel where every judge had a conflict of interest in some way with the wines they were scoring, including making the wine themselves!

Fortunately, the IWC is one of the former and I was quite blown away with the level of professionalism and organisation on display, with over 160 different judges all tasting the wines blind, with the same wines often being judged by different tables throughout the course of the week. At the beginning of each day, the judges are organised into groups of 5 with one ‘Panel Chair’ who leads the group, one ‘Senior Judge’, two ‘Judges’ and a single associate. They meet together a few minutes before starting and the Panel Chair, typically a MW/MS or equivalent in the industry, and go over the ground rules for the day. The general idea is this:

Each group spends the day at a big table divided into two parts. In each part is a themed flight of wine, all presented blind with minimal information about them, such as Country/Region, Vintage and grape varieties.

The group as a whole then tastes these wines blind, scoring them using the 100 point scale. Bronze medals are awarded to wines who score 85-89, Silver from 90-94 and anything 95 or above is awarded a gold medal.

At the end of each flight, the Panel Chair goes around the group asking for a score on each wine. If the scores are mostly aligned, say everyone thinks it’s a bronze, then a bronze it is. If there is any level of discrepancy, then everyone has to justify their position on the wine including a tasting note. Ultimately the Panel Chair makes the final decision, but every voice is heard and I was delighted to find that being an associate judge didn’t make a difference when we got to debating; of more importance was your justification for the score you gave. Balance, length, intensity, concentration, finish, finesse.. the criteria for what makes a great wine tends to be almost universally accepted, and these were the yardsticks by which we measured every wine.

In this way, we tasted our way through 75-85 wines per day with a break for lunch in the middle. As soon as you’ve tasted the flight on one half of the table and moved across to the other, one of the IWC staff whizzes away your dirty glasses, bottles and brings a whole new blind flight to that side of the table. In this way, you spend your entire day moving from side to side, tasting and scoring with very little wasted time.

As the wines being judged are all entered by companies at their own discretion, the variety is about as broad as you can expect. I tasted a lot of wines with styles I was familiar with, but also wines from grapes I’d never heard of (mainly Italian) and countries I have little experience with. In a single day we might go from vintage Champagne to Italian white wines, then across to Turkey for some red blends, Argentinian Cabernet Franc, Galician reds, German and Alsatian Riesling, Ukranian white wines, mixed wines from Hungary and so on. Absolutely anything and everything is tasted, with widely varying quality levels. We dismissed a lot of wine from the competition entirely for simply not being close to a medal level, with a lot of high scoring surprises along the way.

On both the days that I judged, I had the pleasure of two excellent Panel Chairs guiding me through the process, Natasha Hughes MW and Anne Krebiehl MW. The Senior Judges were both gentlemen who’d spent well over 20 years in the industry, and the judges ranged from MW students to professionals working in laboratories for wine analysis, senior retail staff, sommeliers and a smattering of highly qualified persons not working directly in the industry. This probably all sounds very intimidating but the atmosphere was warm, friendly and inviting and I had no problem getting into the swing of things. Once you get going it’s quite a fast-paced day and you’re standing up for the entire duration, so don’t be surprised if you feel quite sore at the end of it all; I certainly did after day 1!

The IWC runs these events twice a year, ensuring that bottles are tasted once they’ve had a period of time to rest and taking into account the variation in harvests between regions on different sides of the hemisphere. When you ascend the ranking hierarchy and make the trip a few times, it’s common to receive some sort of financial reimbursement for your time and your travel costs. As an associate and a first-timer, this clearly wasn’t the case for me, but rarely has money been better spent. To taste such a gamut of wines across different quality levels, whilst surrounded by industry experts, your peers, and to talk about those wines for the entire day? Priceless. It’s also a fantastic way to keep in touch with what’s going on in the industry, as you’re tasting wine you wouldn’t necessarily buy yourself.

I shall be back as often as time and money allows. Here are a few of my highlights both in terms of wine, and general observations:

A general reaffirmation that people who choose to work in the wine industry are some of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Looking at some of the names around the room I was expecting a few clashes of ego, yet the atmosphere never deviated from an inclusive one.

The wines I tasted from Spain were such a mixed bag, it’s hard to draw conclusions. There were some delicious Albarino’s, one of the Mencia wines from Bierzo was so pure and crisp I was convinced it was from Ribeira Sacra, and even the chunkier ones showed well. However the Rioja wines were universally poor, including a few outright faults and poor quality wine-making. A shame.

Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough doesn’t necessarily have to be tropical and over-blown; the Awatere Valley sub-region produced some elegant, mineral styles including a gold medal winner, with some of the purest fruit I’ve tasted from the country.

There is a lot of very average wine out there. Don’t be afraid to call it out. As Natasha Hughes MW told me “If you wouldn’t be happy serving this to your friends at home, it shouldn’t be receiving a medal”.

It really does pay to be in good physical condition for these events. 9 hours of standing and shuffling around takes its toll, as does the huge amount of wines tasted. I’m reasonably fit, but I think a slight increase in my work-outs won’t do me any harm!

Despite people having very different preferred styles of wines, a group can quickly calibrate when tasting together for a short period of time if they’re all speaking the same language. The WSET system put me in very good stead for this, whereas some struggled to understand why the wines they loved were scoring quite poorly.

Should Tim Atkin MW ever want a career outside of the wine industry, he wouldn’t make a bad DJ for parties and weddings. He was responsible for the music over the week and aside from some very questionable country music, did a pretty good job at varying the music over the day: relaxing and soothing in the morning, upbeat and energetic towards the end when we’re all flagging and looking forward to a cold beer!

Thoughts on: Wine Communication

Wine communication is getting harder and harder to define as, like so many other industries, the mediums responsible for talking about it are changing year by year. Cellartracker, Instagram, Twitter, Vivino… the list goes on, and the one pattern is that interactions are getting shorter, with less information shared in each new platform. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I can understand this strategy for a lot of industries. Take fashion for example; the most important thing about it is how it looks, right? I don’t have many friends who work directly in the business, but I’ve yet to meet someone who’s interested in the soil types where the cotton was grown, or the manner in which it was picked and for a few reasons, let’s not get into where it’s made and who’s making it. I’m sure you can dig deeply into fashion, but it seems that brief messages and pictures of emaciated people wearing clothes is still broadly accepted as the best way to talk about it. (Believe it or not I’ve actually, unwillingly, been to a fashion show or two. I didn’t hear any in-depth talk about fashion but I’ve been put off the word ‘fabulous’ for life).

Is that really true for wine, though? Whilst I think wine can, and to a certain extent should, be enjoyed simply as a beverage, for anyone who seeks to truly understand why it tastes the way it does, there’s a never-ending rabbit-hole of knowledge to invest decades in before you get there. Obviously, that’s only for those of us who forgot to get jobs in banking in our early 20’s, and a little knowledge will go an awfully long way in developing your appreciation of wine. So what’s the best way to do that? I’m a big advocate of formal study but I do recognise that it only goes so far, and isn’t ideal for anyone who doesn’t want to invest large amounts of time and money into it.

Which brings me to the humble blog. I know, I’ve heard it too; blogging is dead and only fools would bother continuing with it in the wine industry. Which is fantastic, as those fools tend to be the most interesting, dedicated people I’ve met with real passion and knowledge to share; why else would they persist? Whether it’s through a video platform of some description, podcasts or the old-fashioned internet blog, I still believe one of the very best ways to learn about wine is to pick a blog or two and follow them closely. Ideally, choose someone with a diverse and educated view of the world of wine and read everything they write. If you have time and/or masochistic tendencies, follow a few.

Wine is a delicious drink but there’s no short-cut to learning about it in detail. A picture can paint a thousand words but all I usually learn from wine-related instagram posts is that everyone seems to have more money, time and friends than I do. Good quality wine information that isn’t behind a paywall is getting harder to come by, so I’ve updated my ‘Recommended Reading’ page linked here, to help you get a head start on some of the best on the internet. Happy reading!

PS. If you’re a fan of the long-format of instagram posts concerning wine, have a quick look at my account here. It takes my fat fingers a good 10 minutes to type each one up, and I usually get angry at my phone at least once whilst doing it. If that doesn’t add to your reading pleasure, I’m not sure what will.

Thoughts on: A Tale of Two Wines from Chinon

Cabernet Franc is one of my favourite grapes in the wine world, capable of elegance and charm in its own right and adding perfume and freshness to many of the worlds Bordeaux blends. Despite being grown in warmer regions, particularly in the USA and Argentina, it really excels in cool to moderate climates, where the crunchy, red fruit profile and herbaceous flavours come into their own. This typically means Bordeaux, where it was historically planted as an insurance in case the Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t full ripen, particularly on the right bank where Cabernet Sauvignon has traditionally struggled to ripen in the cooler, clay soils. However, despite certain Chateau using Cabernet Franc as a majority in their blends (Cheval Blanc being a notably famous example), my favourite region for the variety has always been Touraine in the Loire Valley, particularly around a small region known as Chinon. (Psst, we’ll be doing a wine tasting of the Loire Valley in October with Maestrazgo Wine Club!)

The Loire Valley isn’t a warm place, being located in northern France, but as it stretches so far along its namesake river, making generalisations about style is difficult. What is certainly true is that the Loire is responsible for some of France’s best value, cool climate wines, with only really Sancerre commanding premium prices in certain markets. Touraine, located in the centre, is arguably the most important of the zones, often referred to as ‘The Garden of France’. It’s here that the best regions for Cabernet Franc are to be found, with both Chinon and Bourgueil making a strong claim, with Chinon probably the best known of the two.

Over the last year or so, I’ve drank a reasonable amount of Chinon but never in a comparative format. So, when Monvinic Store were having a small sale of some affordable wines from the region, I scooped a few bottles up and went about with the comparison! It’s worth noting that Chinon roughly comes in two different styles; full bodied, more structured Cabernet Franc from the clay and gravel soils, whereas lighter styles are made on the sandy, alluvial soils closer to the river. How fortunate then, that I managed to have wines from different producers, in the same vintage, on these two, very different soil types! It’s worth noting that 2011 was a pretty torrid vintage in the Loire, where the continental conditions make for some severe vintage variation, and typically it is the Cabernet Franc grown in the more structured style that rides the bad years more capably.

Domaine Grosbois Gabare Chinon 2011 – 12.5% ABV

Domaine Grosbois is an old estate that has been ran by the Grosbois family since the French revolution, with 9 hectares of land on the lighter, sand and gravel soils around Panzoult. Like so many estates in France, it has recently been given an injection of pace and a clear direction by a younger generation, in this case Nicolas Grosbois. My experience with wine-makers is that the best nearly always have an international appreciation of wine, and often experience in other wine regions. This is true for Nicolas who worked at one of my favourite wineries in New Zealand, Pegasus Bay, as well as Brokenwood in Australia. His main contribution to the future of Domaine Grosbois was to revitalise the land, first of all with a switch to organic viticulture and more recently to the more controversial, biodynamic system. All his Cabernet Franc is unoaked and the intention is to give a pure expression of Chinon and his vineyards in particular.

Gabare 2011 is 100% unoaked Cabernet Franc harvested from sandy soils at the base of his vineyards. A slightly murky, ruby colour and with a subtle aroma of fresh red fruits, this isn’t giving much away but slowly opens up to reveal lighter notes of fresh violets, fresh leaves and black pepper. A little lean on the palate with the same fresh flavours, and perhaps a lack of texture from the tannins. A nice, simple Cabernet Franc that feels affected by the weather conditions of 2011.

Charles Joguet Les Petit Roches 2011 – 13.5% ABV

Charles Joguet is a name that resonates in the Loire Valley and particularly in Chinon; taking over his family estate in 1957, Charles was one of the first wine-makers to start attracting international attention to the region. The estate itself is sat on deeper, clay dominated soils covering 36 hectares of prime vineyards, including some of the very best in the appellation. 9 different wines are made in total, reflecting their origins from specific plots around the estate. Since Charles retired, the estate went through a short but unwelcome period of misdirection and inactivity, before Kevin Fontaine took over the reins and brought it back on track. This is the producer I’m most familiar with in the region and I’ve enjoyed 5 of the 9 cuvees thus far, all a wonderful expression of Chinon and Cabernet Franc.

The wine itself has a much clearer appearance when compared with the Gabare from Domaine Grosbois. Aromatic and energetic, the extra ripeness of the wine is apparent with a riper red fruit profile, graphite, gravel, earth and a stronger, more clearly defined herbal note. The lovely, crunchy tannic profile comes out on the palate and there’s the energy and vibrancy I so love about wines from Chinon. A lovely balance of red fruits, herbal notes and earth; quintessential Chinon.

I really enjoyed this small experiment, and not just because I love drinking Chinon. I learn a lot of theory as part of my studies and it’s nice when something practical helps click the pieces into place. In this case, that soil type and the situation of the vineyard makes a big difference when it comes to the profile of the wines from Chinon, particularly in poor vintages. The extra ripeness and balance of the Charles Joguet made it a far more attractive wine, with more energy and more typicity. I would love to find the same two wines from a better vintage, 2010 say, and make the same comparison. Keep your eyes peeled on the 1st October as there will certainly be a Cabernet Franc or two to get your lips around in our tasting of the Loire Valley!

Thoughts on: Carignan, Cariñena and Samsó

Carignan is an interesting grape variety and caused me a few conflicting moments in my very early days of learning about wine. In the late 20th century, Carignan was known as being a simple grape with limited potential that was massively over-yielded in the south of France, producing in excess of 200hl/ha in more than a few cases. This was how I first learnt about it and also how I encountered one of my first conflicts with the accepted facts. You see, Carignan is noted as a French grape but it’s entirely likely to be from DO Cariñena in Aragon, hence the Spanish name for the grape, although oddly it’s almost exclusively grown within Catalunya now with DO Cariñena focusing quite a bit more on Grenache. Way to miss an open goal, Spain. (There was a briefly interesting discussion about this on Twitter, unfortunately spoiled by one of the participants channeling his inner Donald Trump. Worth a read anyway!)

Anyway, the Carignan I’ve tried before starting my formal studies on wine was nothing like I subsequently read in textbooks. In DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat, some of my very favourite wines were either a Carignan heavy blend or, better yet, 100% of the grape itself. The dark, smoky and almost metallic flavours of the wine were intense, concentrated and utterly delicious. So why then am I reading this nonsense? Well, aside from the WSET Level 3 material being slightly outdated at the time (they’ve since revamped the entire course) it seems that consumers across the world are still a bit in the dark with regards to the potential quality of Carignan. Conversely, wine-makers seem to be latching onto it in some unlikely places. Quite familiar with varying levels of the grape produced locally, I hunted down a couple of bottles from Chile and Argentina to taste, more to see what was going on than anything else.

Villalobos Carignan Reserve 2013

When I first discovered that Chile had some of the oldest Carignan in the world, I was a little taken aback. I couldn’t say why, it just didn’t seem to add up; traditionally Carignan is a very warm climate grape and although on the other side of the Andes to Mendoza, one of the warmest climates in the wine-making world, Chile tends to be more gently Mediterranean. However, particularly in the Maule Valley, Chile is home to some outstandingly good Carignan. So much so in fact, that they have an organisation dedicated to the protection and support of producers who want to work with these vines, VIGNO. Having previously tried the excellent Lomajes de Vina Roja, I was excited to try some more examples and I was already a fan of Villalobos after trying their delicious Carmenere.

Villalobos are a small producer in Colchagua Valley who historically only made wine for their own consumption. That changed when the wine-maker, Martin Rosseau, died in an accident and the family decided to continue with the production and release it commercially in 2009. Since then, the wines have gone on to win great acclaim, very ‘new wave’ and minimal intervention in style with bright fruit, soft herbal notes and a lively, fun character. At only 12.5% alcohol, this is by far the lightest, freshest Carignan I’ve tried stylistically and what it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in charm and sheer fun. A bit steep at 30 a bottle in Spain, but well worth the experiment.

Famila Cecchin Carignan 2012

Over to the other side of the Andes now, to see how Argentina is getting along with the same grape variety. There are two main differences here compared to their neighbours and rivals. Firstly, the climate is considerably warmer and drier in Mendoza than in any part of Chile, with one of the most continental climates on earth. Secondly the vines tend to much younger. I haven’t yet been able to discover why Chile planted Carignan so much earlier than Argentina but the difference is telling, with Chile owning vines with well over 50 years of age in some cases.

Interestingly I’d actually visited this winery in 2016 but don’t recall having tried this particular wine. Cecchin are a quality produce of organic wines in Argentina, with only 11 hectares under vines and a small production as a result, focusing quite heavily on varieties from Spain and France. The wines, like Villalobos, are quite ‘new wave’ with low additions of sulphur, indigenous yeasts and generally a much lighter profile than other wineries within the area. This was quite a bit more like the Carignan I was used to, I suppose due to the similarity in climate and grape ripeness, with lots of ripe red and dark fruits, earthy aromas and the tell-tale, ferrous smell I associate with concentrated Carignan. Still, quite a refreshing wine despite the 14.3% alcohol, but lacking the intensity and depth I’ve come to expect from the grape. I suppose living in Catalunya has made me slightly spoilt!

Conclusions

Ultimately, it’s not possible to compare grape varieties based on such a small sample size but it does seem that there is one clear distinction between Carignan produced here and that in Catalunya; style. Where Catalunya revels in the depth and intensity of the flavours in their old-vine Samsó, the Catalan name for the grape, the New World seems to be more focused on producing lighter styles of wine from it. Oak is dialled back and the wines seem more appropriate for younger, easier drinking whereas the very best Samsó from Montsant and Priorat can age for well over a decade. Call me biased but I still can’t see past the top producers of Priorat where Carignan is concerned, although I look forward to trying more examples from around the world and seeing how they’re getting on with it. If anyone finds any examples from California or South Africa knocking around Spain, let me know!

Here are my favourite local producers of 100% or at least Carignan dominated wines. Prices range from moderately to outrageously expensive!

Producer – Wine – Region

Clos Mogador – Manyetes Vi di Vila – Priorat

Cal Battlet – 5 Partides – Priorat

Mas Doix – Doix 1902 – Priorat

Vall Llach – Mas de la Rosa – Priorat

Bodegas Mas Alta – La Basseta – Priorat

Ferrer Bobet – Seleccio Especial – Priorat

Alfredo Arribas – Trossos Vells – Montsant

Portal de Montsant – Hugo – Montsant

Celler Masroig – Masroig – Montsant

Edetaria – Finca la Pedrissa – Terra Alta

Thoughts on: Defining Wine Expertise

Trying to learn the world of wine is a daunting task, as there’s not only thousands of years of history, production methods, tradition, legal and cultural factors to learn but like every modern industry it’s constantly changing and evolving. This has never been more true than today, when every year it appears that there are more regions being explored, more indigenous grapes being discovered and more different wine-making techniques being used. Like every industry in the world there is a whole network of unseen roles and responsibilities, often unglamorous and overlooked, that make it tick. Buying, selling, serving, educating, making, presenting, marketing and everything in between. When I wrote my 3,000 word essay on the bulk transportation of wine for my WSET Diploma, an entire sector of the wine industry became known to me that I had never considered before; the logistics of transporting and bottling wine without compromising quality. The scope is enormous and that leads me to my question; if it’s entirely obvious that the world of wine can’t be fully understood and mastered, what then is wine expertise all about?

The most popular expression of wine expertise in modern wine culture is, without a doubt, the sommelier; an old fashioned French word meaning “wine steward’. Thanks to the glorification of chefs and the restaurant industry, this previously uncelebrated role has now risen to fame and created a whole new culture of wine appreciation, mostly in major cities throughout the world. The key role of a sommelier is to understand, and potentially build, a wine list that offers good value, interesting wines that pair well with the cuisine of the restaurant and turns a decent profit for the owner. The practical job is then to take care of your customers, make sure they can choose a wine that suits the food they’ve ordered and is within budget, whilst adding to the overall dining experience. The word ‘sommelier’ has now become almost synonymous with most young wine professionals, much to the chagrin of experienced sommeliers working in restaurants, and has done much to create excitement around the industry as a whole. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the documentary SOMM, make sure you take an hour to watch it as it was a turning point for the profession and for wine education programs, particularly in North America.

Having said that, it seems that most sommeliers seem keen to improve their knowledge, education and skillset with the intention of moving away from working the floor, with the most desirable jobs including the purchase of wines for restaurants, hotels and retail stores. This seems counter-intuitive to me, especially as most train through the CMS program that is specifically designed to teach you how to be a good floor sommelier, but clearly shows that being a sommelier is considered a stepping stone to greater things. Wine buying is a position of great responsibility, as not only does it require an extensive wine knowledge but also a strong understanding of the realities of the trade. Wine buyers are treated like royalty for obvious reasons; they are the single most important link between wineries and their customers, especially in an increasingly consolidated market-place. Unfortunately, due to this smaller market there are understandably fewer wine buyers than ever before. The other reality of being a wine buyer is that wine is often diminished to a commodity; after all, the reality of your job is to turn a profit and sell what you think people will buy, not necessarily what you’d want them to.

Another highly visible position within the world of wine is working as a wine critic, either for an established magazine/institution or for yourself, if you manage to build a large enough following. This, however, is incredibly hard to define and ends up coming around seemingly by accident more than anything else. Think of the people who work as a wine critic and the same names tend to crop up; Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Oz Clarke… the list is relatively short. The problem is, with very few exceptions they tend to work in a variety of different fields. Jancis Robinson is better known for her wine-writing, particularly her work on the essential Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine. Oz Clarke is as much a wine personality as a critic, appearing at various conferences and even television programs around the world, and Robert Parker is very much on his way out, having handed over the majority of his responsibilities to his underlings. Newer critics coming into the field tend to be wine-writers of some description, who happen to get the occasional gig on more established platforms. It’s commonly accepted that wine-writing is an over-saturated business and that most consumers are valuing applications such as Vivino and Cellartracker, where consumers leave their own scores and notes en masse, over the opinions of individual critics, no matter how respected.

Ultimately, I suppose how wine expertise is defined and pursued is down to the individual more than anything else. I’m still at a stage where there is so much of the world to learn, I can’t yet fathom the concept of mastering even a single part of it, let alone the whole thing. The further you research a topic, the more you realise how little you know, and it seemingly never ends. It’s a wonderful, maddening and absolutely delightful feeling all at the same time. So far I am mainly concentrating on perfecting the private tastings I organise, as well as honing my skills as a tour guide for Devour Barcelona and their excellent wine and tapas tour. However, I most certainly intend to start working in wine education as a WSET educator within a year, and I would definitely like to start judging wine competitions more regularly as well. I’ve been clear in my ambitions to become a Master of Wine but where the industry will take me commercially is still something of an unknown quantity to me. All I know is that I’m deeply enjoying all the different experiences I’ve been exposed to so far, and long may it continue!

So, my question to you is; how do you define wine expertise? What’s your ambition in learning the world of wine, the subtle nuances and great wonders of it all? You might find it as tricky to answer as I have, but it’s a question worth thinking about!

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