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!