The Relevance of Wine Competitions
Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
Have you ever been to an Oscar winning film to find it wasn’t your cup of tea? There are thousands of film festivals, but just because something wins an award doesn’t mean it is to your taste. Similarly, there are a multitude of wine competitions.
Wine competitions vary in scale and prestige, from local regional panels to large international operations such as the International Wine Challenge, the International Wine & Spirit Competition and the Decanter World Wine Awards. Each competition is set up and organized differently, and wines may be entered for a variety of reasons: a genuine desire to benchmark wines against peers, more exposure and recognition, or the hope a medal will allow a price increase. Having been a senior judge over many years, I have witnessed the pros and cons of different tasting formats. There is no one right way, but two key factors determine good from bad. These are the calibre of the judges and the objectivity of the tasting.
It sounds like fun, but believe me, it is hard work tasting wines all day long – honestly! Even the most practiced judges become jaded after a day’s tasting. The more wines that are tasted, the more our senses of smell and taste are dampened. Red wine tannins accumulate in the mouth and alcohol has an impact, even with spitting. For the entered wines to be evaluated consistently and fairly (after all, producers pay to enter), tasters must be able to concentrate for hours. The taster’s breadth of tasting experience is also important. For example, a winemaker from Portugal may be a gifted taster but is not necessarily qualified to evaluate wines from Tuscany or Australia. Tasting objectively is important. Each taster must be able to independently assess each wine without being influenced by other judges. The most vocal judges are usually not the best tasters! Wines should always be tasted blind. This usually means the bottles are wrapped. The best competitions will try and eliminate any possibility of identification. For example, an unusual bottle shape would be decanted. Masters of Wine are often sought as competition judges. The rigour, tasting ability and stamina required to pass the exams puts them in good stead.
Awards provide wine drinkers some reassurance; however they are not a cast iron guarantee. Only a small fraction of the world’s wines are entered (there is a cost to enter and send samples), so there are many more wines out there equally as good or even better. Be wary of “Best in Class” wines in categories of obscure grape varieties, or little-known regions, as there may only have been one wine entered!
Some publications and wine critics publish wine scores out of 20 or 100 – each has their own method and style preferences. Scores alone don’t tell you what a wine tastes like and also have limitations. A tasting is a snapshot in time. Wines continue to change and can be tasted at any stage in their life cycle. For example, many critics publish scores from the annual En Primeur tasting in Bordeaux, which in turn influence wine price. However, the wines tasted are barrel samples, which will be aged for a further 12 to 18 months. The sample may not be representative of the final blend, or could have been taken from the best barrel. Either way, the final bottled wine will taste very different and may or may not live up to its score.
I use the principle of objective tasting as the basis of the Opimian wine selection process. For each Opimian Cellar Offering, I receive 150 to 180 wine samples. These are tasted away from wineries and other external influences over the course of a week. Wines are initially tasted in flights according to region, grape variety, style and price. Quality is determined according to intensity and complexity of aromas and flavours, harmony, structure, length and wine longevity. I am looking for wines that truly reflect the origin and style of wine and which offer good value for money. A simple, well-made wine can score highly. For an equal score, a more expensive wine has to deliver more.
After the initial tasting, some wines are compared in different ways. For example, different price levels of a particular grape will confirm the quality hierarchy – I should be able to taste a clear progression in concentration, depth and complexity as wine price increases. The same price levels across different regions will let me see which offers the best value. Some wines are tasted up to 5 times over the week to assess how they evolve with air. This gives me an idea of their cellaring potential and drinking window.
All this is done against a background of trade tastings and shows to stay abreast of what is happening around the world. It allows me to calibrate wine quality by region and vintage so that I can be fully confident in the quality of every wine I select for Opimian.