The Sabre Rattling of the Wine Judges
There is a shifting seasonality to the wine world. I’m not referring to the idea that we should all drink Pitt & Jolie’s rosé in the summer, and 17% Châteauneuf du Pape in the winter, more the fact that as the year progresses certain wine events come around as reliably as Wimbledon, The Masters or The World Cup (I think that might be every four years, but you get the idea). January? Then it’s the Burgundy tastings in London. February? Off to the Salon des Vins de Loire (high on my agenda, but not for almost every other writer it seems). The last week in March? Time for the Bordeaux primeurs then (don’t pretend you hadn’t noticed). And so on. Now in April it’s judging time. A couple of weeks ago the South African Top 100 was being judged, this week it is the International Wine Challenge in London. In a couple of weeks the Decanter World Wine Awards, also in London. I’m sure there are others that don’t immediately spring to mind.
Judging season has, in years gone by, tended to bring out a little of the partisan spirit in some corners of the UK wine writing world, each competition having its very vocal proponents. I always found that a little tiresome to be honest, as it implies that there is some sort of ‘gold standard’ methodology in wine judging that should be adhered to. The International Wine Challenge, for example, has a multi-layer system whereby wines are tasted for inclusion or rejection, and if included they are retasted to see which medal the wine should get. That’s a good system, because it means that each wine is tasted more than once, and no doubt probably a third time if the wine is slated for a top award. In this respect, the International Wine Challenge is perhaps superior to other wine competitions (I don’t know every wine competition going, far from it, so perhaps some others do this also).
The Decanter World Wine Awards, meanwhile, has a one-taste process for most wines, but like the International Wine Challenge wines up for a top gong get retasted. Here, however, the wine is tasted by a hand-picked panel with experience in the region being assessed. This is a significant advantage over many other wine competitions (but again, not all, I am sure) where the panel are a randomly thrown-together group of merchants, sommeliers, journalists and the like. I became even more convinced of the importance of panel selection a few years ago on a press trip to Muscadet accompanying a group of other journalists; none had a particular interest in the Loire Valley, and indeed most were visiting the region for the first time. In two days I heard criticism levied against aged Muscadet for being ‘atypical’ (I would have thought this difficult to judge if you’ve never tasted ten-year old Muscadet before) and the group’s favourite wine of the entire trip was part-fermented in oak and had undergone malolactic fermentation, a soft generic crowd-pleaser but hardly a grand vin of the Muscadet appellation (and we visited some top names, and tasted some wonderful, strikingly mineral Muscadet). Being unfamiliar with a region can, I realised, produce some rather spurious tasting results, so selecting a panel of ‘experts’ could be seen as a vital part of ensuring reliability of the competition. In this respect, the Decanter World Wine Awards competition is perhaps superior to other competitions.
My point is this. Every wine competition has its strong points, but every competition will also have its flaws. Proponents who speak of one methodology as being unquestionaly superior to another are, I have realised, almost always speaking from a point of bias. This is very human behaviour. It’s natural to believe that processes or institutions we are involved with are the ‘best’, it is a hangover of the tribal mentality that has been so evolutionarily useful for the past few million years, but which today in many situations we would often be better off without. It would be much better to channel these energies into excluding bias in the competition; ensure rigorous blind tasting, develop a favourable tasting environment, grow a robust system of recording results, and so on. This would perhaps serve those consumers who use the results of these competitions to inform their purchasing decisions better than the wine-fuelled sabre rattling of the wine judges.