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At the Decanter World Wine Awards

I went to London for the marathon earlier this week. No not that one. I’m talking about the marathon that is the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). A week (which in this case is a ‘working week’, meaning five days – I know some in the wine trade have a different definition of a ‘working week’) of tasting all of the Loire submissions to the 2019 Awards.

This was the 16th year for the Awards, and I am not sure how many years I have been judging on the Loire panel, but it must be seven or eight years now. I started off just doing a couple of days, at a time when the Loire panel would sit for perhaps three days in total. These days the Loire submissions have increased in number (as have submissions to the Awards in general) and both last year and this year the judging extended across five days. I try to participate for the entire Loire judging, and that is exactly what I did this year. The panel was chaired by Jim Budd (who needs no introduction), while my tasting colleagues were Nigel Wilkinson (once of the RSJ, home of London’s best Loire list, now retired) and Chris Hardy (of Charles Sydney Wines, and now undoubtedly the leading wine trade figure in the Loire Valley). The panel was the same across all five days.

The system at the DWWA, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows. Wines are served in themed flights, anything from four wines to twelve, the principal themes being variety and appellation, sometimes nuanced by style, vintage or price. So we might have a dozen Muscadets, followed by a dozen Touraine Sauvignons, then a dozen white Sancerres, and so on. The tasters have all the information on appellation, vintage, price, residual sugar, alcohol and so on, but the blinding as to the domaine and cuvée is rigorous; I imagine anybody who attempted to unblind a wine by removing it from its bag, a cardinal sin, would never be invited back. Tasters don’t even get to handle the bottles, as everything is poured for you by the ‘red shirts’ as they are known. Our ‘red shirt’ was Abdel, who was a star.

DWWA 2019

All four panel members work their way through the entire flight, tasting and retasting as they see fit, writing notes, and awarding marks out of 100. Faulty bottles are always replaced during the tasting of the flight, no mean feat considering the number of wines being tasted in any one day and the logistics involved. A few words might be exchanged at this time (especially regarding faulty wines) but otherwise we keep our opinions to ourselves for the moment. Once all four of us have finished, it’s time for the panel chair to review the notes and scores, for discussion, and for the decision on a final score and a medal position.

Any judging system has strengths and weaknesses. One accusation commonly made about the system used here is that it is ‘tasting by committee’, which would I think be a fair accusation if the final score and position were achieved simply by taking an average of the four submitted scores. But of course that isn’t how it works; there is the opportunity for discussion, to advocate for each wine as you see fit, and the process varies from one wine to the next. If all four tasters are in close alignment – awarding scores, for example, of 86, 88, 88, and 89, all in the bronze medal category – then taking an average is not inappropriate (although an individual could still argue for a specific score if they wish). When the marks start to straddle medal categories, for example 86, 88 (both bronze), 90 and 91 (both silver) then the discussion becomes more important. We all revisit the wine, and the supporters of a bronze award may decide they have underscored the wine, and revise their marks upwards, or they may stick to their guns and persuade their colleagues that silver is too generous. And vice versa for the advocates of a silver medal. A lot of effort goes into ensuring each wine is given due consideration, and the right level is found.

If agreement can’t be reached, there are floating super-judges who can also be asked to chip in with an opinion. The super-judge system worked well this year, although sometimes the decision went against me, and sometimes for me. There was one wine on day two where half the panel were rooting for gold, while half (including me) were less eager, and an opinion from a super-judge nudged it over the line. I lost. But then a couple of days later we were in the same position with a different wine, with at least two tasters rooting for gold, and I was holding back, holding my ground, as I didn’t feel the wine was worthy of that merit. The super-judge came down in my favour. Vindicated! However the wines get there, though, all the gold medal winners are tasted again next week, by the super-judges, and can be knocked back down if not deemed worthy. I doubt that will happen with any of the Loire wines; we’re a careful lot!

The Loire did well this year, and while I can’t reveal anything about the result it won’t be giving too much away to say there were a number of really fine wines submitted, and a nice number of gold medals awarded. The success of recent vintages shone through; although there was frost in 2016 and 2017, the region has had several good vintages in a row, up to and including 2018 (most Muscadet and Sauvignon submissions come from the most recent vintage, for obvious reasons). And quality overall was consistent; although I don’t have any figures, I am sure we rejected fewer samples as simply substandard this year. And among the golds, there were some real superstar wines. Sadly, unlike that other more famous marathon, it takes a good few months for the results of this particular competition to be published. I hope it won’t be too long though; I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what theose superstar wines were.

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