With such a broad range of wines on the market, a feeling of bamboozlement is a common experience for consumers. There are ways out of this that can lead to a feeling of clarity and confidence when buying wine: our own recognition of a wine, a recommendation from a trusted wine writer or a tip off from a friend. What we are seeking is the thumbs up from someone who has had no involvement in bringing any particular bottle to the shelf.
A further source of endorsement is an award. However, the degree of trust consumers will have in these badges of honour will depend to a degree on how well-understood is the judging process used to determine the quality of the wine.
With this in mind, I want to take the opportunity to pull back the curtain and share the methods used by The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in judging wines.
I was invited to judge wines for The IWSC and made my way to deepest Surrey to their offices which, incidentally, overlook the Top Gear race track. Once I’d found my way there it was time for an induction into how the judging is conducted. Despite having 20 years experience with wine this was still a compulsory step for me.
What struck me first was the way that the judging is structured to ensure impeccable standards of fairness.
Let me explain. There were six judges and a chair on our panel meaning that not only was there more than 100 years of tasting experience around the table, but also the likelihood of us all misjudging the wine is reduced very significantly.
Further, the wines are all served ‘blind.’ The only information we had on the wines was a number printed on the glass, where they were from, which grape variety had been used, some vintage information and a broad indication to quality, for example, was the wine a grand cru.
So, we did not know who had produced the wine, from which particular vineyard or the price that the wine was to be sold for. This is very important, because it means that all that is being judged is the wine in the glass, and this is the vital for the consumer to know.
The assessment of each wine follows a rigorous process, we assess the look and aroma of the wine before tasting to see how well the wine is balanced. Each of us then evaluated the wine: is it typical for the grape variety and location? Does it have the necessary depth of flavour? Is it complex or simple? Could the winemaker have done anything else to improve the wine? At this point, as I contemplated the wine, I’d make a short-hand tasting note to round out my judgement. Finally, we give the wine a score based on all of the above factors.
At the end of each flight of wines we announce our scores for the wines in turn. If one judge had an ‘outlying’ score, either higher or lower than the others, there would be the opportunity to say why. After that discussion had closed the wines were awarded their first round score. This is then translated into an award of Gold, Silver, Bronze or no award. Certain wines which had scored highly or which are on the cusp between two levels are tasted again by a separate panel.
The wines are then sent for a formal analysis in the lab to make sure that they have been well-made. Whilst much of the information the lab will uncover may not be very interesting to the ultimate consumer, it is worth noting that no wine will receive an award without a clean bill of health.
What struck me, beyond the rigour of the process, was just how very good a wine has to be even to wine a Bronze from The IWSC, it is a very high-standard. Winners of a Silver medal really are exceptional and Gold medal winners will be an absolute treat: we only awarded Gold medals to two wines from a full day of judging wines which were very, very good.
Since being a judge, I must admit that seeing The IWSC badge on a wine has influenced my buying habits, particularly when I see an award on a bottle that costs less than ten pounds. It indicates, for me, that I’m looking at an excellent alignment of price and quality and that’s good enough for me.