Flying blind: Stepping behind the curtain at the International Wine Challenge

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Anyone who has scanned the collection of bottles in most wine retailers, whether they’re small merchants or major supermarkets, is likely to have spotted a bottle that has won an award from an international competition. Whether it’s from the Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wine Challenge, the IWSC or anything else out there, there is no shortage of bottles that are proud to announce that they have gained the approval of the world’s wine experts.

This is a topic I have written about on 12×75.com, but in that post I only discussed whether I thought these awards had any real use to consumers. My conclusion? For the average consumer or for anyone who wants to make sure they are buying a dependable bottle, they are.

What few people don’t get to see, however, is how these awards are handed out. Forget those visions of luxurious surroundings with endless portions of wine and cheese. When I arrived for my afternoon on a tasting panel at the first tranche of the IWC 2014 at the Barbican Exhibition Hall last week, I found myself in stark, straight-to-the-point surroundings.

No wing-back chairs (almost not a chair in sight) and no punkawallah to waft cool air in your direction while you’re struggling through nine bottles of Rioja.  I was given the chance to experience the process of determining these awards during the round of judging for the first tranche of the International Wine Challenge’s 2014 awards.

Going into this, I had a fair amount of confidence that my palate was up for the challenge. This is despite my relative inexperience when compared to the Masters of Wine who were present; or the highly experienced wine writers who were taking part; or the wine trade professionals who have spent a life in wine. I have always managed to hold my own at blind tastings. How hard could it be, I thought?

Well. During my time on a judging panel flanked by a wine writer and consultant who used to be a buyer for a supermarket, a winemaker, the head buyer for a major London wine company and a recent graduate of Plumpton College’s wine programme, several universal truths emerged.

1. The best way to learn about wine is to taste a lot of it.

Attend every tasting, wine dinner, wine launch or vaguely wine-related event that you manage and try as much of it as you can in order to exercise your palate. This will help you to navigate the curveballs that are thrown your way, like a flight of gruner veltliner containing wines with 8 grams per litre of residual sugar or 16 per cent alcohol. Remember to spit frequently.

Your friends will think you’ve become an alcoholic, but that is the trade-off you will have to make.

2. Gibberish does not a tasting note make.

As it happens, writing a legible tasting note that makes sense and tells a story about the wine at the same time that you are tasting it will prevent you from staring at your notes in confusion when you look over them the next day.

3. ‘Crunchy’ is appropriate terminology for a tasting note.

But simply saying ‘nice’ is not.

4.  Winemakers give lower scores than wine writers.

They are like that university professor who gave you a B- when the others were awarding you As.

5. It is difficult to maintain concentration during a homogenous flight of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

While there are nuances among the bottles, the fact remains that basic Kiwi sauv blanc can become fairly boring.

6. But it is surprisingly painful to taste a flight of rough and ready basic Rioja.

These wines are young, tough and tight. The acidity will burn your tongue and the tannins will sear your palate.

7. Don’t open your mouth during your journey home after the tasting.

People on the street and on public transportation will think you have dental hygiene problems.

Thank you to everyone at the International Wine Challenge for inviting me along for a day of tasting and to my fellow panel members for being patient with me on my first attempt at judging. 

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Dear Canada: Please send more wine

ID-10098086Not long ago I was buying a humble bottle of Good Ordinary Claret at a shop in a part of London known for Rolls-Royces, Rolex watches and Savile Row suits when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a gleaming object that was distinctly Canadian.

Not just anything Canadian, but a bottle of Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2008.

I must admit I sort of fizzed with excitement.As an ex-pat from British Columbia, it isn’t often when I see Canadian wines — let alone those from my home province — in British shops, so spotting this bottle on the shelf at Berry Bros & Rudd provided me with a moment of excitement.

If I were French and if said bottle were also French, my inner dialogue would have acknowledged its existence with a smug “of course” and no more would have been thought about the subject.

But we Canadians have become famous for spotting the wares of our land and sharing our discoveries with everyone within earshot.

And so, with the above being the case, I did what any other of my fellow countrymen or women would do and insisted I share my discovery with person nearest to me. This is how the (very likely awkward) conversation went:

“I see you’ve started stocking Osoyoos Larose now. I have a few vintages of that in my cellar,” I said to the woman behind the till in a way that I hoped didn’t sound like boasting, but very likely did.

“Oh yes, that’s the only bottle of Canadian wine we have in the entire company,” the salesperson replied.

“Someone was asking me about Canadian wine a while back and after searching our database it turns out that we have just a single bottle — that one.”

This is the problem with Canadian wine outside Canada. If you want it, you almost always have to drag it back on an airplane because few British retailers stock it. But all of this could be changing. Lately I’ve noticed a few Canadian wines available at merchants such as Highbury Vintners, which has had a small but varying selection for the past few years. Other merchants have carried one or two Canadian wines, but the selection has been limited, fleeting and, quite often consisting of the usual suspects.

Making matters worse, Canada’s reputation as a wine-producing nation has been fairly poor. But following a tasting of Canadian wines in London earlier this year, opinions seem to be improving and are now receiving positive reviews. Sadly, most of what was on offer at this tasting is not available here, which is of little help for those who wanted to buy a few bottles.

ID-10095066So what can we get? Google has provided me with few answers. There is always  Le Clos JordanneInniskillin and Bachelder, distributed in the UK by Liberty Wines. Le Clos Jordanne has become the flag-bearer for Canadian wine in the UK and is widely available. Adequate as it may be, a wino can’t be sustained on the same pinot noir and chardonnay day in, day out. So what else can they offer us? Not much. Unfortunately, the ever-present ice wines available from retailers across the land is a novelty that we just can’t shake off our backs. 

Recently the Wine Society began selling two Norman Hardie wines, a pinot noir and chardonnay, both of which are rated highly. But we need more than just another pinot noir and chardonnay. Where are the syrahs, the cabernet blends, the rieslings and everything else?

If the pickings are slim, the question, then, is why don’t we see much more Canadian wine now that people are beginning to take it more seriously?

The answer is one of capacity, demand and marketing. A quick look at the industry’s vital statistics shows an industry that produces a tiny quantity of wine compared to the rest of the world. The export market for Canadian wine is nascent, even if it has been operating domestically on a small scale for decades. The Canadian Vintners’ Association says there are 11,130 hectares of vineyard and 1,700 grape growers and vineyards in the country, while New Zealand, which has a much smaller population but a much more hospitable climate, has a production area of 33,400 hectares.

When it comes to exports, New Zealand sends almost seven times more wine to overseas markets than Canada, at 179-million litres compared with just 26.2-million litres. More than 24-million litres goes to the US alone; just 343,229 litres of Canadian wine makes it to the UK each year.

There might not be enough demand for Canadian wine in the UK apart from me and a few nerds in the trade, of course. Don’t forget: There are still the naysayers. The curmudgeons. The people who read an article four or five years ago and still refuse to think the world has moved on since then.

The secret to turning things around is an effective marketing campaign and a concerted effort to put bottles on shelves. This was the same problem that Audi faced in the US at the start of the previous decade. At the time, the company ranked seventh in the minds of people who wanted to buy luxury cars, which more or less meant it wasn’t even something most people considered. Today, Audi is ranked second on that list. How did it turn itself around? An ad campaign that showed it was not only different to its competitors, but also better.

Given we Canadians are often considered to be ‘nice’ and ‘boring’, our wineries have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to earn international acclaim.