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


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×, 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. 

One thought on “Flying blind: Stepping behind the curtain at the International Wine Challenge

  1. Pingback: A reader offer you say? Yes, a reader offer: IWC gold medal tasting | Dispatches from a grape nut

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