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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Chilean wine and other things I don’t understand

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I was listening to the radio while still in bed last weekend and they were talking about how, in the year 775, gamma rays blasted the earth with a heavy dose of radiation.

How did they figure this out, the interviewer asked? It wasn’t from eye-witness accounts, because people wouldn’t have even noticed it.

It also wasn’t from catastrophic damage caused by the radiation, because it didn’t plunge the world into a nuclear winter, nor did it blow away the ozone layer or cause people to grow extra limbs, so there was little evidence of it even happening.

Turns out the scientists found clues by looking at tree rings. And then, in order to find an answer to this, they determined it was caused by two black holes that had collided with each other.

Er, what?

Despite these explanations, I still don’t understand how they figured out that this happened at all. Or how two colliding black holes would have done it. Even more mind-blowing was the fact the entire Earth would have been fried to a crisp had it happened less than 3,000 light years away.

But, then again, I can’t even figure out why bread from Sainsbury’s toasts faster than bread from Waitrose. You can understand, then, why my brain nearly imploded when I heard this cosmic revelation.

Another thing I’ve never really been able to understand is Chilean wine. Or maybe I just don’t get along with it. Whatever it is, I’ve always felt most of the wine from the South American country has tasted vaguely of what I might want to drink, but not actually having enough character to be memorable or worth my time.

So, with those concerns in mind, this past weekend I opened a sample bottle I had been sent. It was a Montes Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc 2011.

When it comes to typical sauvignon blanc, most of the time I expect one of two things to happen. On the one hand, it will be pungent and grassy with plenty of acidity like those from New Zealand. On the other hand, if it’s from, say, the Loire, it will be a little more restrained and offer up citrus aromas with a drier, more mineral and flinty mouthfeel, hitting the back of my throat with its dryness and acidity. I particularly enjoy that.

And then there is Chilean sauvignon blanc. In this particular case, that bottle of Montes Outer Limits. Its faux-weathered label featuring scrawled text and a figure that looks like a drifter certainly lived up to this wine’s ‘do-anything’ new world attitude.

But its contents confused me. It was a lot like the first time I walked into a French public toilet and, rather than find a familiar porcelain toilet, I found the flush equivalent of a hole in the floor staring back at me. This wasn’t what I was after.

To be fair to this wine, and a lot of Chilean wine in general, the problem is probably more with me and not the wine. I expect a certain type of wine when it comes to sauv blanc that isn’t always going to be met.

So, as expected, this one had that gooseberry/cat urine smell, much like Kiwi sauv blanc. It also seemed to have a spritz or a fizz to it, but then it mellowed down into tropical fruits (pineapple, passion fruit, etc) and a fairly round finish. It seemed full and fruity, but it didn’t whack the back of my throat with acidity or minerality, which disappointed me slightly.

It was good, sure, but it wasn’t a wine I’d seek out again. Something was missing. It just seemed a bit too easy. And I am not someone who likes easy. If I liked easy, I would take the train or the bus to work each day. Or even ride my bike. Instead I choose to walk, which takes an hour, because it’s less easy than the other options. I would crawl on my hands and knees, but I don’t have all day.

When it comes to sauv blanc, I want a wine with a real character, not something that tries to taste a little like New Zealand and a little like France, which is what so much Chilean wine seems to be about. And I’m a bit tired of the cat wee smell the Kiwi stuff gives off. My housemate’s cats already do their bit to fill my world with the hum of feline pee, so its presence in my wine is overkill.

Mostly, I like my sauvignon blanc in the spirit of something like, say, Domaine Michel Thomas Sancerre. Call me old school. Call me boring. Call me set in my ways.

Wine smelling of hair perming fluid? Less than a fiver

It was bound to happen eventually. I had gone months, if not more than a year, without tasting a white wine I found truly difficult to drink.

On the flipside, there have been many red wines along the way I found to be fairly vile (not including corked or oxidised bottles), but when it came to white wine it was all drinkable to one degree or another.

Clearly this should have given me reason to worry. Instead, I merrily went along with my daily business believing all was good in the world.

And then the offending bottle came into my life, a Calvet La Fleur Baron. Like a bad relationship, it was all wrong from the start. I should have avoided it before it began, but hindsight is a perfect science, as they say.

Yes, it was only £4.50, but I’ve never been one to believe price on its own is a determining factor. No, the signs lay elsewhere.

First, I bought it at Asda. I never shop at Asda. I haven’t liked Asda for, well, ever, and so the fact I was in there, buying not just one bottle of wine but two of them (they were on ‘sale’ apparently) in a part of Greater Manchester called Chadderton, could only mean bad news.

Second, in order to buy said bottle of wine I cycled to this Asda with my friend, Tim, on a fairly grim Friday afternoon when bad weather was rolling in and the sun was setting quickly.

It was cold. The traffic was frenetic. And the people in the store all looked like something out of the zombie apocalypse. All the signs of a bad relationship were there in front of me but I never saw them.

The tipping point, of course, was on the ride home from the supermarket – in the dark. Tim had been leading the way and himself narrowly avoided being side-swiped by someone driving a generic people carrier. He stormed off in anger to catch up the faux minivan, while I made the mistake of trying to follow. The traffic was dense and backed up. The sun had set. It was eery out there.

And that was when it happened. Just as I was sneaking along a line of stopped cars I saw another trying to cut through to a side road. I accelerated in vain to avoid it. BANG. The car hit my rear wheel and sent my blinking red light flying. My bike was out of control and I had to lean hard to the right to avoid slamming into a car on the left.

It was a hairy moment. Had I been carrying the wine I’d be tempted to believe, in hindsight, this was an attempt by some higher force to destroy it before it could reach my lips.

Despite that horrific experience, I was unscathed although a little bit shaken and a whole lot relieved.

And that is exactly how I felt every time I took a sip of this wine. It’s a horrific and frightening moment that you think could result in your demise. But then it’s suddenly over and you realise you’re still standing and, remarkably, uninjured.

When I shared this wine with Tim and his girlfriend, the initial reaction was negative across the board. For me, it smelled of hair salons. You know, that pungent odour of hair perming solution that lingers in the air. I thought it would go away with air or more chilling. But the stink remained.

There might have been decent fruit in this wine, but it seemed flabby and disjointed. It left a sharp taste in the mouth that made me want to do anything but drink more.

Worst of all, despite all three of us drinking a moderate amount of this wine, we all complained of worse-than-normal headaches the following morning.

Lucky for Tim he still has the second bottle of this misfit in his pantry.