Tasting Competitions – Cred or Crud?

The ever entertaining Willie Lebus has been complaining this morning about wine competitions and the folly of a tasting line up that had a ‘… sumptuous Mornington P Pinot Noir followed by a Savigny 04’. He goes on, ‘5 minutes later all the gamey charm started to dribble out of the SLB 04. A more complex, savoury Pinot with telling acidity.’

I’ve been involved in several tasting competitions, both as organiser and taster, and I’ll be the first to confess that they’re far from perfect. Let’s talk football for a moment, Teams from lower leagues can have a good cup run, gaining some impressive scalps on the way, but over the course of a 38/46 game season, the best sides end up at the top of the league. So it is with tasting competitions – the wines with impressive reputations, or at least those of them that are entered, don’t always come out on top. And sometimes this is fully justified – it’s not all that long ago that Leeds United, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers were all Champions in the English top division. Moreover, competitions are very good at highlighting new talent – a winery that performs well for several years in a row hopefully isn’t going remain unknown for long.

But Wily Willie’s point basically comes down to this – wine competitions can often highlight loudness and sumptuousness at the expense of subtlety and complexity. The organisers of the good events do all they can to warn tasters of the dangers of this. Certainly when I’m chairing panels at the International Wine Challenge, I often ask some of the members to start at the opposite end of the line-up and to keep an eye out for any shy fawns that could be at risk of being trampled by a preceding array of body-builders. And the IWC also has a further panel of super-jurors who taste EVERY wine just in case, like Willie’s Savigny, there are wines that have blossomed (or deteriorated) the longer they’ve been opened. Feedback from them suggests that the panel chairs are pretty good at their job.

How good, I’ll find out tonight, when it’s time to get out the penguin gear and go to the IWC Awards Dinner at Grosvenor House. Many people smuggle in their own wines, rather than drink the award winners that are on the tables. It’s not that the wines are bad, just that many of them, the reds especially, are nowhere near ready to drink. However, this being Britain, there will no doubt be complaints about how such-and-such a wine could ever have won a trophy, when other wines missed out. Put it down to wine giant-killing. It doesn’t mean that the trophy winners are – as some of the more enthusiastic press releases will say – the Best Cabernet/Chardonnay/Whatever in the world, just that they’ve had a good cup run. Allow them their moment of glory – but think twice before you bet on them for the title come the end of the season.

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