Sarah Abbott on a major new competition for the Chinese market.

Sarah is a Master of Wine, founder of Swirl, and has judged at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) for seven years, firstly as a panel chair and, for the past two years, as one of the six co-chairs.

Sarah founded Swirl with the aim of championing emerging regions, and underestimated classics. She has a reputation for her ability to sniff out exciting emerging wine regions and producers, and to communicate her specialist knowledge in a down-to-earth way to trade and consumers alike.

A large part of Sarah’s motivation is to debunk assumptions made about lesser known wine types and regions. Take Georgian wine: until recently it was thought by many to be of general low quality, a region populated by obscure grapes and strange wine making practices. Now? Orange wine is more fashionable than ever, with interest in the ancient amphorae-method sparking experiments right here in the UK. Georgian wine is increasingly available in the UK mainstream – thanks, in part, to Sarah’s dedicated championing of the country’s wines.

It’s unsurprising that a conversation at 2018’s International Wine Challenge awards party resulted in an exploratory trip to Ningxia, China’s major wine-producing region.

“I spent just a week there in October 2018, and was blown away by the ambition, determination, and potential of the wines I tasted and winemakers I met. The next time that someone trots out that ‘Chinese people only drink wine with coke’ line, tell them it’s nonsense. I met so many highly engaged, knowledgable, dedicated Chinese wine professionals and enthusiasts. That week opened my eyes. Wine culture – in terms of both appreciation and production – is taking root in China. They bring their particular aesthetic and philosophical approaches to wine, and this cultural exchange can only enhance the relevance and joy of wine for all of us.”

The experience sealed the deal for Sarah when she was invited to judge at the inaugural IWC China. International Wine Challenge had partnered with the existing Shanghai Wine Challenge to create a bigger competition of impeccable integrity and reach and Sarah was thrilled to be part of it.

The experience also cemented the importance of well-run competitions for producers from lesser known or emerging regions. The feedback and endorsement from the IWC helps wineries to secure sales, exports and recognition – as well as offering a helping hand to the overwhelmed consumer who views a medal sticker as a beacon on a supermarket shelf.

Indeed, the judging experience opened up another facet of Chinese wine culture to Sarah:

“The experience was different to my London co-chairing work, as I was reporting in as a panel chair to our Chinese co-chairs, who include leading judges from China, Japan, and Australia. My panels were amazing. The passion and knowledge of the Chinese and other Asian wine judges that I worked with humbled and inspired me. They rock. Loving wine is a universal language, but each nation brings its cultural context to wine appreciation. I learned a lot from assessing wine with judges who came from that Chinese cultural perspective. We had some brilliant wines entered – all of them in the Chinese market – and I can’t wait to see how this market develops. Chinese wine consumers are thirsty for knowledge and reassurance about wine, and the International Wine Challenge China provides that with judgements and wine descriptions that are truly relevant to the wines they can buy in their market.”

The quality and personality of Chinese wine is blossoming alongside the wine culture, becoming more nuanced and confident in its own unique personality. China’s wine is moving away from the “identikit Cab monsters” and towards bold but balanced Bordeaux blends, fragrant Marselan, and surprisingly zesty Riesling, and other whites. “The opportunity to taste and compare scores of new-wave Chinese wines was fascinating, and a highlight of the judging for me.” says Sarah.

Sarah and the Swirl team are looking forward to exploring more of what this fascinating region has to offer, and learning more from the established experts and enthusiasts on the other side of the world.

Take a look at the prize-winning wines chosen by the International Wine Challenge judges here.