They come for judgment.
In April, many hundreds of wine experts from around the world are in London. Like a vinous United Nations from the UK, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Greece, Lebanon, Georgia, Turkey, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and The Americas. Wine- makers, writers, consultants, importers and marketers – they come to taste and judge wine.
For most consumers, the sole manifestation of this intense activity is a medal sticker on a bottle. “I walk into the wine aisle, and I’m scared”, said one of my non-wine friends. That’s one reason that wine competitions exist. Medal-bearing wines, according to research by Marks and Spencer, sell faster and more.
I’ve judged at the biggest competitions – London’s jewels, the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards – and at countless regional competitions which deep-dive into hundreds of wines from a single country or region. Judging has taken me around the globe; from London to Amsterdam, Prague and Madrid, to Istanbul, Tiblisi and even Melbourne. I’ve enjoyed every experience, though these days I focus my judging primarily on the International Wine Challenge where I’ve judged for 6 years, 3 of them as co-chair.
Judging is the aspect of my professional life that provokes most curiosity from ‘normal’ (non-wine professional) humans. “What do you actually do to judge wine?” “Do you judge the label?” “How do you decide?” “What makes a wine good?”, and “Don’t you get drunk?”
Significantly, the one question nobody has ever asked is “Why?”.
The urge to rate, and to compete, is embedded in every endeavour; from sport, to jam-making, to professional services.
Wine competitions recall, partly at least, agricultural shows for prize sheep and cattle. (Look at this Malbec – an Absolute Unit.) In Australia, many wine shows are still attached to these agricultural show grounds. And the agricultural motivation – to improve the breed, to set a desirable trend – is another role of these competitions.
The appeal of competitions for wineries, who allocate precious marketing budget to submit their wines to anonymous scrutiny, is the increased value, promotion and prestige of award-winning wines. Pitch a new winery to a buyer of consumer-focussed wines, and they will ask about medals won. For emerging regions, medal winning wines from respected competitions can awaken export curiosity and domestic respect, almost instantly.
Above all, good wine competitions celebrate and reward high quality. But what is quality? And how do we quantify it?
I’ve been judging wine for twenty years, but I still feel the weight. Many dear friends are wine-makers and winery owners. I know that they battle with nature and biochemistry in making this unpredictable, agricultural product. It’s a precarious path to excellence. It takes cheerful, humble, informed curiosity to judge wine well. And a great back up – a well-run team and rigorous methodology are vital for consistent, optimal judging conditions.
With time, I have become more selective on accepting judging invitations. I require more than the basics of integrity, security and un-corruptibility (yes, I have seen some disturbing lapses in what should be blind tasting). Judging methodologies differ in their strengths and weaknesses, and in their appeal to individual judges. I’ve seen too many good wines lose out to arbitrary grade boundaries (in which only a certain % of wines can be awarded a top ranking), and to the stripping out of typicity as a predicate for quality. I decline those gigs.
Judging wines within their context of origin is a cornerstone of quality. “Typicity” is a sort of covenant between makers and drinkers on what “that” wine should and could be, given its place, making, heritage, and grape.
The importance of typicity is why the most respected awards – whose 2019 results are starting to be released this week – are fundamentally categorised by origin.
Trophies – the best of the best – are awarded predominantly by country, region and official appellation. I break no confidences in admitting that deciding between these top wines is incredibly difficult, and humbling. As a judge, you look for intrinsics of quality. By this, we mean attributes such as balance, length, nuance, intensity, complexity, character, and purity.
But typicity is the elevating factor, in a world which has plenty of competently-made wine, and made good ones. And, as with all competitors, wines can be on form, or off-colour, on the day. Everyone who works with wine knows that even (especially?) great wines have good and bad days. (My top tip to wineries submitting wines to competitions – taste your range just before you send the samples and submit the ones that are singing. Great wines can go through a sulky adolescence.)
Typicity captures the intersection of place, people and vine. It is a foundation of wine quality beyond the purely corporeal. Typicity gives sense to awarding the ‘same’ medal to wines that are so different to each other that they are barely the same creature. How can you compare 1978 Madeira, Tasmanian Chardonnay, English sparkling, Vintage Champagne, Red Burgundy, Moldovan Riesling, Georgian Orange wine, and southern French Petit Manseng? Typicity.
When judging, some wines greet you like dear, deep friends – instantly understandable, and clearly brilliant. Others are disconcerting strangers, especially when your wine career is young. Despite the UK’s much-vaunted openness to vino-diversity, classic European and established New World inhabit most of our wine consciousness, even among experienced wine professionals. But many of the world’s best, most interesting, wines are made so not by absolutes, but by relatives, and that takes some informed familiarity – the essence of connoisseurship.
One of the great excitements, and privileges, in judging wine at this level is to see typicity develop, especially from emerging and renascent regions. To see wineries, over several years, start to sixth-sense coalesce on what is the best and most truthful expression of their terroir potential. You can see this from Soave to Ningxia, and it is a thrill.
I trained in ‘the classics’ – Burgundy, Piedmont, Toscana, Bordeaux, and I adore them still. But the great connecting joy of wine is in the expression of quality and personality from wildly different, and apparently unconnected, places. Something that wine competitions celebrate is that sublime, great, good and uncomplicated enjoyable wine can come from almost anywhere – including places that might raise a snigger.
I hope that the genuine, thoughtful, endorsements behind those gold, silver and bronze stickers embolden consumers to go forth and savour new discoveries in wine. And that the makers behind them find new customers and well-deserved recognition for their mercurial, time-honoured craft.
Sarah Abbott is a co-chair for the International Wine Challenge. But some of her best friends judge for Decanter.