I have mentioned in one or more of these columns that I am not exactly a fan of wine competitions. I have remarked previously at the futility of judging something as aesthetically challenging as wine, and how studies have shown that the results are akin to pure chance.
So of course I said yes when the Nedbank Green Wine Awards asked me to join them as a ‘blogger’ judge. A blogger judge meant that my scores were not as important as the other judges, but there was a bloggers’ choice award. This did worry me at the time, as if I saw a bottle of wine with a sticker claiming it was chosen by bloggers, I would most likely avoid it. You give a blogger a free lunch and he/she will say anything.
I’ve judged a tiny bit previously, so the format, scoring, and challenge of tasting 120-odd wines in a day wasn’t strange to me, but then, the challenge of tasting 120 wines in a day is always strange. This was the first thing I thought as I plowed my through the first morning’s flight of 60-something wines; that wine judging – the process that supposedly helps wine drinkers choose better wines – takes place in an environment utterly different from the one wine is normally drunk in.
First off wine wine judges wear aprons. If it is to promote seriousness, it fails. There is nothing less serious than an apron (unless, it is made of a heavy lead lined material for use in nuclear plants). You would have thought that fter years of practice, wine judges would not spill. Apparently not.
Another vast difference to how you would normally drink wine is the briefest of encounters you have with a wine as you judge. You gaze at the colour, make some notes before swirling and sniffing. More notes. Maybe another sniff. Then into the mouth where there is much slurping and sloshing. I sometimes give a quizzical look at this point. It conveys to whoever is looking that I am taking this very seriously and am either surprised, or disappointed with a wine. Usually though, it means have let my mind wander and have no idea what to write down. A spit next, before some hastily written notes. The procedure may occur again – where a look of satisfaction and finality crosses my face – before a score out of 20 is given.
Concentration is paramount. If my mind wandered for a second to anything other than the wine I was tasting, all useful information disappeared. If, instead of thinking about tannin structure, residual sugar, or how concentrated the flavor was, I’d mull over some aspect of latest Die Antwoord video, I would have to taste the wine all over again.
This is particularly frustrating as you feel you palate getting more and more fatigued. It gets noticeably harder to concentrate and pick out nuances in the wine – well, whatever nuances can be expected in the short time you spend with each wine. Alcohol, tannin and acidity all take their toll.
When you have finished with all the sheets provided for entering your scores they are handed in and an accountant of some sort enters the results into a computer. Then, you go round the room reading out our scores – remember we have no idea what these wines are, only their type (Rhone blend, Pinotage, Bordeaux blend etc.).
This is a strange business. The fear of scoring a wine 19 and everyone giving it 14 is strong. If this happens you need to defend your wine, and convince the group of why you think it deserves a higher score.
I found this was the time I snapped out of my concentrating haze, and could go back to the wines for a second try with a different mindset. I did not do this for every wine, but for those I was a little confused about.
You have no idea how many times I was wrong. It’s humbling. One wine in particluar I scored low, on tasting again I realised that I love it. It was exactly the type of wine I like, and it was made extremely well. How did I mange to give it such a poor score the first time around? Well, I guess with the pressure of tasting so many wines and tasting it amongst so many I got confused.
So far I am sure I have not bolstered anyone’s faith in wine competitions. They are ludicrous, an insane, quixotic task. In vino there maybe be veritas, but in wine competitions, for me, there is only confusion.
But – there is always a but at around this point in a column – they are not useless. Far from it. despite these inherent problems, find me a better way to asses a large amount of wine in a short period of time. How could you possibly take each of the hundreds of bottles home and spend and evening slowly assessing each one? You can’t. It is why wine competition results – like the wines themselves – need to be taken in context.
Another benefit is that a category gets to be assessed. While individual scores may be problematic; no wine competition can say one wine or another is the ultimate best – the feedback from the judges are an important barometer on the category they are judging.
For us there were two categories. One was the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) category, where the only barrier to entry was that the farm producing the wine must be part of the BWI program – an initiative that sees farms dedicate a portion of their land to conservation. While this is a great plan, and is working well, it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the wines. So I don’t think any general comments can really be made here.
The other, smaller, category were wines that are certified as organic. This was a happy surprise to the judging panel. Those that had tasted on the panel before found the category has improved year on year, and I can say there were hardly – if any – very poor wines, with some that showed a lot of interest. So while there will be a ‘best organic wine’ it is only the best of the wines entered, as judged on the day by those judging. Nothing more. But great to see more wines being certified as organic, and better wines being made each year.
It’s always good to see something from the inside, rather than just sit apart and critique. Wine judges have a very difficult task, and I can happily say those who are – not including blogger judges of course – playing this role in South Africa are doing their upmost to make sure the results are as fair, accurate, and honest as possible, well-aware of all the aforementioned problems.
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