Some reflections on being a Wine Judge – part one

ON BEING A WINE JUDGE

Regretfully, I’ve just tendered my resignation from the Spanish Wine Judging Panel of the International Wine & Spirits Competition, the IWSC, held annually, now in London, having moved recently from Guildford. This would have been my 9th consecutive year in such a position, although ill health kept me from attending in 2019.

And it’s ill health at play again, forcing me to resign, not only from this, one of the world’s three most prestigious international wine competitions, but from all others too, international and national in Spain as well! To say I’m rather sad about it, is something of an understatement – and some! However, given the current pandemic, from which we are all suffering, I agree, of course, that there are far worse things in life! So, this is not a feeble attempt to play the sympathy card.

Rather, it is an opportunity to explain to Cork Talk readers, what it is to be a National and International Wine Judge, with examples from some of the highlights of my judging tenure. It’s been a blast!

I made my wine judging debut in 2011, in Galicia, North West Spain, and to be specific in the small, centuries old seaside town of Cambados, in the Denominación de Origen Rías Baixas. Readers will know, of course, that this DO is the natural home of that famous white wine grape variety, Albariño! It was, of course, this wonderful variety that we were going to be judging.

The organisers kindly acceded to my request for my lovely wife to come along for the ride too. Whilst my fellow judges and I were working, Claire was able to relax in the opulence of the Cambados Parador (highly recommended btw), where we were staying (expenses paid, I should add) and where, in one of the conference rooms, the judging took place.

Claire was also able to join us for the social activities built into the weekend – which included dining chez Michelin starred restaurants; a magnificent catamaran trip into the bay, tasting all the seafood dishes known to man, partnered, of course, by all the Rías Baixas Albariños know to man too; plus a glorious garden party where the medal winners were presented, to a huge gathering, including the President of the Comunidad and other politicians, as well as the glitterati of NW Spain!

My Spanish wasn’t so good in those days (it’s not brilliant now) and, although proud to be the first ever foreigner to be asked judge, it was something of a baptism of fire. However, the wine did the talking, far more eloquently than I managed! We were judging the 2010 vintage, and there was a large entry. Plus, of course, the number of Albariño wines we tasted on the catamaran and in the restaurants at lunches and dinner. All, of course, white Albariño. It was a truly wonderful experience – but I have to say, that by the time Sunday evening came, and we’d just arrived in nearby Santiago de Compostella, we probably could have killed for a glass of red!

I must have done something right as I was co-opted onto a Decanter Magazine panel later in the year, judging, as it happened the 2007 vintage of DO Rioja – red wines all! And being quoted a couple of times in that world famous magazine!

The following year I was invited to Guildford to ‘trial’ (now there’s an appropriate word!) as a judge for the IWSC. This was not so much of a step up in prestige, but more a mounting of the whole ladder! If I hadn’t passed the fairly stringent testing I would have been sent packing, back to Spain and relative anonymity, after kicking my heels for a few days waiting for the return flight I’d booked – perhaps too positively?

Fortunately I found myself sitting in one of the three judging rooms, with seven or eight fellow, though far more illustrious, and experienced judges, than me, the new kid on the panel, judging, as it happened Spanish as well as Portuguese wines.

I didn’t look back – until day!

Each of the times I judged in Guildford I was struck by how fortunate I was to be in the same room as such luminaries – Masters of Wine, Cape Wine Masters, Master Sommeliers, Wine Buyers for major supermarkets, Wine Makers, Winery Owners, Wine Media folk and so on! I was always nervous, the more so when, on occasion (too many occasions for my liking!) the computer happened to have selected me to read out my scores first, before the others on the panel. Imagine if I’d given a wine, say 64, and the others had rated it in the 80s and above! Firstly, you begin to doubt your ability, then it’s made worse by your being asked to justify your score, as opposed to those of your fellows! Strewth – it was a worry!

Fortunately there weren’t many times at all when there was such a disparity, and over the years I realised that this can in fact happen to all of us, even those above. Stressful though it was, I really enjoyed these sessions, as well as the chat over lunch afterwards, where the best wines that each panel had tasted were served to accompany the gourmet dishes bought in. The minibus journey back to Guildford (the actual judging rooms were about 25 minutes out of the town, in fact at the same aerodrome as was used by Jeremy Clarkson et al when filming Top Gear!) was always interesting as well.

We’d be perhaps 14 people, different nationalities, qualifications and experiences, but all with a passion for wine in common. I’m going to miss it!

I think I’ll make this Part One – of ‘On Being a Wine Judge’. There are few funny stories to tell, as well as the actually manner by which these judging sessions are conducted, sometimes including a member of the legal profession presiding over the event to ensure no foul play!

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