First published in Costa News Group May 2013
To my shame, I admit I hadn’t heard of Anton Massel when I first met him on the Costa Blanca a dozen or so years ago. My friend Tim Ladd had arranged a meeting to set out the parameters for our new business idea – a Wine Club, serving wine enthusiasts on the Costas of Spain. Anton was introduced to me as a true expert in the world of wine and the three of us thus had shared interests.
I wonder how many readers remember the oft lamented CB Wine Club SL? It was a good idea, we believed. As a triumvirate we amassed considerable knowledge of the Spanish wine scene, each with our own specialities. Tim had a successful history with Harvey’s of Bristol and was a Sherry and Port expert; Anton was a renowned author of several wine books as well as being a wine-maker; and I covered the contemporary wines of the day with a finger on the pulse of the restaurant trade and consumer trends.
Despite unrelenting research, several public tastings, positive comments and plenty of effort the business didn’t survive. Whilst it didn’t lose money, it didn’t make any either! Consequently after a couple of years we threw in the corkscrew and, though remaining friends of course, we went our separate ways – concentrating, in the current music business parlance, on our solo careers.
Several years later when I was appointed International Wine Judge to serve on the panels of the prestigious International Wines and Spirits Competition I was delighted to be greeted by the smiling photograph of Anton when I first entered the nerve-centre of the IWSC, at Dunsford Aerodrome, Cranleigh, near Guildford.
Anton was the founder of the IWSC, or as it was called then, in 1969 (when I was just about to leave Secondary School!), the Club Oenologique. A celebrated wine chemist, he wanted to institute a wine and spirits competition that didn’t rely solely on organoleptic judgement (tasting) but on chemical analysis as well.
From its small and humble beginings, Anton could scarcely have imagined the impact his idea would have on today’s wine and spirits industry. Nowadays the IWSC seal of approval, manifested in the wine label replicas of the medals that are awarded for excellence, is a sure sign of the quality that awaits the consumer when he/she buys a bottle so adorned.
When in Portugal last year and at a loss as to which wines to buy in a supermarket I confidently reached for those which had this IWSC recognition and of course was not let down. Winning an IWSC medal means something!
So when I was this year invited to judge Italian wines during a most enjoyable, though intense, week at the end of April, I was delighted to accept with alacrity. I’ve just returned having tasted an average of sixty five wines per four hour session on each of the four days I was there. I told you it was intense!
You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d perhaps taken a wrong turning as you arrive for the competition. The leafy glade through which you travel en route in the hear of the English countryside, with leaf and blossom clearly on show and enjoying the four days of super sunny days, hardly prepares you for the security gate, staffed by stern looking guards, which leads onto an airfield surrounded by a forest.
You are also likely to encounter: huge ‘double-decker’ aircraft, sleek private jets, military planes and commercial helicopters, as well as the odd camouflaged Chinook! Then your ears are likely to be assailed by the stunningly swift racing cars that you’ll see being put through their paces on the runway, sometimes with TV cameras in attendance, as this is where much of Top Gear is filmed!
However once through the portals of this hallowed centre of excellence for judging some of the world’s finest wines, all is tranquil with a wholly professional air. Judges consult the list to find out which of the tasting rooms in which they are going to be based for the morning.
Once the quorum is gathered the Chairperson asks for the ‘kite’ to be brought in (a first, named wine, to be tasted by all panel members who each assess and mark it to see if there is any wide variance in the judges’ opinions, and to prepare the palate for the onslaught that is about to commence!).
Whilst waiting for the first ‘flight’ of wines which follows the kite, panel members are asked to introduce themselves to the others – we’ll be spending an intense four hours together so it’s nice to know something about fellow judges. This year I was struck by the number of panellists who were at the last stages of their Master of Wine exams, as well as those who have already made it to such a high ranking echelon.
Then it’s down to work – wines are assessed, marked, and only after all scores have been collected and logged into the computer, are the wines sometimes momentarily discussed. I can tell you it’s quite nerve-racking reading out the score that you’ve given a wine in front of such high achievers in the wine world!
I was pleased to see that mostly we were all in accord regarding our opinions with only a few occasions when the Chair asked us all to go back to a certain wine and taste it again to see if we might wish to change our initial opinions, though without pressure to do so, of course.
I’d been otherwise engaged when the Spanish wines had been judged, a couple of weeks before (I’d been working on a cruise ship – did I mention that?!), but was keen to pit my wits against the wines from Italy, which I’ve always enjoyed.
In some ways like Spain, Italian wines have enjoyed an enviable reputation for their gloriously rich red wines, including Chianti Classico, Barbaresco, Amarone, Barolo, Montepulciano et al, whilst their whites have not been so acclaimed. I was delighted to find that some of the white wines of Italy are wonderfully aromatic and flavoursome, rivalling many of the similarly super whites of Spain.
And there’s also Prosecco!
There was only one day when the panels on which I served did not taste any Prosecco, such is the popularity of this Italian sparkling wine today, in the UK market at least. Indeed members of one of the tasting panels on which I didn’t serve said that there had been a danger one day when they might have been all Prosecco-ed Out!
It’s a fine drink, even if the Brut versions are still a little sweet, owing to the natural characteristics of the variety which is responsible for the drink and its name, Prosecco. It’s light on the palate, quite aromatic on the nose and will be an ideal aperitif for those who shun the drier Cava and Champagne. Even the dry Prosecco styles, as well, of course, as the sweeter ones are super with desserts and fruit adding an extra dimension to the sweet course of any meal.
My favourites wines of the four-day session were: Amarone reds, two of which were awarded Gold* medals, most of the rest receiving Silvers and Silver outstanding; Valpolicella Ripasso; Salice Salento; and the white Pecorino, Trebiano and Fiano.
NB * To be awarded a Gold in this competition is praise indeed, so too Silver Outstading. Also please note all wines are tasted blind, with no prior knoweledge apart from their provenance. Therefore, whilst I have all the medal winners listed in my notes I have no idea which wines they are and who makes them! This information only moves into the public domain a few days before the awards are presented – and that includes the judges who put them there!
PS There may still be some places left on the super Bodega/Cultural Trip, Weds 22nd May. Please call me (629 388 159) or e-mail for more information – it promises to be an excellent day out including lunch and wines!