The past few days have been spent not roaming around looking for the next new thing, but in fact amongst many of the world’s finest wine palates searching for the next BEST thing. Yes, this is the time of year we wine 'pros' get together in a light, airy work space in Parsons Green and set about judging over 20,000 wines from across the globe. Without a hint of irony, it is a tough life!
I am fortunate enough to have been invited to join John Livingstone Learmonth and his team of 8, which include, Jamie Hutchinson of The Sampler, Mark Williamson of Willi's Wine Bar in Paris, Stephane Soret, sommelier at Raffles in Singapore, the lovely Kate, sommelier at Chez Bruce, fellow wine trader Jonathan Kimms and finally John Switzer, a Canadian academic who has a passion for the region that is both enlightening and affirming.
There are over 90 judges in total, and I must say that when one casts an eye around, the calibre is impressive. Each region has a chairperson, someone who has an intimate and lifelong affiliation to the region, (Gerard Bassett MW is regional France, Peter Richards MW is Chile, James Lawther MW is Bordeaux and so on) and the team around them are picked for their broader knowledge. I personally have judged regional France, Spain, Italy and Rhône, and it is here I feel most at home.
The day starts with a briefing from Steven Spurrier, one of the trade’s icons and Editor at Large for Decanter magazine. Coffee is consumed, croissants taken and we all assemble at our tables for the day's work. There are four to a table and each taster has 12 glasses, score sheets and a crib sheet telling us what the general categories are; varietal blends, alcohol and price range, going from £5 to £200 plus (and no, we haven't had one of those, but yes, here was one wine that was, a Barolo of all things). We have a team helper who pours the wines, generally helps out and runs off to get another bottle if the sample is corked or otherwise unpalatable. Sadly, and more often than not, the second bottle often proves no better than the first.
We the calibrate our tasting scores, tasting two wine in succession and marking them out of 20: 14.5 is commended, 15.5 bronze, 17 silver and 18.5 gold. We then taste in flights, 12 at a time, and after each flight we aggregate our scores and discuss anomalies, using John LL as the arbitrator. Generally the consensus is in line, but it is always amazing to me that no matter how objective you try to be, how analytical one tries to be, personal tastes and prejudices do occasionally push through. I prefer lighter, fresher wines, mineral, cool characters, others prefer more brooding styles, deeper fruit and body, so occasionally the tastes collide and that is when the interesting banter begins.
The wines we have tasted so far have been in the main of average quality, with only a handful of golds awarded, one being for the first wine of the first flight on Monday (to mighty applause as last year we gave no golds in the first three days), a cheeky Costière de Nimes with a very attractive price point. What has been a disappointment are the wines from the more highly regarded AC's, Châteauneuf 2011 in bottle already? I don't think so. Vacqueyras 2011 and 2010 were tasting flat. 2010 Châteauneuf, which really should be a breeze, was hard work and without charm in the main, and the less said about the Côtes du Rhône Village category the better frankly. One should remember however that those producers who make the very finest wines are unlikely to enter their wines into these competitions for a number of reasons, so one is really only likely to be tasting wines from producers who need this sort of accolade. It is a shame as a great wine would really get the full blown gold treatment!
By the end of the day everyone is exhausted, the concentration required and the demanding nature of tasting 80 or so wines is quite intense, so nothing is more welcome than the pint I had in The White Horse afterward. This is the time for banter and catching up with old friends, many of whom fly in from around the globe and who only meet once a year. It's a great feeling being part of what is probably the very best wine competition held anywhere in the world and the feeling if exhaustion is soon lost. As I sit on the train on my way to day three, I am champing at the bit to get stuck in: Châteauneuf du Pape, price point £50 plus all day long, perfect for this miserable weather!
Bon soif mes amis.