It takes a great deal of work to make a bottle of wine. Those involved include not just the winemaker and vigneron (who cultivates the grapes), but also the workers in the fields and cellar.
When a wine is entered into a competition, judges are aware of the work that has gone into it. Judging panels usually include masters of wine, winemakers, dealers (who are excluded from judging the wines they sell), wine writers and sommeliers (like me). A wine is scored on several factors: its appearance in the glass, aromatic appeal, taste and finish.
Appearance (usually judged out of 10 points) First impressions count. What a judge looks at is the colour; its intensity and how that changes from core (the middle of the glass) to rim. For example, a young, new world shiraz will be dense, almost opaque purple in hue, becoming paler purple at the rim, while an aged Rhône syrah (another name for the shiraz grape) will have a more mellow brick or tawny ruby colour that you can see through, with a tea-like hue at rim edge.
Aromatics (30 points) This is where we get to sniff and swirl. First sniff is to decide if there are any faults such as cork taint (smells like wet dog), Brettanomyces (manure), oxidisation (like boiled wine) or volatile acidity (vinegar).
If all is good, it’s on to the next sniff, where we are interested in intensity. How do the aromas in the glass grab your attention? (High marks are given when you notice the aroma before your nose even reaches the glass, medium is nose slightly inside the glass and so on.) This is where a judge mentally goes through a checklist of all aspects of fruit – tree, citrus, berry – then components of herbs and spices, before moving on to vegetal and, if any, floral aromas.
Secondary characteristics to sniff for are aromas derived from production techniques, including malolactic fermentation (a bit of creaminess) and ageing (oak – new or old), and sub-layer scents such as stone, mineral and forest. To a judge, the more elements they can detect in the glass, the more interesting the wine.
Taste and finish (first and second impressions; 30 points each) A sip and a swirl in the mouth (spitting afterwards) is then required to confirm that everything sensed by the nose is present when the wine is tasted. Here, a wine is also scored from low to high on its acidity, tannin levels (for red wine), alcohol, body and intensity.
Most important to look for is balance – when all components work harmoniously together and make you want to take another sip. Is the wine young? If so, do you think it will improve with age? If the wine is old, has it aged gracefully? Is it mellow or still rough around the edges?
Conclusion Would I buy it? Would I recommend this to someone, confident that they will enjoy it? Would I be proud to share this wine? And the biggest question of all: if we were to give this wine a medal, would the average consumer agree with our assessment?
The tasting and scoring of a wine by a judging panel is carried out surprisingly rapidly. Should there be any glaring discrepancy in the scores passed to him or her, the senior judge (or chair) will retaste the wine and decide if he or she agrees with the higher or lower score. And the final outcome is always most interesting, with a bit of groaning and some “oh, my goodness” remarks once results are tallied.
Having sat on a number of judging panels, the biggest lessons have been that you cannot judge a wine by its label, and that it is the hard work and know-how of the vigneron and winemaker that ultimately make the magic happen in the glass.