International Wine Challenge training day

xI have just returned from a few days in London where I was a judge at the International Wine Challenge (IWC), the world’s largest wine competition. The IWC this year will taste and assess 8,500 wines of every style and price level in a huge blind tasting event. Judges are drawn from the International wine trade, wine journalism and enthusiastic amateur wine-lovers who have previously proved their tasting skills through an assesment day.

For the TAD, 70 wines are tasted, in 10 different categories, in the space of 3 hours. Each wine has to be tasted and assessed, a tasting note written, a score awarded, and any faults identified. With a new wine poured every 2½ minutes and such a huge diversity of tastes and styles, this really is a tough arena in which to perform. Once tasting sheets have been handed in, a panel of experienced IWC judges take you back through all 70 wines, revealing their identities for the first time and the score they awarded each wine.

In the weeks following, there is an assessment of each candidate’s completed papers, to see how closely their comments and scores match the “standard”. This decides whether or not one is invited to judge the IWC proper. In an event like this, with such sensory-overload from the volume and variety of different aromas and flavours, I believe every taster suffers a “low-point” over the course of the day. I know I found it very difficult to sustain my concentration over 3 solid hours. Undoubtedly my personal low-point fell half through the red wines. With gums thick with tannin, teeth aching from acidity, and hands cramped from writing, I really struggled to assess one particular batch of reds.

Below are my tasting notes from the day, exactly as written (the tasting was, of course, blind). In red text following each note is the identity of the wine plus the score it was given by the assessment panel. Included were some wines that had been doctored to exhibit flaws.

Flight One – Sparkling Wines

Wine Number 1
Short on bubbles. Pale lemon yellow. Slightly green and raw on the palate and a rather artificially foamy mousse. Coarse, but OK for a party fizz. Score=11
Hardys (Australia) Nottage Hill Sparkling Chardonnay 1997. Score=14-16
Coincidentally, the second blind-tasting in a row that I’ve been served this wine – didn’t like it much the first time either, so I’m consistent, if lower than the panel.

Wine Number 2
Pale straw colour. Nettly nose. No autolysis. Palate light but creamy mousse. Nice green apple fruit. Quite fresh with good lemony acidity. Champagne. Score=16
Mumm Cordon Rouge NV Champagne. Score=13.5-15

Wine Number 3
Deeper, older colour. Nutty, more evolved biscuity aromas. Pinot dominated Champagne. Robustly fruity, chewy and dense. Decent if a little flabby. Score=14
Mumm Grand Cordon 1990 Champagne. Score=16-17.5
Disappointing for a £50 luxury Champagne.

Wine Number 4
Dark, pinkish colour. Bubble-gummy nose. Good strawberry fruit on the palate but rather foursquare and no great complexity. Score=12
Mumm Cuvée Napa Rosé. Score=15.5-17
The judges admitted they’d been generous with this wine on re-tasting – their panel had disagreed over its merits and some suggested 14-15 would have been fairer.

Flight Two – Dry Whites

Wine Number 5
Pale lemon colour. Lightly aromatic. Quite delicate. Oily palate displays very modest fruit. Flabby. Score=10
Tesco Muscadet NV (France). Score=10

Wine Number 6
Pale lemon. Pleasant boiled-sweet nose. Palate has medium-weight with decent pear, melon and apple fruit. OK acidity and some length. Score=14.5
Tesco Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie (France) 1997. Score=14.5-16

Wine Number 7
Very pale straw colour, Subdued nose. Some gingery fruit Unpleasant palate: dilute and some volatile acidity. Score=0
Tesco Soave NV (Italy). Score=0 (faulty)

Wine Number 8
Not quite clear. Pleasant lemon and pear fruit on the nose. Decent mouthful, fresh and zippy with good fruit. Nicely balanced. Score=15.5
Tesco Soave Classico Superiore 1997. Score=13.5-15

Wine Number 9
Pale lemon. Heavy Hydrogen sulphide. Undrinkable. Score=0
Doctored wine, Hydrogen sulphide added. Score=0

Wine Number 10
Pale straw/lemon. Appetising nose – fresh and aromatic, nettles and pear drops. Sweet, rather syrupy fruit. In the wrong category. Score=14
Gaston Dorléans (France) Vouvray demi-sec 1998. Score=10

Wine Number 11
Pale straw. Subdued nose. Lemon and almond notes emerge. Light-bodied, but very clean with ripe peach and pear fruit. Maybe just off dry, good acidity. Score=16
Tesco Chenin Blanc NV (France). Score=13.5-15

Flight Three – Other Whites

Wine Number 12
Quite a deep gold/yellow. Not giving much on the nose. Oily mouthfeel. Very dry, with hay-like flavours. Dull, flabby and lacking fruit. Out of balance. Score=11
Garden Valley Chardonnay, Vin de Pays France 1997. Score=13-15

Wine Number 13
Deep golden yellow. Attractive nutty nose. Chardonnay again. Chewy, buttery melon and honeysuckle fruit. Good acidity and good length. Score=17
Lindemans (Australia) Bin 65 Chardonnay 1998. Score=15.5-17

Wine Number 14
Light gold, tinged green. Distinctive nose of hazelnuts and orange fruit. Toasty on the palate, with apple and pear fruit. A little bit hollow, but nice spicy finish. Score=16
Penfolds (Australia) The Valleys Chardonnay 1997. Score=17-18.5

Wine Number 15
Bright yellow colour. Nose has a touch of liquorice and straw, but a bit lifeless. Same on palate really. Score=11
Côte de Lechet (France) Chablis Premier Cru 1994. Score=12.5-14
Panel noted this was ageing and going down hill – the advantage of a blind tasting: who’d have thought a Premier Cru Chablis would be so much worse than a cheap, mass-production Chardonnay like the Bin 65?

Wine Number 16
Pale straw/green. High estery nose. Bright fruit and chalk. almost a touch petillant, with good peach and apricot fruit, but citrussy and fresh too. Vouvray? Score=15.5
Domaine de Tariquet Vin de Pays (France) Sauvignon Blanc 1998. Score=16-17.5

Wine Number 17
Very pale straw green. Dumb nose with little hints of white fruit. Quite weighty on the palate and sharp acidity. But a good depth of fruit. Big, but very good. Score=17
La Cresle de Laporte (France) Sancerre 1998. Score=15.5-17.5

Wine Number 18
Mid gold. Not much on the nose again. Citrus and a riper, sweeter note. Palate is medium bodied with lots of good, grapefruity acidity. Just enough lemon and apple fruit. Like previous wine, but not as good. Score=15
Villa Maria Private Bin (NZ) Sauvignon Blanc 1998. Score=12.5-14
My second tasting of this, and I’ve tasted another 3 or 4 premium New Zealand sauvignons – suggests to me that ’98 is not the year for Marlborough Sauvignons – snap up the remaining ’97s if you like them.

Wine Number 19
Very deep, bright yellow. Explosive nose. A little VA? Sour, hay-like notes dominate. Palate not bad – depth of liquorice, oak and spice. Score=15.5
Conde de Valdemar (Spain) Rioja 1995. Score=15.5-17.5

Flight Four – Germanic-Style Whites

Wine Number 20
Pale straw/lemon. Whiff of sulphur. Sweet fruit beneath, but cloying and non-descript. Score=10
Waitrose Ockfener Bockstein (M-S-R) Riesling QbA 1997. Score=14.5-16
I think we both got this wrong – my score of 10 was a careless one (less than 11 should be reserved for faulty wines, and this is not faulty) but the panel’s upper end mark would have given the wine a bronze medal, which it certainly didn’t rate.

Wine Number 21
Pale straw gold. Slightly dirty nose. Some sugary-sweet fruit. Commercial, but quite poor really – lacks balance. Score=11
Waitrose Liebfraumilch (Germany) QbA. Score=13.5-15
Again, the panel noted “a bit grubby on the nose….light and watery finish” so how they could then give a mark that was verging on a medal beats me (though Waitrose’s buyer was on the panel 🙂)

Wine Number 22
Very deep yellow/gold. Out of balance. Score=10
Gebhardt Hirt Kiedricher Gräfenberg (Rheingau) Riesling Kabinett 1989. Score=16-17.5
Not like me to have so badly misread a decent older Riesling as faulty. This is one of my favourite styles – and I’d been drinking an ’89 Mosel Kabinett the night before!

Wine Number 23
Medium gold colour. Sweet, rather confected nose. Once again a mouthful of sweetish, grapy fruit. Some acidity but not enough. Too heavy and flabby. Score=12
Caves de Turckheim (Alsace) Tokay-Pinot Gris 1997. Score=13.5-15
Consistent again – I tasted this a few months back and wrote an almost identical note.

Wine Number 24
Very pale. Quite attractive nose. A little sulphur. Peachy, lightly honeyed nuances. Good balance if no great complexity. Fruit is good but needs acidity. Score=13
Faulty wine, not named. Score=10 (excessive sulphur)
I found the level of free sulphur just acceptable, and it blew off with agitation. Wine beneath was ok.

Wine Number 25
Pale yellow. Nice fruit on the nose, clean and peachy. More complexity here with hints of minerals good lime and apple acidity keeps it fresh. Riesling. Score=15
Villa Maria (NZ) Private Bin Riesling 1998. Score=15.5-17

Flight Five – Spanish/Portuguese style wines

Wine Number 29
Zingy purple colour. Ripe cherry fruit on the nose, but loaded with sulphur too. Unclean. Out of condition. Score=0
Casa de la Viña (Spain) Tempranillo 1998. Score=0 (H2S, added acidity, Cardboardy)

Wine Number 30
Dark red. Attractive berry nose. Quite earthy. palate displays good firm fruit, quite savoury with firm tannins and a long finish. Score=17
Viña Alacorta (Spain) Tempranillo 1996. Score=15.5-17.5

Wine Number 31
Very dense crimson/black. Rather brackish. Flat on the palate, vestiges of some nice fruit but rather high acidity. Score=13
Vila Santa (Portugal) Alentejo 1997. Score=16.5-17.5
I’m certainly prepared to accept I got this wrong, not being a great expert on Portugeuse reds and that peculiarly high acidity that seems to be a trait.

Wine Number 32
Darkish crimson/black. Minty, ripe fruit on nose. Quite chewy, serious stuff, tannic and tight but a good core of fruit. Score=16
Foral (Portugal) Douro 1996. Score=12-14

Wine Number 33
Deep ruby/crimson. Lovely fruit. A hint of vanillin. Ripe berries, cool and creamy palate. Fruit-driven with mouth-coating tannins but complex and balanced. Score=18
Palmela (Portugal) Particular Aliança 1996. Score=15-17

Flight Six – Italian style

Wine Number 34
Deep cherry red. Sweet mint-humbug and caramel nose. Sour cherry fruit on the palate and drying tannins. Chianti? Score=15
Ramandiola (Italy) Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva. Score=14.5-16

Wine Number 35
Cherry red. Nice nose of cherries, bright with an almondy edge. Rather non-descript fruit on palate, no great character, but decent balance. Score=14
Ghiberti (Italy) Chianti 1996. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 36
Medium crimson colour. Appealing nose, slightly minty. Light/medium bodied. Bitter-sweet fruit and high acidity, but good with food. Score=15.5
Terme III (Italy) Barbera d’Asti 1996. Score=16-17

Wine Number 37
Dark crimson. Berry fruit, some old-wood, polished aromas. Palate has nicely balanced bitter-sweet cherry fruit. Lots of tannin and high acidity, but good balance and length. Score=17
PoggioPiano (Italy) Chianti Classico 1996. Score=16-17.5

Flight Seven – Cabernets and Merlots

we were told the last two wines of this flight were not necessarily Cab/Merlot. Wine Number 38
Light ruby. Herbaceous, dull, hay-like aromas. Vegetal, thin and not clean. Score=0
Doctored wine. Score=0 (mouldy and volatile)

Wine Number 39
Medium/dark crimson. Similarly dull flavours. Tinny, unpleasant. Score=10
La Baume (France) Vin de Pays Cabernet Sauvignon 1997. Score=12-14
Panel decribed it as “not bad, but dull and green”

Wine Number 40
Medium ruby. Sweetish nose of light berry fruit. Light, herbal cabernet flavours but rather short and faintly medicinal. Score=13
Yvon Mau (France) Bordeaux Rouge 1997. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 41
Very dark, deep colour. Nice nose of berry fruits. A little coffee and plum depth too. Big dusty tannins, though not quite living up to promise of nose and massively tannic. Score=16
Château Siran (Margaux) 1995. Score=16-17.5

Wine Number 42
Medium deep crimson. Nose has spice – cinammon – and bright cherry aromas. palate has more of the same but rather light, herbal flavours. Decent finish. Score=14
Hardys (Australia) Nottage Hill Cabernet/Shiraz 1997. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 43
Dark red, some browning. Maderised? Score=?
Hardys (Australia) Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1996. Score=16-17.5
Ehh….I took a first sniff of this and thought it burnt and volatile, took a second and thought it might actually be big, concentrated fruit. I decided to take a five minute breather. When I came back I forgot to re-taste it and left the score blank.

Wine Number 44
Dark crimson red. A bit sulphurous. Beyond that, some good dark fruit. A bit green, but really quite good with some airing. Some structure and decent length. Score=17
Mapocho (Chile) Merlot 1997. Score=13-15
Yes, I was a bit generous I think.

Wine Number 45
Dark, youthful crimson/black. Red fruit nose. Quite good definition of fruit, with firm tannins and high acidity, but juicy and savoury. Score=17
Mapocho (Chile) Merlot Reserva 1995. Score=14.5-16

Wine Number 46
Medium ruby. Nose of blackcurrant fruit, some cedary notes. Medium-bodied, with juicy, uncomplicated fruit and some structure. Needs food. Score=15.5
Hautes-Côtes de Nuits (producer not given) Bourgogne 1995. Score=16-17.5

Wine Number 47
Pale ruby/orange. Slightly sherried quality on the nose. Subdued red fruit. A bit harsh and lacking fruit on the palate. Mean. Score=13
Drouhin (France) Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge 1994. Score=13.5-15

Flight Eight – General Reds

Wine Number 48
Mid crimson. Rather weak pastille fruit on the nose. Palate is lacking fruit too – lots of tannin and acidity, a bit unbalanced. Score=12
Paul Boutinot (France) Julienas 1996. Score=15.5-17
The maker of this wine, Paul Boutinot, was on the panel. I may have been a bit harsh, but I still can’t see it being worth a silver medal.

Wine Number 49
Pale, bright ruby. Similar to previous wine, with rather weak high-toned fruit. Slightly better on palate with hints of strawberry fruit but again swamped by angular acidity and tannins. Grenache? Score=12
Waitrose Côtes du Rhône NV. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 50
Deeper crimson/ruby. More distinctive nose, but similar profile of peppery, creamy fruit. Weightier in the mouth, nice mouthfeel and substantial earthy fruit. Tannic. Score=16
Waitrose Gigondas (France) 1996. Score=16-17.5

Wine Number 51
Vibrant cherry/ruby. Dank nose. has some good, robust fruit beneath though. Peppery and dense. Score=15
Hardys (Australia) Stamp Series 1998. Score=11-13

Wine Number 52
Very dense, dark, purple/black. Big, minty, high-toned shiraz nose. Robustly fruity, peppery and dense. Very grippy too. Score=18.5
Chateau Reynella (Australia) Basket Press Shiraz 1995. Score=17-19

Wine Number 53
Light red. A bit leafy, but vegetal, flabby and out of balance. Score=10
Stonebridge (California) Zinfandel 1995. Score=14-16
No way could I see this as a medal winning wine

Wine Number 54
Unpleasant nose. Rubbery, little fruit. Stinky. Score=10
Culemburg (South Africa) Pinotage 1997. Score=12-14
Panel decribed it as “green…iodine character….unripe, hard finish”.

Wine Number 55
Dark blackish/crimson. Forest-fruit nose. Quite intense. Again, cool palate of some berry fruit, but doesn’t quite convince. Score=14
Château Pech-Latt (France) Corbières 1997. Score=14-16

Wine Number 56
Healthy dark crimson/purple. Burning embers and sweet, peppery fruit. Zinfandel? Lots of tannin and some slightly baked fruit. Decent, but lacks vitality. Score=13
Waitrose Minervois (France) NV. Score=11-12.5

Wine Number 57
Vivid crimson/purple. Dark, vegetal nose. Nicely ripe fruit on palate with some charcoal flavours, but fruit to the fore. Drying tannins swamp the finish. Score=14
Clos Malverne (South Africa) Pinotage 1997. Score=15-16.5

Wine Number 58
Pale ruby. Stalky, rhubarby, oddly vegetal nose. Wishy-washy and carrying little fruit or class. Score=10
Doctored wine. Score=10 (Volatile Acidity)

Flight Nine – Fortified wines

Wine Number 59
Fine Fino sherry nose. A little salty note – could be Manzanilla? Nutty, apple fruit and bone-dry. Score=15
González Byass (Spain) Tio Pepe Sherry. Score=16.5-18

Wine Number 60
Pale yellow. Dry sherry nose. Dry on palate with some nutty, yeasty flavours, but a bit raw and alcoholic. Score=13
Tesco Finest Solera Fino Sherry. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 61
Very dark ruby. Quite sweet, chewy fruit. Some caramel. A bit raw, a bit hot – not great class ruby Port. Score=13
Sandeman Partners Ruby Port. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 62
Dark ruby. Rather dull, flabby nose. Tastes dull and oxidised, a bit tired. Score=10
Sandeman LBV Port 1994. Score=16.5-17.5
I would have dearly loved to re-taste this. A big aberration, or was my bottle a bad one?

Wine Number 63
Sweet and caramelly Tawny Port. Nuts, cream and toffee. Decent. Score=15
Sandeman Finest Tawny Port. Score=12.5-14

Wine Number 64
Another Tawny Port, but much better. Sweet vanilla and coffee scents, depth, good sweetness and length. Score=16
Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny Port. Score=17.5-19

Wine Number 65
Red/tawny colour. This is back to Sherry and a nice old wine. Good walnut and caramel flavours. Nice acidity, lovely balance and length. Score=17.5
González Byass Apóstoles Sherry. Score=18-19.5

Flight 10 – Late harvest whites

Wine Number 26
Gewürztraminer on the nose. Some light, herbal and honeyed aromas as well as rose-petals. Palate rather cloying, not enough freshness. Probably the Van Loveren. Score=13
Van Loveren (South Africa) Late harvest Gewürztraminer 1995. Score=13-14.5
I tasted the ’96 recently and recommended it.

Wine Number 27
Attractive lemony colour. Nice nose, lots of boiled-sweet aromas and a little spice. Rather obvious sweet, raisiny fruit. Commercial style, some good acidity. Not bad. Score=14.5
Brown Brothers (Australia) Orange Muscat & Flora 1997. Score=15-16.5

Wine Number 28
Bright yellow. Lots of attractive pineapple and ripe fruit aromas. Palate has more papaya, mango and tropical fruit. Good acidity and good weight. Luscious and really rather good. Score=17.5
Château Filhot (Sauternes) 1989. Score=18-19