Judging wine

By Jamie Goode | 5 July 2016

wine, South Africa, Jamie Goode, Cape Town

As I write, I’m about to embark on another South African venture. I’m catching a plane today to Cape Town, to judge the Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc competition. While I’m there, I’ll also have a chance to nip down to the beautiful Franschhoek region, to focus on MCC (Methode Cap Classique, South Africa’s traditional method sparkling wine category). I’m looking forward to both immensely, and although it’s winter in the Cape, you never know – if you are lucky with the weather, you can get some pleasant winter sunshine. But you have to be prepared to be rained on. Mind you, I don’t begrudge the rain. Winegrowers here rely on decent rainfall in the winter to replenish ground reserves and fill up dams. If you want decent wine in reasonable quantities, then don’t complain about getting rained on in winter.

It’s the third year that I’ll have been involved in judging the Top 10 Chenin Blanc competition, and it’s a process that I enjoy a great deal. There’s something about tasting wines blind in a carefully controlled setting that puts your professional expertise on the line. It’s time to concentrate, and perform. There are so many different things going through your mind as you taste. Chenin comes in many different styles: it’s a grape whose trademark is versatility. We are being asked to select the top 10, but with that we have to consider style, too. After all, you don’t want to have a top 10 that consists solely of the biggest, richest, most strongly flavoured wines. Ultimately, the success of our judging will be determined by the results, and in the past they have been pretty good, with some well known names but also some surprises.

It was as recently as April that I was last in Cape Town, and this was also for judging wine. It was the sixth instalment of the Top 100 South African Wines competition. Along with star winemakers Richard Kershaw and Duncan Savage, I’ve been a judge at all six. Sadly, this year there was a clash with Bordeaux primeurs, so for the first time we were without the usual UK contingent Tim Atkin and Greg Sherwood. We were in a new venue, too. Instead of the usual Rodwell House in St James, we’d moved to Constantia, and the very nice Schoenstatt conference centre, which is located in a convent.

And this year I was promoted. In the absence of Tim Atkin, very large shoes to fill, I was asked to chair the competition. It’s an interesting job, and I learned a lot from how Mr Atkin did it so well for the last five years. There are two panels of three tasters, and this year the two panel chairs were Richard Kershaw and Ginette De Fleuriot. I went from room to room tasting all the wines and then taking part in the discussions of the flights. It meant a lot of tasting, but I didn’t have to make detailed notes like the others so I could move faster.

My goal was to make sure the right wines got through, and also to moderate the level of judging between the two panels. Most of the time they were spot on, but occasionally they had a split verdict, and we needed to re-look at the wines.

Judging wines is an art as much as a science. However experienced and able your tasting panels, there will never be complete agreement. The goal is to arrive at a fair verdict, with each wine being given a proper chance, and this is where some discussion is really useful. You can’t re-taste every wine, but if someone has an outlier high or low score, that’s often an indication that a wine needs a second look.

There are a few pitfalls that less experienced judges sometimes fall into (and also experienced judges, on occasion). One is the tendency to score wines for what they are not. If you have a flight of big, rather ripe reds, you can end up rewarding the wines that aren’t big or over-ripe, even though they have no real positive attributes of their own.

Another is to pick out the wines that stick out in a flight. If you have a big flight of pretty similar wines, then there’s a temptation to reward a wine that stands out as being different. In some of the white flights, a wine with excessively high acidity can sometimes be rewarded. But acid for acid’s sake isn’t good. Acidity has to be integrated into the wine. Is the wine balanced? An unbalanced wine can get extra points merely because it is a point of interest in an otherwise uniform run of wines.

Other things that can get awarded: sweet fruit, sweetness, oak. They can be seductive and woo tired tasters. Presentation order can be a problem: a wine can be affected by the wine that came before it. There’s some interesting taste psychophysics involved with judging lots of wine, and the methods we use certainly aren’t perfect, but we want them to be as good as the constraints will permit. Eventually, you have to judge the competition (and the tasters) by the results. Did the right wines get through?

So in a couple of hours I head to the airport. I’ve been to South Africa numerous times, but every time I land, after an overnight flight, I’m always thrilled about getting off the plane under African skies. There’s something liberating, exciting, freeing and dynamic about South Africa. Yes, it has its edges, and it has some challenges, but it’s as if you live more here. Life with the volume knob turned up to 11. And in the best wines, this dynamism is somehow transmitted via what’s in the bottle.

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