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Judging for wine awards

Judging for wine awards

One fun thing to be involved in, as someone working in the wine industry, is judging wines for competitions. I'm certain you will have seen the medallions stuck on wines in the supermarket or off-licence; I occasionally have the chance to help award these. I'm afraid this post is somewhat long but here is how wine judging works....

Let's take an example: Femmes et Vins du Monde (hereafter abbreviated to FVM) is a competition I became involved in during my wine-making studies in Bordeaux. I was very fortunate to be awarded an "encouragement" prize in 2009; having achieved little more than being a foreign female studying wine in France, although it was up to the staff at my school (Faculte d'Oenologie of Bordeaux II) to put forward candidates. The FVM awards has been such a fantastic event to be involved in - of itself encouraging women in the wine industry via the specialism of all-female juries - and I have followed it on and off ever since. It was a huge pleasure to be invited back in 2017 and to rediscover contacts I had made during my attendances between 2009-11.

As for what is involved; it goes a little something like this (the format is largely the same in any wine awards but FVM has a few particularities)

  • An awards jury is generally composed of multiple "colleges". That is to say, in layman's terms, that I am usually part of a table of wine judges in which each individual represents a different sector - perhaps winemaking professionals, buyers, sommeliers or hoteliers, wine writers or critics and sometimes interested amateurs or oenophiles (in the case of FVM we are, of course, 5 women; each jury comprises, variously, a Wine-domain owner, a qualified winemaker, a sommelier or restaurateur, one other wine-industry professional such as a wine critic, exporter or writer and one oenophile or interested amateur who represents 'Mrs Consumer' for want of a better phrase)
  • During a judging panel the jury is presented with a series of wines under anonymous conditions (blind tasting) which are served in standard glasses (often ISO approved tulip-shaped glasses). The series may comprise between 5 and 20 wines although it is usually between 10 to 15 depending on the relative size of the awards (which in turn may depend on the cost to the winery of submitting a wine or wines to an award).
  • Each wine is individually* judged to strict criteria, which are usually along the lines of: appearance, nose, palate, global appreciation (the typical "tasting sheet" can vary between awards but is generally reasonably standardised and usually allows one to score a wine a maximum of 100 points based on these elements). *It is absolutely crucial that the wines are not subjected to comparison within each series but judged entirely on their own merit.
  • When a wine is awarded a medal it is because the mean score of the jurors falls within certain numerical values AND the jury is unanimous in its choice (usually several tiers of medal are possible in the format of typical awards; bronze, silver, gold or some combination of merits). When the jury is not unanimous in their opinions, a wine's merits can be discussed as a group until agreement is reached.
  • There may be multiple series of wines judged by each jury although there would usually be a brief break between series in which there may be refreshments provided or simply an opportunity to stretch legs, visit the facilities and, crucially, to rest your nose and taste buds.
  • Some awards (such as FVM) will also provide a jury "review" for each medalled wine in which tasting notes are redacted as feedback to winning wineries for each wine receiving a medal. These may subsequently be used as promotional material for both the awards committee and the winery.

I hope I don't need to point out that it is generally frowned upon to wear strongly-scented colognes, perfumes, deodorants or other scents when you are aiming to taste wine (or any other product). This is always flagged up prior to a competition but it is interesting to note that the adage "there is always one" seems to hold true even here. It is effectively a truism that an individual can become inured to their own habitual scent (even very strong perfumes can become part of our sensory background in time) so I can accept this is part of the difficulty in sticking to this fundamental rule.

This year in Monaco one of my fellow jurors suggested that to relieve olfactory overload (colloquially you might say "nose fatigue" which describes a diminished ability to distinguish between odours following excessive olfactory use) a quick fix is to sniff your own clothing. I think it is probably true that, unless your laundry liquid is very highly scented, you are so used to your own day-to-day odour that you will not be influenced by it and this action does seem to "reset" your ability to smell to an extent. In the perfumery industry they can use coffee grains in the same way (and you might have noticed this in department stores or airports at fragrance counters - look out for the shaker of coffee grains!). I have found sniffing coffee effective in "resetting" my nose in the past.