Two International Competitions, One Goal: Find the Best Wines
by Treve RingAugust 29, 2015
This week’s trip east to judge at the World Wine Awards of Canada (WWAC) in Toronto reminds me of another trip east I took this past spring, skipping over Toronto by double and on to London, to judge at the International Wine Challenge (IWC).
Both competitions are based on the same basic guidelines: bring experienced tasters together for a multi-day blind tasting and evaluation, whittling down the top international wines. While our WWAC is a respectable size (just under 1000 entries in 2015, spread over 4.5 days and 16 judges), we’re a drop in the spit bucket of what is tasted at the IWC. The IWC, now in its 33rd year, is so massive it is split into two parts, two tranches, dividing the volume of entries between spring and fall. For the 2015 year there were more than 14,000 entries. The spring session of judging (Tranche 2) was spread over two weeks and between 358 judges. 22 panels judged per day, and each panel consisted of 1 panel chair, 1 senior judge, 2 judges, 1 associate judge, and the five co-chairs that oversee it all, totalling 115 judges daily.
Held in high regard around the world, the IWC goes head-to-head with the Decanter World Wine Awards, interestingly enough held in London the week following the IWC in the spring. Also of note is the fact there is little crossover of judges between the two competitions. Finding folks that judge in both was an exception, certainly not the norm, and predetermined as much by time commitments as alliances.
While the principle is shared between WWAC and IWC – find the best wines – the procedure varies considerably between the two competitions. At WWAC, the national judging team is a tight, cohesive core of 12 or so, with a roster of floating WineAlign associate judges who we welcome back annually. We taste seated, in small panels of 3-4 led by a senior panel captain. Flighted wines are brought out to us poured and ready to go.
At the IWC, the sheer volume (47 countries submitted wines!) dictates an entirely different set up for space requirements and efficiency. The group of judges changes daily, though panel leaders, judges who are recognized global experts and experienced IWC tasters, are constant for the two weeks. You meet your panel of 6-8 in the morning, and head to your marked tables where bottles are wrapped, taped and labelled for us to pour our own samples. We taste standing, with clipboards. Roving back room staff clear bottles as panels finish and move to an adjacent table and begin again.
Entries come from all around the world, grouped by variety (e.g. Tempranillo) or region and style (e.g. Portuguese White Wines). Of course, the IWC has access to thousands more wines and London is the wine centre of the universe, so the diversity of wines, regions and styles is outstanding.
With both competitions, judges taste individually, and then briefly discuss, led by the panel head. We look for consistency in scoring, and where there is discrepancy, the wine is retasted and debated to consensus. Here is where a skilled panel leader comes in handy, guiding the best wines through to the next round. I was exceptionally fortunate to have excellent panel chairs for my first crack at these two competitions: WineAlign’s David Lawrason at the WWAC years ago and Jamie Goode (honourary international WineAlign member) and Jim Harré (NZ winemaker, consultant and international wine judge) for my first IWC days this spring.
We taste somewhere around 80-90 wines each day, in both competitions, bringing back the most promising wines for retasting in final rounds. Fortunately, both competitions provide our full tasting notes and scores to us, allowing us to reference the wines we tasted blind. I always make notes when I’m judging if I’m curious about a wine, guessing and testing myself along the way if I think I recognize region or more. This year at the IWC I nailed one particular wine and producer, having tasted it and enjoyed it immensely just a few weeks earlier.
But of course, that’s just a geeky plus. Blind tasting is about learning and raising your own level of tasting skill by tasting with different palates. These two competitions, in their own scale and breadth, are a carefully executed skilled exercise to find the right wines, elevate the profile of these wineries and direct consumers to informed purchases.
The results of the 2015 International Wine Challenge are found here.
The results of the 2015 World Wine Awards of Canada will be released this fall.