What you need to know about the world’s biggest and most prestigious wine competition

3rd May 19 | Lifestyle

Sam Wylie-Harris goes behind the scenes to reveal what the judges are looking for, and which wines you should be drinking now.

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It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. For five days this week, more than 250 judges worked their way through 44,000 Riedel wine glasses to taste 16,500 wines in their ‘quest for the best’, at the Oscars of the wine world.

And after much tense deliberation, swirling and spitting, they honour the most exceptional wines in the world with a Decanter World Wine Awards medal.

This year, wines from more than 50 countries were entered and grouped by region, country, variety and price band, to be blind-tasted and discussed by a specialist panel, with an average of 12 wines in a flight.

Judge tasting at Decanter World Wine Awards 2019 (Decanter/PA)
A judge tasting at Decanter World Wine Awards 2019 (Decanter/PA)

We caught up with co-chair Michael Hill Smith MW (Master of Wine and one of three co-chairs), who’s been judging the awards for 16 years.

Here’s the low-down on what makes a medal-winning wine worth its weight in Gold…

What are the judges looking for?

“Great personality and great quality. The fact is, there’s an awful lot of wine in the world, and there’s a lot of awful wine,” says Hill Smith. “We’re looking for personality, quality, wines that amaze, the gems in the gravel – that’s what it’s all about.”

How does the Decanter World Wine Awards differ from other competitions?

“It’s different because it’s judged by people who are experts in that region. The people who judge champagne have probably written four or five books on champagne. The Greek tasting team specialize in Greek wine, and it’s really the only way when you have 16,500 entries. You need that discipline to give the results any credibility.”

How does the point system work?

“The judges go through the flight and enter their points [marking out of 100]. 95 is a Gold, 90 a Silver, 86 a Bronze. They mark the wines, do their tasting notes and that’s when it gets interesting, because you call your points.

“A lot of the European wine shows simply add up the points. There’s no discussion or having to fight your corner. So, if you really love a wine, and you’re the lone voice for that wine, you try to convince the other people on the panel of the merits, or vice versa.

“You debate the point and it could be anywhere from 50 to 90. Fellow judges may say, ‘This is rubbish, give it 50’. So the table comes to a conclusion, but if they don’t, that’s when I step in.

“The [three] co-chairs are the soccer umpires if you like, and we’re brought in if the children aren’t playing well together. I might say, ‘I think you’re wrong, it’s a Gold’. We have the final say.”

What else is special about the Decanter judging process?

“All of the gold medals are re-tasted the second week. The reason is to make sure there are no soft goals. There are awards where judges can be a bit over generous, or it’s late in the day, so this adds a further level of rigour.

“And from this format we have Platinum winners which is above Gold. When we finally get it down to say 600 Gold medals for example, we might end up with 50, 60, 70 Platinums.”

“Out of 16,500 entries we might give 700 gold medals, which seems like a lot but as a percentage, it’s about 2% to 3%,” adds Hill Smith. “When you think about it, it’s a fairly rarefied point of the pyramid.”

Which wines usually win the judges over?

“You’ve got the classics of course, champagne always does well, burgundy has done very well this year (2017 whites are particularly strong and very good), wines from Piedmont, Tuscany – all the those you expect.

“Australia always does well in blind tastings because the wines offer very good value, and there’s great diversity. New Zealand, Spain – especially now it’s making modern, fresher, lighter, more consumer friendly wines. They’ve got a lot more liveliness and drive.”

Are there any wild cards?

“They’re doing amazing things in Greece!”

Panel of judges tasting Greek wines (SWH/PA)
Panel of judges tasting Greek wines (SWH/PA)

Which are the wines to watch?

“The classics as you’d expect: Champagne, Burgundy, Rhone Valley, Spain, Italy… Australian chardonnay is amazing, really good value and everyone’s going to cooler sites and making better wine.

“New Zealand pinot noir is really good value. Burgundy – it breaks your heart because it’s expensive, but it’s just really good.

“I love the wines consumers don’t embrace, but us wine professionals do. Madeira and sherry. For not a lot of money, you can buy wines with extraordinary age, complexity and with an amazing story.”

How can wine enthusiasts broaden their horizons?

“Be open-minded. The really good wine people in my mind are ‘wine travellers’ who aren’t stuck drinking the same wine.

“They’re adventurous and they love the diversity. Instead of just finding a wine they feel safe and unthreatened by, they end up realising, ‘Wow, I was reading Decanter and they say this new wine from Greece is amazing, maybe I should try one.’ And the whole world of wine is opened up to them in a way it previously wouldn’t have been.

“And that goes for the greatest wine experts in the world. As much as they like drinking great bordeaux and great burgundy, they equally like discovering an extraordinary pinot noir from Oregon, USA.”

© Press Association 2019

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