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International Wine Challenge

by Tom Cannavan, 05/99

I 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 2 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 the first set of my tasting notes from the day, exactly as written. These are for white and dessert wines. Notes for red and fortified wines are contained in part 2 (link at bottom of page). In red text following each note is the identity of the wine plus the score it was given by the assessment panel. There was a lot of controversy in the hall during the panel's summing up. A lot of argument from the floor that they had got it wrong on certain wines, and quite a bit of internal disagreement - the panel split on the "standard" mark they had arrived at for certain wines.

I note an obvious pattern to my scoring: I was a little harsher than the panel, consistently awarding a mark or two lower than them. With hindsight I was too hard on several wines that I awarded 10 out of 20 just because they were very unexciting. By precise IWC definition this makes them "poor". In fact a score of 11 or 12 ("mediocre") would have been fairer. Other wines were seriously flawed, and did deserve such a low rating.

The tasting was double-blind - we knew neither the identity of the specific wine in the glass, nor the names of those wines included in the TAD. Included were some wines that had been doctored to exhibit flaws.

Flight One - Sparkling Wines

Difficult at 9.15 in the morning!

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 Nine - 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

Part II - red and fortified