The wine world is awash with competitions. Having done a tiny bit of judging in a couple of them, I think I am moderately well qualified to state that when they're well run, they are a largely reliable guide to quality in the bottle. But even in the best-run competitions, there's always room for improvement, and that has happened this year in the International Wine Challenge (IWC), the UK's most prominent competition and one of the most important in the worldwide market.
The IWC was long run by Wine magazine under the stewardship of Charles Metcalfe, Robert Joseph, and (from 2002) Derek Smedley MW (Master of Wine). It billed itself as the largest blind tasting conducted anywhere, with thousands of bottles submitted by their producers or importers (for an entry fee) so they can go head to head with others in their category. It has also been the subject of a lot of criticism, some of which I've agreed with in recent years - which is one reason I haven't paid it a huge amount of attention in this column.
This year's IWC has been different from the earlier incarnations, having seen a shake-up at the top and in the judging process. At the top, it has received two new co-chairmen: Tim Atkin MW and, at Atkin's suggestion, Sam Harrop MW. They join Metcalfe and Smedley, with Robert Joseph bowing out to pursue other interests. Atkin wanted Harrop to join in because he is, not to put too fine a point on it, not just a Master of Wine, but a master of the technical aspects of winemaking - someone who can sniff a glass and describe what's going on there in precise technical terms. I've seen him do it. It's amazing - a bit like watching a sniffer dog at work, except this dog can talk.
A couple of new features in this year's awards make me think they'll be better than ever. One is a three-tier judging panel, headed by a group of "senior judges" who represent the very top of the wine world. They taste over two weeks, the first dedicated to categorising wines in three categories: chuck it out, give it a "seal of approval", or consider it for a medal. The co-chairs taste to see if something meritorious has been thrown out, with a reinsertion rate of around 10 per cent. Then the next week is dedicated to selecting medal winners. In this year's competition, around 3 per cent of the 9,100 wines have been given gold medals, which seems a fair rate to me.
The other useful feature is the new panel of co-chairs. With three MWs among them, they can be relied upon not just to spot faults but to understand every category of wine. This is important because some tasting panels won't have huge experience of all categories, some of which are inherently more difficult than others. Tim Atkin cites the example of Amarone di Valpolicella, massively alcoholic Italian reds made from dried grapes which impart a raisiny, often bitter set of flavours. If you didn't have a lot of experience of that type of wine, you might well think you were encountering a mistake. I know I wouldn't judge that category well, and it's useful having the technical backup.
On the basis of a partial list of Gold medal winners that I saw in advance of the official announcement, which took place just under a week ago, I can say with confidence that they've done well. Several are old friends of this column, and have been recommended here over the last year. A couple of Australian Rieslings, for instance: Leasingham Magnus and Peter Lehmann. And an Australian red, Tim Adams The Fergus, recommended just last week. While there are many others I would have guessed at, I was impressed to see Jacob's Creek Shiraz 2004. When you're tasting blind, you get to throw off preconceptions - which is just what a competition like this should do.
Three cheap but springy whites
Kendermanns Organic 2005 (£4.99, Sainsbury's and Waitrose) An attractive blend from Rheinhessen, off-dry, flowery, zippy acidity and low (11.5 per cent) alcohol. Good with Asian food, I'd wager.
Anakena Chardonnay/ Viognier 2005 (£4.99, Co-op) A good buy from Chile, cool-climate Chardonnay (from the Casablanca valley) fattened out with 15 per cent Viognier for a touch of peachy perfume.
Canti Catarratto Chardonnay 2005 (£2.99 from £3.99, Tesco) Simple but tangy, blend from Sicily. Sale ends on Tuesday, but it's a good buy even at full price.