International Wine Challenge: Terry Kirby shares secrets from around the spittoon

Thousands of cases, 400 judges – it's among the world's biggest wine competitions, and Terry Kirby is on this year's team of tasters.

It is 9.30 on a fine April morning, I have just finished my coffee and croissants and so there is obviously only one thing to do next: get stuck into some excellent dessert wine. Yes, I am doing what only winos and wine tasters habitually get up to so early in the day to do – starting to drink alcohol. But in this instance, I am with the wine tasters, or, more specifically, the wine judges.

Unlike winos, of course, wine judges do not – and dare not – swallow, but instead are masters of the art of swirling, sniffing, sipping, swishing and spitting. And there is going to be a vast amount of swirling, sniffing etc, over the next seven hours or so in this large hall, crammed with tables, each heaving with bottles of wine, water, glasses and surrounded by teams of judges with determined looks in their eyes, plus some very professional looking, 4ft-tall black spittoons.

Welcome to day six of the International Wine Challenge, one of the biggest such competitions in the world, held over two weeks every spring at London's Barbican. It is the familiar IWC stars – commended, bronze, silver and gold – that wine makers can stick on their bottles and that are designed to reassure those standing uncertainly in a supermarket or wine shop that their wine is of a respectable standard.

Awaiting the verdict of the judges today are thousands of bottles of wine, of every conceivable type and from all corners of the globe – from robust Aussie shiraz to refined French white, via some, er, interesting offerings from Russia, Mexico, Japan and China. Passing verdict on them all is a task simultaneously arduous and pleasurable, or as co-chairman, Tim Atkin, who will taste up to 1800 different bottles, describes it: "It must be the least job-like job there is."

After another co-chairman, Charles Metcalf reminds judges that all tasting is blind and anyone who strays into the shelves where the wines are stored will be dismissed instantly, I head for table 14, where the sweet wines – New World rieslings in this case – are waiting. My fellow judges are retired brewery-chain wine-buyer Robin Crameri and Peter McCombie, restaurant wine consultant, the table's lead judge.

Today, I am merely an "associate'' – a novice in other words. As a wine writer, I have been to many tastings, organised by producers or retailers, where styles and ranges of wine are studied and compared in a relatively relaxed fashion and which help me determine which wines to recommend.

But the world of competitive blind judging is very different.

Surprisingly, the palate is freshest in the morning and the rieslings taste fine. But with barely time to register their elegantly floral style, the mark sheets are collected and McCombie briskly guides us to the other end of the table, clasping his hands together: "Gentlemen, it's time for the champagnes." As we start on them, the rieslings are collected by an assistant, who then starts unpacking the next set, called a "flight", about 15 Italian pinot grigios. And it is barely 10am. I sense a long day ahead.

This how it works: around 12,000 different wines – four bottles of each are supplied, making about 55,000 thousand in total – are tasted by around 400 judges during the two weeks. In the first week, about a third are eliminated; in week two, starting today, the remainder are ranked on a 100 point scale – anything below 80 is rejected, 80 to 84 is commended, bronze is 85-89, silver 90-94 and gold 95-100. The flights of between two and about 15 represent styles or regions, the bottles are wrapped and the judges only know the grapes, the area of production and the vintage. The six co-chairmen, who work on a different part of the floor, taste all the wines again to confirm or reject the decisions of the individual tables. About five per cent will get a gold; there are also awards for organic and biodynamic wines or, the crème de la crème, the Champion awards. By now, wines have been tasted up to six times by different judges.

Surprisingly, the tasting is blind to price, although there are "great value" awards once the golds have been decided. Atkin admits this can open the IWC to criticism that "value for money" of a wine is not a factor. "Some competitions do judge on price, but we do not. I think it helps because there is always the suggestion that if people think something is cheap it cannot be any good. It takes that bit of prejudice out of the equation.'' Value-for-money is a variable concept in wine: a decent Burgundy can cost double that of a respectable Chilean pinot noir.

Back at our table I discover that, if people were wine styles, New Zealander McCombie would be the big, boisterous New World red, while Crameri epitomises the austere restraint of a fine, very dry, European white. Both are Masters of Wine, of which there are only 288 worldwide. And, I thought, here are two of the most experienced – Crameri since 1972 and McCombie earned his in 1994 – delivering a lesson in tasting. Better pay attention.

Although a man of few words, the speed with which Crameri (and McCombie) compose a written description of a wine after just a couple of quick mouthfuls is eye-opening. While I'm still swishing it around my mouth thinking: "Yup, this is good... now is that lemon or lime I'm getting?" Crameri has scribbled something like: "Lovely, expressive, citrus-scented nose, firm tropical fruit flavours of guava and lime with hints of almonds, good mouth feel, refreshing acidity with plenty of presence on the mid-palate, long finish..." and he's pouring his dregs into the spittoon ready for the next one.

They get a bit technical, occasionally, with talk of added sulphur and oxidation. McCombie admits the wine professional's language can sometimes lose the everyday drinker. "I tell sommeliers never to let their wine dealer write their wine descriptions."

My palate initially struggles and Crameri and McCombie are both highly courteous in allowing my sometimes idiosyncratic verdicts while firmly professional in distancing them from the actual marking. But as the pinot grigios are followed briskly by Chilean pinot noirs, Greek rosés, Mexican reds (surprisingly good) and then the Russian ones ("Ah, just what I've been waiting for all day," deadpans Crameri; they are pretty awful) my tastebuds fine-tune themselves and my marking becomes more respectable. Differences between us – should this be a silver or a bronze? Should this one be thrown out? – are resolved by further tasting and discussion. But by late afternoon, the strains and stains are showing. I've been standing for about five hours, with only a short lunch break and my back is aching, but very few of the judges sit down for more than a minute or two; it doesn't seem the thing. And another flight arrives – Amarones, Italian reds celebrated by Hannibal Lecter's original line from Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs: "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone." As we taste, I can't quite get my mind off that human liver and how mine is bearing up. Not that I intended to swallow at any point, but you can't help the odd reflex...

And the stains. My notebook and the official judging sheets become spotted with red marks. I inspect my teeth in the gents' mirror – they are tinged Dracula style blue-black. I'm comforted by noticing even the most elegant female judges are the same. McCombie confides: "Can I offer you advice about tonight? Don't even think about driving." He unzips an equally blackened grin and reminds me: "Avoid cleaning your teeth for a couple of hours after you get home. The acids in wines soften tooth enamel and brushing vigorously will make it worse."

The day ends as it began, with another flight of dessert wines, but this time the luscious honey-and-apricots flavoured sauternes. They are mostly sensational; we spray around the gold stars.

"Right..." announces McCombie, collecting final mark sheets, as assistants pack away the last flight of wines for the still tasting co-chairmen.

"Anyone for a drink?''

"Er... a drink?" We have just tasted more than 70 bottles.

Yes, he says, heading towards other off-duty judges in a café area, whom, I realise, already have more bottles lined up in front of them: "What you really need after all that wine is a nice cold beer..."

IWC Champion Trophy Winners 2010

Champion Sweet Wine: Sämling Trockenbeerenauslese 2007 (Hans Tschida)

Champion Fortified Wine: Viña AB Amontillado Seco (Gonzalez Byass )

Champion Sparkling: C Charles Heidsieck Millésime 2000 (Sainsburys )

Champion White Wine: Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Les Chalumeaux 2007, Jean Pascal & Fils (Marks & Spencer)

Champion Red Wine: Brunello Di Montalcino Riserva 2004 (Castello Romitorio)

2011's results are announced on 17 May www.international winechallenge.com

Wine tasting for beginners

Swirl: Pour a small amount of wine into a glass – one where the bowl is larger than the rim – and swirl it around. Examine the colour, but think beyond simple red, white or rosé. Is it brownish or pale cherry red? Is it the colour of straw or apricots? Think opacity next – is it watery or dark or are there burnt-orange tinges which denote an older wine? Look at how it sticks to the glass: thick viscosity denote high alcohol.

Sniff: Swirl again really well. Now get your nose well inside and deeply inhale the trapped aromas. What do you smell: freshly mowed lawns or old leather? Vanilla ice cream or lemon zest?

Sip: Take a decent sip and swish it around your mouth and gums. You should first sense tannins, sugar and acidity or freshness, rather than specific flavours. Then your mid-palate should pick up things like spiciness or fruitiness – but what kind of fruit: apples or pears? Strawberries or blackberries? And spices: cloves or black pepper? You might get others, such as honey or tobacco, for instance.

Spit: to allow the finish to develop. How long does the wine linger on the back of the mouth and throat? A long finish, with flavours evolving and changing usually denotes a good, complex wine like an aged red. Think about other factors – was the wine a good balance between, say, fruit and spices or dominated by one flavour? Did the tannins pucker your mouth? Was it overly sweet or acidic? And what kind of food might it match?

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