Riesling to the challenge

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

At this time of year, three words dominate wine-traders' discourse with each other and, to a slightly lesser extent, the outside world. The words are International Wine Challenge, and they refer to what is, for the UK trade, the most important of the world's multitudinous wine competitions. It's also the biggest by far: 8,500 wines were entered for consideration this year, up by 1,000 on 1998. At stake: hundreds of medals, trophies and commendations for individual wines, and a couple of dozen awards for winemakers and wine merchants.

At this time of year, three words dominate wine-traders' discourse with each other and, to a slightly lesser extent, the outside world. The words are International Wine Challenge, and they refer to what is, for the UK trade, the most important of the world's multitudinous wine competitions. It's also the biggest by far: 8,500 wines were entered for consideration this year, up by 1,000 on 1998. At stake: hundreds of medals, trophies and commendations for individual wines, and a couple of dozen awards for winemakers and wine merchants.

The large number of IWC awards makes it seem that everyone connected with the wine trade has their own category. Next year we may see Glue Manufacturer of the Year, in recognition of the people who heroically keep labels from falling off bottles. The year after that, the award may be subdivided into front and back labels. But whatever private doubts people harbour about the IWC, everyone agrees that it is an important event. Everyone, that is, except people who think it's slightly less significant than a game of Duck-Duck-Goose in a primary-school playground.

In essence, all award-giving wine competitions work in a simple way. People who hope to profit from making or selling a particular wine submit bottles for evaluation. The judges taste blind, make notes, have a discussion, and decide. In practice, of course, it's much more complicated - especially when thousands of bottles crowd into the pool. The organisation alone is mind-boggling - and imagine the tedium of popping all those corks. Wrapping the bottles to hide the labels. Numbering them.

Supporters of awards say that the system creates a single level playing- field for comparing large numbers of wines. Detractors criticise them for a host of reasons. Too many bottles for judges to evaluate intelligently. Flaws in the selection of judges. An inherent tendency to favour some styles over others. Undue influence on the way winemakers go about their business.

The wine industry feels it can't live without competitions, and I'm in favour of anything that will keep them happy. Ever since a miserable winemaker's wife spoke of the "12 years without weekends or holidays" that she and her husband had enjoyed, I've been singularly tolerant of complaints from people who make it possible for us to drink wine. Tolerance was solidified recently when I read that hail "the size of pigeons' eggs" has devastated some of the prime estates of St Emilion, ruining up to 50 per cent of what had been a promising harvest.

The IWC is better than many: their judging system in particular eliminates many of the problems inherent in some others of my acquaintance. So I can't resist feeling satisfied when they give gold medals to wines I like, several of which have featured over past months in this column. I am happy to highlight two of them again. First of all Tre Uve Ultima 1997, mentioned just a couple of weeks ago: a remarkable blend of Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Primitivo from southern Italy. It's sold by Fuller's and Oddbins at £5.99, and now Somerfield has it on its new list at £7.99.

Another, about which I go even weaker at the knees, is the amazing Vya Sweet Vermouth made by the highly eccentric and hugely talented Andrew Quady in California (£12.71, Avery's, 01275 811100). Vya is sui generis, a drink to seduce even those who think, like me, that most sweet vermouth is best appreciated with the cap on and the bottle stored at the back of the cupboard. Congratulations to both.

A third gold-winner mentioned here in previous weeks is the Californian sparkler Roederer Quartet, and I remain a big fan of this elegant Champagne alternative (£14.99, Waitrose, Majestic and independents). But my new- found bubble-love is an Australian, Green Point Brut Vintage 1995 (£11.49 or thereabouts, widely available), which won an IWC silver and a trophy as one of the Sparkling Wines of the Year. While I tend to think of "traditional method" sparkling wine as something to buy when you don't feel rich enough for Champagne, this is the real thing - fine mousse and acidity, ample quantities of warm toasty flavours, and fine cherry and berry fruit from a blend made with 51 per cent Pinot Noir. The cheapest New World fizz to make a serious dent in my prejudice against that species, it serves further notice to the Champenois that they will not always have a monopoly on the apex of the bubble market.

To lay down

Here's a pair of truly outstanding New World reds. Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 1997 (£11.95, Waitrose Wines Direct, 0800 188881) hails from one of South Africa's cool-climate zones, and gains from that (and from careful handling) an elegance reminiscent of Burgundian incarnations of this notoriously fickle grape. Unbelievably scrumptious. Charbono Duxoup 1996 (£11.26, Bibendum, 0171 916 7706) is one of Sonoma's most extraordinary wines from an exceedingly rare grape. A curiosity, but not merely a curiosity; give it another year and its huge weight of dense, peppery fruit will soften to melt-in-your- mouth lushness.

Comments