The international lottery

Traders and supermarkets are starting to take the International Wine Challenge seriously. But does that mean drinkers should do the same?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If, over the coming weeks, you notice that the shelves of your supermarket or High Street offie are more brightly decorated than usual, the chances are it's because they're covering themselves in the various honours won at this year's International Wine Challenge. Proudly worn like military decorations, this glorious display of gold, silver and bronze stickers is what you might call the Challenge effect; the fallout, that is, from the medals awarded at what has become the world's biggest wine competition.

If, over the coming weeks, you notice that the shelves of your supermarket or High Street offie are more brightly decorated than usual, the chances are it's because they're covering themselves in the various honours won at this year's International Wine Challenge. Proudly worn like military decorations, this glorious display of gold, silver and bronze stickers is what you might call the Challenge effect; the fallout, that is, from the medals awarded at what has become the world's biggest wine competition.

Since 1984, the Challenge has grown into a major international event with a record 9,300 wines from 34 countries judged over a two-week period in May. As an independent competition not affiliated to any one country's wine industry, the Challenge is recognised by the wine trade around the world. Overseas producers are proud of their gongs. And while Europeans tend to take a more laissez-faire attitude than their New World counterparts, the fact that wine-makers from France, Italy and Germany showed up at the gala dinner last week to accept their awards suggested at the very least an awareness of the business opportunities.

The wine trade in this country blows hot and cold over the Challenge. But doesn't hesitate to blow its own trumpet when everyone's turn comes round - as it inevitably does with a plethora of merchant of the year awards going to the range from giant supermarkets to small independents. That ensures the wine trade's loyalty to the cause. Twice winner of the Supermarket of the Year, Waitrose already has the full page newspaper ads out, informing us of its tally of 23 gold medals, 59 silvers, 112 bronzes and 90 seals of approval. No matter that a seal of approval is a wooden spoon award. In numerical terms they all count.

Speaking of counting, of the 9,300 entries, 199 won gold medals, 902 silver, 1,782 bronze and 2,597 seals of approval, a strike rate of only 2.5 per cent for gold medals, and not a single one awarded to a wine made from sauvignon blanc. That suggests that top medals at least are not doled out like Smarties. But what of the 3,820 others consigned to the Challenge's scrap-heap? Are wine buyers combing their ranges to eliminate the over 40 per cent of their wines not considered good enough even for a humble seal of approval.

Published in Wine magazine, the overall medal count again confirms the growing New World superiority over the Old, with Australia supreme in many areas formerly dominated by France. Interestingly though, Australia could only notch up a 10 per cent strike rate of great value wines compared to Chile's 19 per cent, Spain's 20 per cent, Argentina's 21 per cent and Hungary's 44 per cent. Even France, with 12 per cent, beat Australia, while California confirmed its position at the bottom of the value pile with only 5 per cent.

If the wine trade takes the Challenge seriously, should wine drinkers be genuflecting in similar fashion? For a variety of reasons, I don't think so. For one thing, the Challenge is inevitably geared towards New World wines because no matter how experienced the judges, wines with the immediate appeal of primary fruit and the flattering attention of new oak stand out from the crowd. European wines with more subtle qualities, which often go better with food, can easily slip through the net. Nor is the playing field quite level from the start with the New World putting far more weight behind the Challenge in terms of top wines entered than Europe.

While the results are broadly speaking credible, there will always be a luck of the draw factor. No one would begrudge gold medals to the likes of the superb 1996 Volnay Les Chevrets 1er cru, £25, Waitrose Inner Cellar, or the widely available, stylish Charles Heidsieck Mise en cave 1995. But you wonder how the frankly ordinary 1999 Beaujolais La Bareille or Valdetan Maceracion Carbonica achieved a similar result. Especially when mere seals of approval went to Bollinger and Mumm de Cramant champagnes and to Jacob's Creek Limited Release Chardonnay whose more ordinary stablemate won a silver medal.

Despite the lottery element, the results are useful snapshots of wines at a moment in time, giving guidance to the many consumers bedazzled and bewildered by the whole subject of wine.

So let's not take them too seriously, any more than we should drink wine po-faced.

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