To viticulture the spoils

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Indy Lifestyle Online

With the Olympics done and dusted, September is the time for an autumn shower of gold, silver and bronze wine medals.

With the Olympics done and dusted, September is the time for an autumn shower of gold, silver and bronze wine medals. Wine International announced its Wine Challenge (the IWC) results yesterday to what it hopes is an expectant world. Because, for the first time, it has a rival in the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), a new competition launched by Decanter magazine with the aim of stealing some of the limelight from its well-established competitor. As it turns out, Decanter's awards have exceeded expectations with over 4,500 entries in their inaugural year. Publication of the results (in the October edition) is likely to see it shove its more decrepit rival, the IWC, out of an overcrowded nest.

In its 20-odd years, London's IWC event has mutated into a monster, two-week blind tasting. This year, 454 tasters disposed of 9,000 plus entries, awarding 361 golds and 919 silvers, 1,873 bronzes and 2,735 seals of approval. Overall, this was a 65 per cent strike rate. In contrast, the DWWA assigned a panel of 86 hand-picked specialists to taste wines in over £10 and under £10 categories. The three keywords, according to Decanter's editor, Amy Wislocki, were "expertise, regionality and value for money". The results, out on Wednesday, show medal percentages similar to the IWC: 114 gold medals (2.5 per cent), 507 silvers (11 per cent), 1,094 bronze (24 per cent) and 1,035 commendeds, an overall prize-winning strike rate of 64 per cent.

In sorting the quality sheep from the plonkier goats, judges are required to be objective. The reality is that wine-tasting is an inexact science. Preferences, moods and prejudices cloud so-called objectivity, playing a greater role than many of us (yes, I tasted my way through both competitions) like to admit. There is a tendency for the more subtle and elegant wines to be overlooked in favour of power, oak and concentration. The system is not foolproof, but, to be fair, judges are increasingly aware of the problem. According to the IWC organisers, the fact that Germany, Austria and Burgundy excelled this year is "evidence that it's not about wines with intensity and concentration standing out". Inevitably, there were some unpredictable results too. So while the 2003 Zonte's Footstep Shiraz Viognier, for instance, scored both a silver and seal of approval at the IWC, the same wine picked up a gold at the DWWA.

How relevant are these wine competitions when you're trying to pick a bottle of wine off the shelf? Gold medals tend to be a genuine reflection of a wine's true worth, as, though to a lesser extent, do silvers. More generally, the results offer a valuable snapshot in time of wine companies and regions. And they often shine a light on otherwise obscure or unheard-of wineries. Such gems that have come to light this year include, Balnaves (Australia), Angerhof Tschida (Austria), Albert Hertz (France), Burgerspital Weingut (Germany), Cantine Sociale della Valpantena (Italy) and Spier (South Africa).

I would like to see seals of approval and commendeds done away with, as consolation prizes just bulk out the percentages to keep the wine trade sweet. It would also be good to see results made available sooner, given that they are made known to the wine trade long before they are released to the public this month and next. But like the Olympics, wine competitions galvanise competitors and spectators alike, attracting deserved attention to the best performances. As long as we don't take all medals as gospel, let's turn them to our own advantage.

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