Novelist Julian Barnes, in the Independent on Sunday Review, recalls Jancis Robinson picking him up for saying he preferred one wine to another. "It's not a competition," she chided. Isn't it? Not when you're drinking and enjoying it, it isn't. But when you're tasting wine, ostensibly with others' enjoyment in mind, it's a different matter. The International Wine Challenge has become the ultimate in such competitions.

This year 7,514 wines from 37 countries were judged, a bumper crop yielding 149 gold medals, 721 silvers, 1,525 bronze and 2,141 Seals of Approval. Not only are wines judged against wines for medals, but countries are judged against countries for their medal tally and wine retailers against wine retailers for awards. We're talking the lucrative business of wine promotion here. A neat change of name from "Commendation" for the wooden spoon Seal of Approval, for instance, has upgraded its marketing value at a stroke.

The competition makes much of the fact that the 350 tasting judges, mostly from the British wine trade, are supposed to undergo a "rigorous Training and Assessment Day". But various discrepancies all go to show that there's a lot more subjectivity to judging wines in competitions than the organisers of such events would have us believe. Fortunately, we haven't yet reached the stage where we can get a print-out of a wine's quality by feeding it (or pouring it?) into a computer. Hopefully we never will. Taste is subjective, so there will always be healthy differences of opinion.

Most of the time, the Challenge does seem to get the balance about right. But not all the time. It's widely recognised that, however experienced the taster, there are styles of wine, notably oaked New World Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, which perform better in competitions because of their immediate appeal. Less familiar and more subtle styles, such as Italian wines made from native grape varieties, are more easily lost in the thicket of wooded New World wines. It's no coincidence that Australia and New Zealand continue to outperform every other country

Below are the Wines of the Year. The full results are published in this month's Wine magazine:


1997 Antu Mapu Sauvignon Blanc, Maule Valley, Chile, pounds 3.99, Tesco

1996 Chablis, La Chablisienne, pounds 7.99, Somerfield, The Wine Society (01438 741177)

1996 Stoneleigh Marlborough Chardonnay, Corbans, pounds 6.99, Thresher, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack, Tesco

1997 Woodcutter's White, pounds 2.99, Safeway


1996 Seigneur de Siran, Minervois, pounds 6.60, Bordeaux Direct (01189 030303)

1996 Maglieri McLaren Vale Shiraz, pounds 7.99, Tesco, Unwins

1996 Normans White Label Cabernet Sauvignon Bin C106, pounds 5.99, Oddbins


Champagne Le Brun de Neuville Cuvee Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs Brut, pounds 12.75, Waterloo Wine (0171-403 7967), Deutz Marlborough Cuvee Brut, New Zealand, pounds 10.99, Oddbins, Tesco, Thresher, selected Victoria Wine

1995 Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay Brut, pounds 8.49 (for 1994 - in stock, widely available)

Yalumba Cuvee Two Prestige Sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 8.49, Oddbins, Tesco