Tasting the competition
It's altogether too early on a Saturday morning and I am sitting on a train. I'm almost never travel by train, but if I'm being honest, this a pretty agreeable way to do public transport. The canny Victorians were good enough to install the railway line along the coast in this part of Devon, when it isn't slipping into the sea, it makes for really incredible views. The early morning dog walker passes the metal detectorist on the beach as we power northward on our way to Bristol.
As much fun as it would be to continue to eulogise about the lovely Devon countryside, we have just passed a depressing looking theme park and it has kind of broken the magic. I'm also well off topic so I shall leave the amateur tourism journalism to the professionals on daytime television.
Your humble correspondent is making his annual pilgrimage to the big city to pass judgement on the best offerings from England at the Independent English Wine Awards. Well, when I say the best offerings from the English wine world, as a chair of judges at the awards, I'm not allowed to enter so we shall have to settle for most of the best wine from the English wine world.
I had always assumed that wine competitions were much the same as the retail awards that it was Lucy's duty to enter in her previous working life, specifically back slapping con jobs that you win if you buy the requisite amount of tickets for the awards dinner, or if it is your turn. You will imagine my surprise then when it was not unreasonably pointed out to me that I just might be able to identify the wine that I made during a tasting, and just might be tempted to present it with an unjustified blue ribbon. If I'm being completely honest, this is probably a good idea.
Arriving at the northern city of Bristol, I am once again struck by it's Georgian charm before running the gauntlet of murderous scooter people who appear to all be learning how to go in a straight line at the same time.
I arrive at the event in one piece. It has moved around the city a bit over the years, but it is currently in my favourite place: below Averys wine merchants in a pleasingly old school cellar. We have discussed previously that a winery is never as romantic as the uninitiated expect it to be – they are much too industrial for that – but this place is exactly the sort of place that a wine event should be held in. Ancient arches hold up the ceiling and nearly as ancient wine barrels decorate the walls, and it is filled, absolutely filled, with the sort of people who will be only too happy to spend an entire day discussing the finer points of wine in a way that would make your average house guest leave at great speed.
Once we have completed our introductions, we are divided into teams. Because your correspondent is a very mature and responsible person, he has been given a team of tasters to manage; which, if I'm honest, amounts to owning a watch and making sure that all of the wines are evaluated within the allotted time.
We start with a flight of still wines. The wines in this flight tend to have a theme, which is quite important when one is to critically evaluate the various merits of wines in the flight and it helps to identify point of difference wines and wines that are particularly good. Once we have reassured one another that piling into twenty wines way before lunch time is fine and normal, we start the process of evaluating them.
This happens in two stages. Firstly, the team will taste them and briefly discuss their merits, before marking them. Somewhat uniquely this is done in terms of medals, as opposed to a more traditional points based system. I like this system, as the wine professional (and enthusiastic consumer, if I'm honest) is able to identify how and why wine is good – or otherwise – and by how much one wine exceeds another in terms of quality. Numbers can confuse this process, as the medals are awarded in terms of the points that you have awarded for the various aspects of the wine: appearance, nose, palate etc. It's alarmingly easy to get to the end of this, frankly laborious process and think “That's too many/too few points for this wine”, before doing scribbling all over your paper and irritating the person that you are about to hand it to.
Secondly, the wines that have been awarded a gold medal are sent over to another table where the chairs of judges are invited to have a huge argument about whether these wines are worthy of a gold medal and which of them is the best. This is my favourite part of the event because we get to try the best of the wines and I don't at all mind a huge argument.
We repeat this process for the sparkling wines and end up with a matching pair of the best wines on offer that year. Then all that remains is for us all to sit down to a hearty lunch before being released back into the city to dodge the scooter people again, while hunting for literally anything other than wine to drink.
This tame winemaker has enjoyed the process of tasting all of the entries enormously over the years, and not just for the company either, it is a great opportunity to see what the industry is producing and what is particularly well liked by the other judges. It has also been absolutely lovely to see the marked improvements in quality since the first competition, along with some really innovative wines; the future of English wine is looking bright. Even if the absolute, ahem, best ones aren't allowed to enter this competition.
The Awards: IEWA
Image credit: Ed Dallimore