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Tasting and judging wine is more difficult than it might appear

By Debra Meiburg MW

PUBLISHED in the South China Morning Post: Thursday, 24 September, 2015


JudgeThese days, it seems everyone wants to be a wine judge. I get it. Who can resist the lure of plucking a leggy red from the crowd, or dating a vivacious blond? Alas, being a wine enthusiast does not automatically make one an astute judge. Judging takes dedication and practice. Palates are refined by years of repeated and focused wine tasting.

Judging a wine competition is something I always look forward to. Once the competition begins, however, I’m all business. Tasting and judging dozens of wines per day is surprisingly hard work. Groan all you like, but imagine having to convince your weary palate to discern the hundredth wine as well as the first. After all, judges must be as fair and perceptive to all entrants.

Judging involves evaluating flights of wines in a variety of competition classes. A horizontal flight is a range of wines with common characteristics, typically of the same grape varieties, origin and vintage. Vertical flights are comprised of wines from different vintages. Depending on the competition, flights are made up of a few glasses to a daunting array in the hundreds. Though, there is a limit to the number of wines a person can taste in a day before our tongues go on strike. That limit is about 140 – a number the Aussies established to ensure judges can still sensitively discern the aroma, structure and quality elements of each glass. Gone are the days where judges were asked to taste 180 shiraz in one day. Recently, I judged a show in Guangzhou with a comfortable 60 wines to judge. A walk in the park!

As well as individually working on our craft, judges learn from one another. As judges become better acquainted, we share best practices and learn tasting tips and insights from one another. One judge will share the latest on Elgin’s crisp whites and another will explain Georgia’s ‘amber’ wines. Perhaps it’s this camaraderie that appeals to aspiring judges. There is even a Hong Kong Wine Judges Association where local Hongkongers gather to practice judging in the hopes of entering the show circuit.

Last year’s Dinner in the Dark at Alchemy took the concept of ‘blind tasting’ to a whole new level. Dining in pitch darkness, a group of Asia’s best wine judges essentially lost our sight, heightening our senses of taste and smell – at once a fun and disconcerting experience.

Each wine show has its own personality. Some are convivial, others highly competitive. Scoring systems differ from competition to competition, too. At the SAR’s own Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition, marks are awarded out of 100, with a score of 90+ earning a gold medal as an outstanding example in its category. Our medal-winning wines must be more than just a pretty face. They represent a diverse range of high quality wines that are suited to Asian tastes. Award winners go on to compete for trophies at national or international level.

Overseas judging is an excellent chance to learn more about regional trends and gain a global perspective. Last week I judged native South African wines at the Veritas Awards. Never have the continent’s wines shown more beautifully. The metamorphosis in quality is palpable. Gone are the days of burnt rubber, acrid smoke or farmyard aromas. Massive replanting programs have cleaned up South African wines and they are roaring back onto the world stage. A vibrant new cadre of winemakers is setting the industry abuzz. Names to watch are the ‘Zoo Biscuits’ gang and Swartland’s T-shirt and flip-flop wearing ‘SIP and SPIT’ crew.

Choosing trophy wines is a hefty responsibility. The purpose of assigning a medal is to guide consumers towards a panel’s educated opinion. Medals can then be used as a benchmark against which to choose a wine, alongside other factors such as price and taste. Not all competitions are created equal though, so don’t hang your hat on any old medal-flaunting bottle. London’s International Wine and Spirit Competition, Hong Kong’s sister show, is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious. Over the years the IWSC has earned a strong reputation for picking deserving winners.

Trust is crucial to the judging process. The Hong Kong IWSC was the first competition in the world to partner with an auditing firm, KPMG, to ensure the highest integrity of our results. This year’s contenders are already shaping up for a tough battle. Entries close on the 30th of September and winners will be announced on the 6th of November at the HKTDC Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair. Wine lovers can weigh in with their own opinions at the Test Your Palate wine tasting event from the 5th to 7th of October (tickets at HK Ticketing; more information at www.hkiwsc.com/testyourpalate). Come along and taste up to 300 wines from the day’s judging in the company of the judges themselves. You might even fall in love with your own ‘haut’ trophy wine.


Flights I Fancy

I apply the ultimate dinner party test to wine judging. You know the one. If you could invite anyone in the world, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you choose? But instead of guests, I ask myself what wine I would serve for the occasion – the more discerning the guest, the higher the score.

To achieve my highest score and earn a trophy, a wine must be one I would happily serve at a dinner party for the most discerning guests, such as highly acclaimed critic Jancis Robinson.

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