Home Sample Issue Subscribe Biography Contact John Articles Wine Links


By John Salvi
January 2006

International tasting competitions have multiplied alarmingly over the last few years. Is there a place for all of them? Some of them are enormous, up to 7000 samples, some are small, some truly international, some borderline, some with a majority of professional tasters, some with a majority of journalists and personalities – in short allsorts! Some of them, but not many, have become important marketing tools for the producers in the modern wine world.

Of course competitions have existed almost for ever. Not so much as competitions in earlier times, but as assessments and judgements of quality. Gold medals were awarded as well as silver and bronze, although very few winners vaunted them if they were not gold. One has to wonder what is today’s marketing value, on a modern label, of a medallion that proudly announces the award of a medal in The Hague, Vladivostok or Liverpool in the 19th Century. It is fascinating to know that they were making good wine then, but I confess that it does not tell me a great deal about the quality of the wine inside the bottle of 2003 that I am opening!

As for the modern wine and spirit competitions, in the true sense of the word, they have, for the most part, been introduced over the last 20 years. The oldest of them, the doyen today, is Vino Ljubljana, Slovenia, each year. It is small and perpetually struggling with financial restrictions, but soldiers valiantly on and is highly prized by producers and consumers alike.

A relatively recent development was the formation of VinoFed. This groups together tasting competitions of various countries into an association. The rule is one member per country, but Spain has managed to have two members accepted: Premios Zarcillo and Bacchus. France on the other hand, because its member, Vinalies International, has the right of veto, jealously vetoes the other impeccable candidate, Citadelle, Bordeaux. This is childish, petty jealousy at preparatory school level.

At present the association has the following members:
Bacchus, Madrid, Spain
Mondial du Pinot Noir, Switzerland
Mundus Vini, Germany
Premios Zarcillo de Castilla y Leon, Spain
VinAgora and VinAgora Botrytis, Hungary
Vinalies International, France
Vinandino, Argentina
Vinitaly, Verona, Italy
Vino Ljubljana, Slovenia

The Selections Mondiales de Vin, Canada, has recently been cancelled due to a change of policy by the Quebec Liquor Control Board and has therefore ceased to be member.
VinoFed has recently introduced the VinoFed Award for “genuine competitions”. Only one award per competition is allowed. It remains to be seen if this award will be esteemed by wine buyers or not, if indeed they ever learn of its existence! VinoFed declares its purpose as “to separate real contests from those that ere NOT (pompous!) and to ensure irreproachable credibility to results and protect both the consumer and the producer”. Great stuff if it can be done!!

The Para governmental body of the OIV, formerly OFFICE and now ORGANISATION, has laid down guidelines, which amount to rules and regulations, for international competitions. I say “amount to rules” because, if the competition does not adhere to their guidelines and use their tasting sheet, then they do not get OIV patronage. This patronage is deemed by some competitions to be of great importance, and the permission to use it on all publicity and documentation to be a valued asset. The drawback is that, since a few years ago, the OIV asks for a sum of money per sample for granting this patronage. Some competitions have gone along with this whilst others have decided that they can comfortably do without it. The OIV also insists that a delegate of theirs be invited.

The other body that gives patronage is the International Union of Oenologists (IUO), and this is becoming more and more sought after, valued and esteemed. No money is asked, but patronage is only given if the competition has a majority of oenologists as judges. The IUO sees these tastings as requiring technical expertise to ensure credible results and feels that they should be judged by technically qualified professionals. To the IUO this means oenologists. This counts out a high percentage of the competitions whose tasting panels are principally composed of journalists and personalities;

The OIV rules are relatively restrictive and lay down, among other things, how many wines may be tasted per day and what percentage of medals may be won. We do not have space to detail all these restrictions here. “Time is money” as the slogan says and competitions with 4000 or even 5000 samples mean very long tastings over several days, which costs a great deal of money even if you have a lot of judges, which also costs a lot of money if they are to be expert and international. In addition to this a lot of professionals do not have the time to spare for too many of these.

The New World laughs to scorn such regulations, particularly as Australia and California are accustomed to judge up to 200 wines per day with total professionalism. Also they feel no need whatsoever for patronage from either of these bodies, especially as most people in their countries have never even heard of them. This offends and upsets the OIV, who regards itself as being of paramount importance worldwide. Their self-opinion is highly debatable, especially as the USA quit the OIV a few years ago and the UK followed suit last year. The International Wine and Spirit Competition in the UK, which has some 7000-8000 wines to taste annually, feels quite strong enough to do without anybody except the suppliers of the samples.

Probably the biggest problem of all with these tastings, some of which are very large and very grand, is that there are now too many of them and new ones are starting up every year. Internationally renowned judges do not have enough time, and judges who are reputable, and above all knowledgeable, are relatively few and far between. A number of them use splendiferous social programmes as a lure, for the most part sponsored by major corporations and companies be they wineries, glass factories, cork producers, coopers etc. The social programmes are, quite naturally, of great appeal to the judges, but they frequently do not go hand in hand with the best organised tastings and most serious competitions. For real purists the set-up of the tastings is of paramount importance – good glasses (frequently loaned by Riedel), good lighting, odourless clean air, correct temperature of the room and of the wines and good, efficient service. Advisable, where possible, is an individual sink and tap rather than a spittoon and a personal adjustable light.
The tasting sheet is of vital importance and a matter of much debate and discussion. The IUO and the OIV insist upon the use of their joint tasting sheet if they give their patronage. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the committee that created this tasting sheet and have to admit that it is detailed and relatively complex and better for technicians than for amateurs. Journalists and free spirits do not like it because it imposes a strict discipline, which is alien and unappealing to them. On the other hand, too simple a sheet gives the taster no chance to express on paper the finer nuances, which are often what puts one wine just a touch above another. Even the best tasting sheets, at present, have the problem that if you put all your ticks into the “good” box you end up with a medal winning wine. At the same time it is often hard to say that it is “insufficient”, whilst you may well feel that “very good” is too good for it. This makes it difficult to know just where to put those endless, and ever increasing, series of samples that are perfectly and technologically correct but so perfectly and utterly soul-less and boring! Too many tasters also play safe and refuse to express their more radical opinions by putting their marks firmly in the middle range. That way they cannot be accused of being either too mean or too generous!

One or two modern competitions allot a computer to each judge and they enter their judgements directly onto it. This is efficient and does away with illegibility. At the same time it has the disadvantage of being irrevocable (you cannot change your marks) and the advantage that, at the end of each session, the taster can see a graph of his tasting notes and compare it with that of the other members of his panel.

Selecting judges is not easy. Many judges from wine producing countries lack a wide or deep knowledge of wines from other countries. This is particularly true when it comes to tasting fortified wines such as Port, Sherry, Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, etc. It is entirely wrong to mark down a sherry because it is oxidised but this often happens. It is admittedly not easy to find judges with wide global knowledge but I do feel quite strongly that more effort should be made by a number of competitions to find and invite judges that are proficient and knowledgeable about the wines of the world rather than specialists with narrow fields of knowledge, friends, colleagues and nice chaps who will invite you back to their tasting if you invite them to yours! The non producing countries of the world often have qualified judges with a much wider knowledge than those from the producing ones.
Meanwhile I am off, at the end of March, to judge an International Wine Tasting Competition in the Finger Lakes, New York State, where the majority of the wines are either FRUIT WINES or wines that are not fom VITIS VINIFERA. Now that is a real change!!

Home Sample Issue Subscribe Biography Contact John Articles Wine Links