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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Blind Tasting of International Wine Challenge Winners at Cambridge Food & Wine Society (and a special offer)

It is a now something of an annual tradition for the Cambridge Food & Wine Society's December event to feature a blind tasting of some of that year's International Wine Challenge medal and trophy winners.

This year, as an added incentive, innovative online wine merchant Naked Wines (who themselves have an IWC award for innovation) had kindly provided some introductory vouchers for all attendees (see here for more details on Naked Wines).

The wines for this event are selected by the Society's Chairman and, in recent years, have featured a number of multiple trophy-winners (i.e. wines with more than one trophy).

Last year, I thought the quality of the wines was excellent, so I was keen to see what the IWC judges had rated well this year.

As Steve Vincent, the Society's Chairman, explained, there were 14% more medals awarded this year than last with both the most medals overall and the most gold medals won by France.

Whether this is due to more or better wines or dumbing down of standards is up for debate, but it is worth noting that the IWC judges number 370 winemakers, merchants and writers from around the world, including a large number of Masters of Wine and the judging process is thorough, if not rigorous (see here for more details).

For what it's worth here are my thoughts on the significance of medals and trophies in general (not specific to the IWC):

- trophy / Gold / Silver; expect a good-to-excellent example here, but check exactly what it's won - if you don't like, for example, sweet wines then a trophy-winning dessert wine is unlikely to appeal;

- Bronze / commendation; there can be an element of damning with faint praise here and I have had some examples that were pleasant enough, but neither particularly impressive nor good value;

- no medal; the problem is that one never knows whether a wine has been entered and failed to secure a medal (in which case the producer presumably keeps very quiet) or has simply not been entered. It would be interesting if wines that were entered but failed to win anything were required to indicate this, but that's unlikely ever to happen.

The tasting started with a bang - literally, as the first wine was a sparkler. For me, this has been the year I discovered (or remembered) what all the fuss was about with Champagne after trying some rather good ones.

I found this wine to be rather disappointing by comparison, without the depth of flavour and length I have come to expect. The general consensus was that this wine was a bit "rustic" - to me it was yeasty in a particularly sweaty sort of way. It turned out to be a South African Champagne-method sparkler which had won a "value" trophy (value being relative, as it cost just shy of £10).

The next wine had a herbaceous nose full of gooseberries, grapefruit, nettles and fresh-cut grass, so clearly a Sauvignon Blanc and the only question was from where. Completely dry and rather acidic on the finish in a way that suggested a cool climate, it turned out to be from Marlborough, New Zealand.

The next wine was less in-yer-face and had a clean, crisp palate of pears with good minerality. I liked it very much and it turned out to be a Grüner Veltliner from Austria - sampled again after the main tasting, the white pepper aromas that are GV's hallmark were much more noticeable.

The final white was a Semillon with a very petrolly nose and hints of farmyard and was from Australia.

Pinot Noir is always a good guess for the first red of a blind tasting if you are not sure what is in the glass, especially if it is a fairly light wine. However, there will always be someone who serves up a medal-winning Beaujolais just to confuse things and this wine, though well-enough made, for me simply was not interesting enough to consider putting on a list of potential purchases.

The next wine, however, was instantly recognisable as a Pinot Noir - pale in colour with a truffley, farmyardy nose, it had lots of red berry fruit and good tannic structure and was absolutely lovely and turned out to be from New Zealand and to cost £27 !

On a roll with good reds, the next one had a wonderfully rich flavour of dark berry fruit with vanilla, some spice and hints of eucalyptus with a distinct meatiness. The earthy nose and texture made me think of a Merlot-based Bordeaux, but it turned out to be a Rioja. Interestingly, the grapes had been grown at altitude (over 600m) and I attribute this to giving it a sense of being from further north.

The last red flummoxed quite a few people, but to me was fairly straightforward - I have had quite a lot of Aussie Shiraz in the last year and have learnt to recognise its signature plum and prune nose and complex berry sweetness on the palate.

The final wine of the evening was a wonderfully rich and complex dessert wine with toasty nuts, warming figs and Christmas pudding. It was also one I had tried recently at Cambridge Wine Merchants (see here) and was a Portuguese Muscat of Alexandria from Setubal.

With a possible maximum of 54 marks available for guessing things like grape variety, country, vintage, alcohol content, price, my final score was pitifully low and it is only mildly consoling that, yet again, the winning score was well under 50%.

The Wines

Villiera Brut Natural M&S Chardonnay 2007 Stellenbosch, South Africa 12% £9.99 Silver, Great Value Sparkling Wine under £10

Weingut Turk Erlesenes Vom Noel Young Gruner Veltliner 2008 Austria 13.5% £16.99 Austrian Dry White Trophy, Gruner Veltliner Trophy

Montana Waitrose Sauvignon Blanc 2010 New Zealand 13% £8.99 NZ Sauvignon Blanc Trophy

McWilliams Mount Pleasant ‘Elizabeth’ Cambridge Wine Merchants Semillon 2005 Hunter Valley, Australia 12% £9.99 Australia White Trophy

Henry Fessy Brouilly Cru de Beaujolais Waitrose Gamay 2009 France 13.5% £9.99 Beaujolais Trophy

Schubert Block B Noel Young Pinot Noir 2008 New Zealand 14.5% £27.95 NZ Pinot Noir Trophy, Wairarapa Pinot Noir Trophy, IWC Sustainable Trophy

Bodegas Lar de Paula Rioja ‘Anada’ Cepas Viejas Noel Young Tempranillo 2005 Spain 14.5% £24.50 Spanish Red Trophy, Tempranillo Trophy, Rioja Alavesta Trophy

Heartland Director’s Cut Cambridge Wine Merchants Shiraz 2007 Australia 15% £17.99 International Shiraz Trophy, Australian Red Trophy, Australian Shiraz Trophy, South Australian Shiraz Trophy

Bacalhoa Moscatel de Setubal Colheita Cambridge Wine Merchants Moscatel 1999 Portugal 17.5% £17.99 International Fortified Muscat Trophy


International Wine Challenge - http://www.internationalwinechallenge.com/default.aspx

Cambridge Food & Wine Society - http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/

Naked Wines - http://www.nakedwines.com/

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