Cambridge Wine Merchants owner Hal Wilson invited me to take part in a blind tasting review of medal-winning French IGPs with a few premium South African wines thrown in at his Cherry Hinton Road branch.
I have been to a few events there and with its tapas bar-style seating area, it makes a great place to hold tastings.
The guest list for the event was fairly select - just a few senior CWM people, plus fellow Cambridge wine blogger Davy Kurniawian (Vinoremus) and the current head of the Cambridge University Blind Wine Tasting Society, Claire Novorol.
I was by far the least technically qualified person there as I neither work in the trade nor have judged at competitions and I have written previously (here) about my (in)ability as a blind taster.
Hal had arranged for branch manager and erstwhile '80s synth-pop star, Steve Hovington, to cover up 17 of the wines, arrange them in sensible pairings and lay out some sheets on which to mark country of origin, grape variety, a tasting note and a score.
On the scoring issue, I purposefully do not score wines when I review them; moreover, as someone who works with numbers and percentages for a living, I can't quite see why scores out of 20 (in this case) should start at 10 just for turning up. But I quickly picked up that around 13 is mildly disappointing, and anything above 16 rather good, so was able to contribute to the discussion on quality.
Interestingly, however, a more frequent comment on quality was around relative pricing, with people keener to suggest a sensible price that an absolute score, as in "For £6 or £7 this is alright, but I wouldn't pay over £9".
I was not quick enough at writing to get details of all the wines at the point when they were revealed, but some interesting patterns did emerge.
Firstly the whites showed better than the reds - and it was two of the whites that I took home as left overs to review in more detail (see below).
The reds were almost uniformly much less impressive with only one that I actually liked, the Domaine Gayda Chemin de Moscou 2008, which proved to be the most popular wine amongst us all.
Perhaps then it's no coincidence that it's the one wine amongst the lot that Cambridge Wine Merchants actually stocks.
With toasty vanilla and liquorice on the nose, it has a damson and plum sweetness on the palate and a gentle finish.
It is, however, not cheap - especially for a Languedoc wine - as it retails at £21, but was my choice when Hal offered us a bottle of any of the wines to take home as a thank you for our time and input.
The rosé divided opinion with Claire, the blind-tasting captain deeming it lacking in interest, but Davy and me appreciating its clean, crisp acidity and, if priced at around £6, finding it would make a good if uncomplex picnic wine.
I also found myself disagreeing with people over the one dessert wine from Gascony - with most politely describing it as inoffensive, to me it was like a dry white with a couple of spoonfuls of cheap white sugar stirred in.
As a big fan of dessert wines, I find any level of sweetness is good as long as the sugars are complex from very late harvested grapes, whereas the sweetness here felt cheap, tawdry and confected.
There was no disagreement on the Pinot Noir, however, which had almost no varietal characteristics at all other than a very pale colour ("Oh it's another rose", one person remarked dryly) with pretty much nothing of any interest whatsoever.
I can see how any person trying this as their first Pinot Noir to see what all the fuss is about might well decide the grape is overrated and not worth exploring further - and I wonder how it got such a high rating from the judges who include several MWs (see here for the list)
The most unusual wine was the last of the whites, a 2008 Domaine d'Estoublon Blanc, Vin de Pays des Alpilles from France.
Described by the group variously as a wine merchant's wine and utterly bonkers, it was dark yellow in the glass and had a nose of sour, rotting hay aromas with an oxidative palate, some aged characteristics and just a touch of mid-palate sweetness.
There were questions about what possible category it could have won and whether it was intended to be like this or had aged prematurely due to insufficient sulphur.
Some of the other discussions about origin and variety were considerations of degrees of subtlety that were way beyond anything I have ever come across - but then I simply have not tried enough southern Rhone blends to say with confidence what their major characteristics are.
And whilst I'm reasonably confident of having had Roussane on at least one occasion, I certainly couldn't spot it blind.
Like so many things, the world of wine has diversified massively in recent years and it seems the old rules of merely needing tell a Chardie from a Sauvignon no longer apply - or at least not to the same extent.
Good and very good wine is no longer made from just a few noble varieties in small regions of Europe - and decent-ish wine can be made almost anywhere from a much wider range of grapes than, say, just 20 years ago and one's knowledge and blind tasting ability needs to reflect this.
Moreover, with parts of the New World such as southern New Zealand, high-altitude Chile and even parts of Australian able to do cool-climate styles, whilst France's Languedoc, inland Spain and southern Italy do New-World-style ripe, fruit-driven wines, it can be hard to say with any confidence where a wine may be from.
After the main tasting, we dived into a wide-ranging discussion about the merits of competitions, with Hal feeling reconfirmed in his view that CWM should be selling only wines they feel are good and that if the wine happens to have a medal then that's merely a nice-to-have for marketing purposes.
As a competition judge herself, Claire felt that many aspects of the process are flawed, such as the sheer number of wines to be tasted and the way the subsequent tasting notes are sometimes complied from only the most positive reviews.
She also felt that palate weariness can set in after tasting large numbers of mediocre wines so that modestly good wines can come to seem much better by comparison and suggested that competitions should also include a number of blind benchmark wines - that is wines of a certain quality that are not actually being entered but are merely there to remind people at certain points of what a good wine should taste like.
It seems to me that there are competitions and competitions - and that any wine marketing board with a big enough budget and an ambition can set up its own competition and get some eye-catching stickers put on a number of the wines from the region whose duty it is to promote.
I agree with Matt Boucher, manager of my local Mill Road branch, in believing that overall, wine competitions are a good thing as, when done properly, they identify the better wines and help the consumer to make choices from amongst the overwhelming range on offer.
Wine competitions, then, are a bit like internet search engines - they do the hard work of tracking down stuff for you based on certain criteria.
Anyone who remembers the early days of the internet, before Google and even Ask Jeeves, will know that in those days there were many, many search engines all doing slightly different things with no single dominant player.
And wine competitions are pretty much like that these days, with no single, overall go-to point.
So there's the rub - how do you know that the competition that gave the wine in front of you on the supermarket shelf a sticker was properly run and that the commendation, gold medal or trophy really means something ?
What is needed, perhaps, is some kind accreditation or code of practice for wine competitions to show that they have been run according to certain principles - they quality of the judges, the rigour of the review process and so on.
Search engines have come a long way since the late 90s; wine competitions, however, have not and there is still no single dominant player on the market that resonates strongly with consumers in the way that google is most people's starting point for browsing the Internet.
Many people in the wine trade that I speak to on the subject of wine competitions generally seem to shrug and say that people buy to a budget and you won't get them buying better wine just by adding a trophy sticker.
I disagree with this view and feel that people mainly stick to a budget because they lack confidence in their ability to choose better wine, or at least one they will enjoy more, above a certain price point.
What medals and trophies can do, when done properly, is provide a degree of confidence in the quality of the wine, so that buyers can start to focus more on quality than mere price and begin to feel confident about moving up a few pricing levels - provided, of course, the quality is there in the first place.
Of the two wines that I liked enough to take home, the first was a Les Caves du Commandeur Rolle from Argens in Provence, just across the border from Italy where it is known as Vermentino.
The nose shows white peach, elderflower and a touch of hoppiness, whilst the palate shows a soft but persistent and rounded acidity, with more stone fruit and a touch of tropical sweetness; a lovely, well-made, well-balanced wine.
The Folie d'Ines 2010 from IGP Collines de la Moure is a blend of Roussane and Viognier. With a deep, toasty, oaky nose, it was the most interestingly and subtly oaked white of the evening with ripe, tropical fruit acidity, touches of oatmeal, nuts and butteriness as well as some ginger and sweet vanilla.
Re-tasting both wines 48 hours after the event, I found them very pleasant, well-made and sensible with nothing to dislike.
Neither is particularly complex or inspiring, but we are perhaps not in that price bracket and for everyday drinking, these are very enjoyable wines with a touch of good warm-climate softness to them balanced by some sensible European restraint.
You can read Vinoremus' account of the evening here:
Top 100 IGP wines - http://www.top100igpfrance.com/en/winelist/trophies
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Vinoremus - http://www.vinoremus.blogspot.com/
CUBWTS - http://www.cubwts.co.uk/