• Simon Reilly

A day in the life of a wine judge

Last month I had the privilege of doing my first day’s judging for the IWC (International Wine Challenge).

I was only able to do one day of judging and by chance I ended up doing this on the last day of the competition, finals day. I only discovered this at the briefing given by chairman of judges, and breakfast TV legend, Charles Metcalfe when I arrived at the Oval cricket ground in South London on the morning of the judging. Yep, everything I would taste that day had been through at least one round of judging, so I was tasting the cream of the crop. I was delighted.

At the IWC the judges are arranged into panels of 5 judges of varying degrees of experience; a panel chair, a senior judge, two judges and an associate judge. As a first-timer I was automatically an associate judge. Based on your performance you are promoted (or not) up the rankings over time.

The panel chair was a Master of Wine (not always the case) and the senior judge and two judges all had lots of experience judging at the IWC, so I was in good company. We all got on very well and the day flew past, with lots of laughs.

The tasting process works as follows;

  • The wines are grouped into flights generally based on a combination of wine type, grape variety and geographical region. All wines are served completely blind, to the extent that where a unique bottle shape may reveal the wine’s identity the bottle is not revealed and glasses of that wine are brought out separately.

  • Each judge tastes all of the wines in a flight and makes their notes and scores the wines without conferring with the other judges. Although the final score is a score out of 100 points, given that all the wines at this stage are deemed medal quality, we scored them either Gold (95-100), Silver (90-94), Bronze (85-89), Commended (80-84) or Out (below 79). Within these there is a bit of Silver+ or Bronze- when the wines are on the edge of a category.

  • Once each judge has tasted and scored the wines the panel then discusses each wine and agrees on a score for the team. The panel chair then writes up a tasting note (about 30 words per medal winning wine) and gives it a score out of 100, based on the team’s score.

The tasting runs from about 10am-4pm with about an hour for lunch so about 5 hours in all. We tasted 10 flights, totalling 62 wines all in. Some shots of the tasting room....

The wines were a mixed bag to say the least. It may have been finals day but when the competition is generic unoaked Australian chardonnay or Czech off-dry whites the finalists are still going to be pretty honking.

If I don’t taste another wine made from polava or hibernal I won’t lose any sleep. Looking at my tasting notes, the first three words I used to describe the first polava wine I tasted were “floral and soapy”. One of my fellow judges described it as “like a blend of sauvignon blanc and bleach”. Although that may well be an improvement on sauvignon blanc, I’d avoid it if I were you.

Despite these bumps on the road we did taste a lot of great wines. Things got off to a great start with vintage champagne as the first flight. My grin must have been a bit too obvious as I was quickly warned that I was a lucky sod and that the day would not be full of bubbles.

Other highlights from my ten flights were; finishing the day on twenty year old tawny ports (a personal favourite wine style), Tasmanian pinot noir and syrah from Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Cananda.

I really enjoyed the chance to taste through the wines and identify my favourites. One of the great things about being an IWC judge is that you keep your tasting notes so you can circle the wines you particularly like and after the results are revealed you can find out the identity of the wines by typing in the code of the wines you picked out.

Now that the results are out I can now identify the wines I had highlighted as ones to look out for. And being the nice guy that I am, I’m going to share these with you lot too. So here we go…


Of the seven vintage champagnes, I picked out two for special attention. The first one was the 2002 vintage of the “Rare” cuvee by Piper Heidsieck. Apparently it was served at the 2015 Oscars and retails at about £165 per bottle, therefore although very nice this is not a wine I shall be recommending you buy. Spend the money on acting lessons instead.

If you can’t be arsed with acting, buy three bottles of my other vintage champagne recommendation, the William Deutz 2006, and still have £30 change. My tasting note for this wine reads; “Great balance between fruit and acidity. Real minerality on the finish. Freshness too. Nice saltiness.”

Okay, I know this is a pretty crap tasting note but it was my first flight and I was drinking champagne at 9.30am, give me a break. If it helps convince you how much I liked it, I ordered three bottles of this this morning after I discovered what it was.

Get if for £45 per bottle from Cheers Wine Merchants. As I copy the url into this blog I note that they offer 10% of your first order if you sign up to their mailing list. A fact which I failed to spot when I ordered them this morning. Bugger.

Tasmanian Pinot

It tickled me that of the five Tasmanian pinot noirs I tasted, the two I circled turned out to be from the same producer, an Italian guy called Stefano Lubiano.

One was the 2013 Sasso, his top cuvee, which retails at his cellar door for $109 and the other is the 2015 Estate Pinot Noir ($45). Neither are available in the UK but he is a producer I shall keep an eye on as I’d be interested to see what price his wines land up in the UK, as often Australian wines seem cheap in the UK compared to in their homeland.

As an example, Mount Pleasant’s Lovedale Semillon is $70 at the cellar door in the Hunter Valley but £24.99 in Waitrose, which suggests an exchange rate of 2.8x rather than the 1.75x that exists in reality. I’d buy the Estate pinot Noir at £16, but the Sasso is a bit punchy at £38.

Canadian Syrah

I am a big fan of the wines of Okanagan Crush Pad’s wines from BC, imported in the UK by Red Squirrel. So I was delighted to get a flight of Syrah from the Okanagan Valley. I picked out two worthy of note, but unfortunately neither of them are available in the UK. Both 2014, one was the Poplar Grove Syrah and the other was the 2014 Syrah by CC Jentsch. Both had that Northern Rhone spiciness I love and lovely smooth and plush mouthfeel, backed by great acidity. Worth looking out for.

Twenty year old Tawny Port

I love port and twenty year old tawny is my go to choice. I do love a vintage port in its prime but working out when that prime is can be an expensive and disappointing experiment. With tawny, you know what you are getting. It is ready to roll when you pop the cork. Twenty year old is the right level of sweetness/acidity ratio for me too. Ten year old can be underwhelming and austere whilst 30 and 40 year old can be overwhelming and rich.

There were nine ports in the flight and I scored four of them as gold medals and another three silver but the standout for me was the Sandeman. It is available from Waitrose for £37.99, and I for one will be buying some the next time they have one of their regular 25% discounts sales.