Judgment in Verona
Greetings from historic Verona in Northeastern Italy, where the Fifteenth International Wine Competition Vinitaly concluded its deliberations today.
The event is said to be the largest and most selective of its kind, and it's not hard to believe that, as one of 105 international judges who've spent more than 18 hours over five full days of wine competition.
Collectively, working in six languages, we have rated more than 3,500 wine entries from 30 countries. Using the <i>Union Internationale des Oenologues</i>' 100-point scale to winnow all those entries down to 248 finalists - a dozen each in varied categories ranging from young whites to older reds, sparkling and dessert wines. From these finalists, the judges chose Great Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze medalists to be announced during the giant Vinitaly wine expo here this coming weekend.
To give you some sense of the scope of this competition, consider these statistics announced today by Dr. Giuseppe Martelli, chairman of the Oenologues' organization and president of the competition: The 21 sommeliers who served the judging panels walked a total of 55 kilometers to serve 23,000 glasses of wine, using 700 crystal decanters to present the older reds. Judges made nearly 300,000 individual decisions about aspects of the wines' color, aromas and flavors, racing through more than 21,000 scoring sheets and rating exactly 3,722 bottles to do so.
The judging panels included both oenologists (wine scientists) and wine journalists from Italy and 30 other countries, including representation from every continent. Most countries outside Italy were represented by a single judge; I was the sole U.S. jurist.
I gave you an overview of the <i>Union Internationale des Oenologues</i> procedures for wine judging during last autumn's Tuscan wine competition in Siena last October, where Dr. Martelli also presided. Rather than repeating that information, today I thought you might enjoy a few more varied and random thoughts about wine tasting and judgement that I jotted down during the competition.
* <b>Not all wines are created equal</b> - This may be a hard truth for wine lovers who want every wine to be a winner, but there's nothing like exposure to hundreds of commercial samples to remind us that every wine is not a 90-pointer. We were presented samples "blind," knowing only each entry's vintage, color and broad information about its style. While few of the wines were fatally flawed (and "corked" or otherwise damaged samples could be returned for a fresh bottle), it was difficult not to notice that for every wine that scored in the 80s or 90s, 10 or more tallied in the 70s or below; statistically, fewer than one in a dozen wines would make the finals. Think about that, next time you're trying to find something really good in the wine shop.
* <b>The 100 point scale is not intrinsically evil</b> - Although many wine geeks (including me) are skeptical about the 100-point rating scale for commercial wines, it's a logical approach in wine competition, where judges must make quick decisions about every wine and rank them. A system that efficiently reduces a wine's sight, aroma and flavor profile to a single number does approximate objectivity in ranking the contestants, and that's valid. But it still doesn't tell us much about the wine from a consumer standpoint, and I remain unconvinced that there's any real difference between an 87-point wine and an 88-pointer. My advice remains: It's fine to use points to sort out the players in wine judging, but careless to rely on them for <i>buying</i> wine.
* <b>Vintage and style stand out</b> - Having the opportunity to sample scores of wines in quick succession, presented for style, offers an instructive (and perhaps worrisome) opportunity to reconfirm the hypothesis that there are strong wine making trends toward higher alcohol, extract and overripeness and monolithic structure, particularly in red wines. The 2003 vintage in Europe, despite early acclaim from some critics, is looking less and less impressive with time, and even the much praised 2005 vintage presented a high proportion of "fruit bombs." Happily, in contrast with the theory that big, forward wines win medals because they stand out from the more subtle pack, I found that the big fellows stood out as relatively unpleasant, and most judges tended to take off points for imbalanced wines, even those made in blockbuster styles.
* <b>Clearing the palate</b> - There's nothing to make you want to "clear your palate" more than a flight of tannic young Nebbiolos or points-chasing Syrahs, and each table was well equipped with bread and water, which are preferable to more savory treats because they're neutral in flavor and don't either enhance or war with the wines. The bread, interestingly, was small, crusty <i>boconcini</i> ("little ball") white rolls specially made without salt or sugar to ensure neutrality. The lack of seasoning would make them less than suitable for dinner use, but they were perfect for clearing up tannin and fruit extract before the next wine. The competition supplied bottles of Acqua Panna still water from San Pellegrino for each judge's table, but I soon found that sparkling water (liberated from the break room) worked better for me. The carbonated bubbles' scrubbing action made it a much more effective palate cleaner, and the slight saltiness of carbonate water didn't cause any problems with analytical wine tasting. My advice: Next time you attend a major wine tasting, pack a bottle of bubble water.
It was particularly fun to meet and make new wine friends among journalists and wine makers from more than 30 countries. In a world that sometimes seems to be flying apart and where globalization raises as much fear as hope, it's warmly reassuring to discover how much there is in common in a room full of folks from the Americas and Western Europe to Eastern Europe, the Baltic, Asia and Down Hunder, and how very minor language and cultural differences become when there's good food on the table and good wine in your glass.