Science Enters Erratic Wine Competition Arena

Wine-judging can never – and should never be – an exact science. It is a totally subjective exercise demanding the holistic sensorial commitment of the judge who has the task of seeing, smelling, tasting and assimilating up to 100 wines-plus at one sitting.

For this, wines are analysed by the taster in a cold, impersonal environment with nothing more than a score-sheet, a pen and a row of tot-filled glasses to influence his or her experience of each wine to be judged.

In such an environment devoid of titillating conversation, merry music, scenery, tasty food or even of a Brazilian ballerina smeared with Lindt 70% chocolate, the person judging the wine has a weighty and responsible task. Not to mention thankless.

Judges’ results will always be questioned by wine-makers and critics just as no rugby match being completed without half of the audience questioning the abilities of the referee.

So it is only right that everything should be done to assist the wine judge in his or her taxing task, just as the rugby referee is so ably helped by the television match official (TMO).

But where is this help required as we surely do not want to remove the personal, human value associated with judging such a gracious and sense-dependent product such as wine?

Determining cork taint is a start, as it appears that even the best wine judges are not able to correctly identify cork-related spoilage.

This once-again came to the fore in last year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Despite the show being run by the anti-cork crusader Michael Fridjhon who will accuse a piece of cork for being behind the disappearance of flight MH370 if he gets the chance, the panel of judges tended to blame closure for most wine problems they experienced during last year’s Old Mutual gig.

According to Fridjhon, “Thirteen percent of all the wines at the Trophy Judging (when the best 31 wines of the event are reviewed by all the panels) were adversely affected, with a staggering 66% of the cork-closed white wines ruined by closure. A review of the cork-taint statistics from the judging shows that 10% of the cork-closed wines were sent back with a request for a second bottle. Not all these rejects turned out to have faulty corks, but most did.”

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The fact that Fridjhon – and his doting sponsors Old Mutual – allowed these facts to be stated without any empirical scientific evidence show that when it comes to wine competition standards, a lot still has to happen in South Africa.

Fortunately the Veritas Wine Awards, which despite Old Mutual’s claim are the true premier South African wine competition having nearly 2000 entries, has decided to raise the bar in 2013 by becoming the first competition in the country to scientically assess any cork-related problems its judges may find.

aIn last year’s competition Veritas reached to scientific testing to determine the origin and occurrence of TCA in wine entries. In partnership with wine laboratory Vinlab, all instances of TCA found by judges in the Shiraz and Chardonnay categories were sent to Vinlab to establish the presence, extent and origin of TCA using gas-chromatography, the world’s most sophisticated chemical analysis.

The results were something of a surprise, even for those producers who run the risk of being termed “luddites” by the Old Mutual Trophy Chairman for using cork closures.

Vinlab’s scientists found that of the 130 entries in the Veritas Awards’ Chardonnay category, only one bottle was confirmed as having TCA above the sensory threshold of 1 nanogram per liter, or 1 part per trillion.

Three wines of the category were earmarked as having TCA traits by the judges, but this was not confirmed by scientifically validated technology used by Vinlab.

An interesting aside was that of the four wines adjudged to contain TCA by the panel, two were closed with screw-cap.

In the Shiraz category, only one bottle out of 194 entries was found to have TCA.

Going through these facts and figures and comparing the scientific Veritas approach to the winging-it, agenda-driven Old Mutual Trophy methodology, it is apparent just how hard-done by both producers and the public are through shoddy wine competitions where panel chairmen and judges have absolute power to control not only the results, but any quality-related issue that might arise from a wine show.

This is especially the case where competitions are driven exclusively by commercial judges, such as the case with the Old Mutual Trophy Show, instead of the Veritas Awards’ more industry-embracing agenda.

Fortunately the goal-posts have been shifted. The major step taken by Veritas will hopefully create new standards for South African wine judging to the benefit of the industry, and all those committed to producing quality wines in ways they best see fit.

We, the end-consumer, deserve nothing less.

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