Little Aigle, Switzerland was the scene of 9,200 wine judgements, 2-5 May. Wineries shipped their wares to this town in canton Vaud from around the world, hoping they would be noticed and found to be beautiful at the itinerant Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
The results come out 13 May. As one of the judges, I’m keen to see what we did. We were told at the end of each morning the results of the wines our own small tables tasted, but mum’s the word on those, and as for the rest –
Were they good? Great? Not up to snuff? Did we live up to the standards set and judge them fairly, keeping in mind the people who made them? There should be no wine-bashers or king-makers among us, if we did our jobs right, it was suggested.
The wines would speak for themselves and our job was to listen.
One of the world’s largest wine competitions
The wines were vying for medals from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB), one of the world’s largest wine competitions, now in its 26th year. The 350 judges from 50 countries were all professionals, but with very different cultures and backgrounds – sommeliers, buyers, winemakers, consultant oenologists, journalists (the latter about 60%). My daily wine turned out to be my neighbour’s exotic unknown grape variety and vice-versa.
Wine competitions vary greatly. Some are slightly dubious local wine contests run by producers who need the medals to boost sales, others, such as this one, are events to create international ratings, especially important to importers and exporters, and the standards are high.
They should raise the profiles of the best wines to help consumers know what to buy and to help good wineries reach an appreciative public.
Do they, though?
70 tables, 70 marching sommeliers in a world cycling centre
The first morning of the CMB made an impression, setting the tone. A rope barrier was lifted and judges who had just arrived from the mountain resort of Leysin streamed into the World Cycling Centre to music. Seventy round tables were set up with 15 glasses each for judging and little flags announcing each judge’s nationality brightened the tables. Round and round on a cycling track above us went 2 racers, setting the mood for perfection, concentration and to some extent speed, for we would need to taste 3,000 wines a day. (check out my Instagram video clip)
I remembered that my own burning question when I began judging wines in 2008 was simply whether I could rely on silver and gold medals to tell me something useful about their wines. It’s a question I hear every time I lead a tasting session or have a signing session for my book on Swiss wine. I wanted to find out how they were judged in order to assess the medals’ worth. Since then I’ve judged wines in four different international competitions, two of them more than six times each, and the Swiss national competition several times.
At the top end, I now think competitions’ medals are handed out fairly, but consumers need to understand just what this means. A gold medal is no guarantee you’ll love a wine, simply that it is well-made and has something extra. I’m not a huge fan of oaked Chardonnay, but I can appreciate the quality of one that is exceptional and give it a high note.
Importantly, wine-lovers shouldn’t overlook silver medal winners, thinking they are less worthy. We judge a wine at a given moment in time, and wines are living products that continue to evolve. Silver medals are handed to wines that have no problems, that are simply correctly and well made. They may stay at that level, or sometimes, their promise unfolds later.
Good competitions are one of the few ways for wineries to fight the noisy world of online influencers, where the desire for fame outstrips the reliability of some wine reviewers’ and photographers’ assessments. Judges at the CMB are held accountable and measured; the details of our scores are entered in a database and analyzed. If you fall asleep at the wheel while judging and punch in random numbers, chances are good you won’t be invited again.
In a major competition like this one, hundreds of professionals and volunteers are called on. The bottles must be stored correctly, the temperatures controlled closely, the wines opened properly at just the right moment by our student sommeliers – not too soon, not too late.
The sommeliers from the Swiss Hotel Management School in Leysin were our mostly unsung heroes. Once we’d found our tables and sat down, they marched in to lively music in an impressively choreographed show that meant we would all be served at the same time, efficiently. They performed their march and served us for each of three flights every morning – no small feat!
Most of the time we did a good job, I think. We had to be careful not to rush when we saw another table leaving for lunch and not to get excited when an ordinary wine seemed so much better than the two preceding, mediocre ones. We had to watch out for that moment you’ll recognize from parties, when you suddenly realize you went adrift and you’ve lost the thread of the story someone is telling you.
Here are the questions and comments I hear most often when I tell people outside the wine world that I’m a wine judge. Note that my personal set of answers, with a focus on the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, might not match those of a Master of Wine or a major wine importer (there were several of each group as judges). We bring different skills and approaches to wine and you, the wine-lover, should be the lucky winner when we pool our judgements.
Day 1, post-judging, visits to various Swiss wineries, a cablecar up to 2,000 m for dinner
The results are fair because the judges taste blind, we hear. Does this mean you know nothing about the wine?
For the CMB we knew the colour and type of each wine (still white vs. sparkling) as well as the vintage. We didn’t know what part of the world the wine was from or the grape variety, or if it was a blend or varietal (single grape) wine. We didn’t know how it was made, whether it was fermented in stainless steel tanks or large oak vats, for example. There isn’t a lot of time for discussion and this is mostly discouraged, but there was plenty of speculation after our notations were registered, educated guessing and murmurings of “definitely oaked” or “fermented slowly, that’s the style in such-and-such region”, and more.
So few details before tasting can be confusing, but since we’re seeking to distinguish quality no matter what the wine style, we really don’t need more information.
In some competitions a bit more is provided. At the Mondial des Pinots, for example, a flight of wines might be still red varietal Pinots, then the next flight still Pinot blends. And since Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are the same grape variety they are part of the competition and will be identified for their flights.
What’s a flight and how many wines are in a flight? How many can you taste in a day? We know you spit out the wine, but don’t you get a little drunk?
This is probably the question I’m asked most often, because wine-lovers who have never done serious tasting find it hard to believe that a) you would want to spit out wine! and b) that even if you do, surely you are swallowing some of it and therefore you must eventually get a bit drunk.
Flights: trendy bars and wineries sell these to consumers in some countries. They are simply a series of beers or wines. In a competition, it’s the group of wines we taste together. The work behind the scenes is huge, to make sure the order of the wines in a flight, and of the flights, makes sense – you don’t want to taste dessert wines before sharp dry whites. The whites must be chilled but not icy, the red wines must be the right temperature but that’s not the same for all of them.
For this competition, we tasted wines for three straight mornings, starting at 9:00 and finishing at 13:00 every day. Each table had about 15 wines in a flight, with 3 flights, so we had up to 50 wines in a morning. Do your math and you will see that a wine can’t have more than 5 minutes or we’re off schedule. We have to stay tightly focused.
We’re there because we are interested in comparing wines and in seeing what makes a good wine good. You simply can’t do that if you start drifting off into a jolly wine haze. So yes, we’re good, even very good, at spitting out the wine to ensure we can analyze all of them.
Even without swallowing wine, there is an impact on your head, however. Concentrating hard to use your senses of sight, smell and taste for four hours is mentally and physically wearing. And breathing the alcohol does eventually bring on a measurable high: a few years ago I tested myself with a breathalyser after another morning-long competition and found I was right at the drink-drive limit.
But if you’re all so good about not swallowing wine, can you really judge how ordinary wine drinkers will react to them?
Happily, most of us also like to drink wine and one of the perks of being a judge is that we end the tasting sessions with an aperitif glass and lunch somewhere. Evenings, we all go out together and order a crazy number of wines because everyone wants to taste and compare the local wines. Restaurant staff must love us, because most judges aren’t keen to consume a lot, since we have to work the next morning. So a large group of us might leave several half-finished bottles on restaurant tables. I hope the waiters and kitchen staff enjoyed some very good Swiss wines this week, once they were off-duty!
A group judges each wine, so do you taste them, then decide on a medal by majority vote?
No, we grade or mark every wine on a points basis with categories for sight, smell, taste; in the case of the CMB, out of a maximum of 100 points. We do this individually. Today the big competitions are automated so we mark our scores on small electronic tablets. When everyone at our table of 5 has entered a score, but not before, the “chairman” of the table can see these and tells us what each judge gave and our group average, which is the wine’s final score. We know the range for each of the three medals, but since a maximum of 30% can receive medals, we are never sure precisely where the final boundary will lie. If there is an exceptionally good vintage, it doesn’t mean more medals.
What if you want to change your score, once you see the table’s overall score for a wine?
We can’t do it: our vote is final. If we feel we were unfair, one way or the other, we discuss it, and we agree to be more careful with the next wine. The chairman plays a key role here, watching each of us to make sure we don’t lose our focus, or that we’re not completely out of line with the others. It does happen, and we have to be prepared to defend the much lower or higher score we gave, compared to the rest of the table. I had one wine that I was ready to give a gold medal, but the others at my table disagreed: most thought it was good but not that good, and one judge gave it a low score. Wines from unfamiliar grapes can struggle to have a consensus from us.
Any discussion before each person has voted is taboo, but if there is a problem with a wine, for example a clear case of a corked wine, the chairman will let us know and ask for a second bottle. Rules are rules and humans are human, so at some tables, there was more discussion.
The CMB is well-run and in any event we’re under pressure to get through the wines on time, which effectively curbs discussion while we’re still tasting and reflecting.
Day 2, Lavaux’s terraced vineyards, Fête des Vigneron’s new arena
It’s a far cry for me from an international competition in which I took part some years ago, in Italy, where the discussion was lively (although officially banned) and a verbal consensus was reached for each wine by the mostly Italian men judging, before they wrote down their remarkably harmonious scores. Given that we bring prejudices based on the wines we know and love at home and that men and women don’t necessarily appreciate wines in the same way, I found it maddening and unfair to the wines. I was one of just three women in a room of about 80 or 90 judges, and we were all made to feel slow and a bit stupid and inexperienced, we agreed afterwards. One of the other women was the highly regarded editor of an international wine journal and a very experienced sommelier who spoke several languages and had lived in several countries.
There are far more women in wine now, including a good many knowledgeable oenologists, but I could still feel the subtle effects of sexism, in particular mansplaining, although this is less apparent than cultural prejudices. Clichés about people and wines from other countries gently drift through the judging world, at the CMB as well as elsewhere, despite a friendly and sociable atmosphere and a wine world that is more international than, say, 30 years ago. Humans will be human and sexism, sadly, is part of that. So is cultural profiling.
If you don’t know what the wine is, what grape or AOC, how do you know what to look for: what are the criteria?
We look for wine faults. You recognize a beautiful wine because it looks, smells and tastes great, yes, but you know it is set apart from the rest when it has no faults, so we start by looking for these. I mentioned this to a group earlier this year, while presenting Swiss wines, and they were startled. No talk about aromas of cherries or lemons? Nope.
When we drink wine with friends we look for what’s good, so it seems a bit perverse that judges are checking for what might be bad, especially to people who have no idea what a wine fault might be, other than corked.
Maybe the grapes were under-ripe. Or maybe the wine was woody, from too much wood used to try to cover the fact the grapes were indeed under-ripe. Or it smelled of cabbage or celery, smells that come from the vinification process, or it has an animal or stable smell – or any one of a number of common faults that can come from a poor decision in the vineyard to less than perfect hygiene in the cellar. Or the wine might be made correctly, technically speaking, but it lacks balance because the oak from barrels has overwhelmed the wine so there is no hint of fruit anymore.
A wine might by dying an early death. Maybe it’s oxidized or there’s a serious problem with reduction, and we can’t give a medal to a wine like that.
So, what makes a good wine, and what do the medals tell us?
The point isn’t to look just for faults; elimination is simply the start of the process. The system for awarding medals is clear. A silver medal should be given to any wine that has no faults. It might not excite me, but it will be clean, no flaws, and balanced in every way. We’re tasting each wine at a particular point in its life and a silver medal status now is no guarantee of a long and beautiful life: it is a marker, and a few of these wines will improve with age and you’ll wonder later why it didn’t win a gold medal. We might make educated guesses about this but we’re not here to judge the wine’s potential.
A gold medal winner has no flaws, and it will have a wow factor. Enough of the judges at the table found something to praise and they gave it more points. No, we don’t always agree, but consensus is common for really fine wines.
And then there is the rare great or grand gold, the wine that makes us sit up and say, “That’s why we we’re doing this!” We want to be able to praise such beautiful wines and let the world know they are special. A bit of electricity whips around the table before anyone speaks; we all know right away it is a true winner.
Do we ever get it wrong? Possibly, probably, but wine tasting is subjective and I think we come close to getting it right, most of the time.
There are always surprises. I was very surprised when I learned later where the wines from one of our flights came from. I was disappointed slightly by the quality of another group I would have expected to be better. And one flight, I realized, came from a region whose wines I barely know and whose quality is clearly on the upswing; had I known their origins my own prejudices might have made me more negative. The opposite is also true for famous wine regions we think we know and are inclined to praise.
Blind-tasting must be truly blind.
Day 3, final tasting, visits to Valais, festive lunch at the Chateau d’Aigle
How will Swiss wines fare this year?
In 2018 when the CMB was held in China, Switzerland won a very credible 49 medals. A record 600 Swiss wines entered in 2019 in Aigle means there are high hopes for more medals. After the judging sessions we visited wineries. I found myself with judges from abroad who were tasting Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Heida and other Swiss specialties for the first time, and they were gradually becoming familiar with low-acidity Chasselas, a wine . Comments tended to be positive, so let’s see how these wines were judged when tasted blind.
Swiss wine guides for a busy wine summer
I was delighted that several of the judges browsed through and then bought my book on Swiss wine, Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines, as a helpful introduction to Swiss wines, their grapes and their cultural, historical and geographical landscape.
The competition was also the launch for an up-to-date and useful guide to Swiss wines from Swiss Wine Promotion in partnership with Vinum magazine. The book will soon be available publicly, just in time for the public and journalists looking for correct information on the greater landscape of Swiss wine before the summer world wine congress in Geneva and the Fêtes des Vignerons in Vevey. Both are expected to bring thousands of wine-lovers to the country.
Next year the Concours de Bruxelles competition moves to Brno in S. Moravia in the Czech Republic.