“This is an ungodly hour to go to war.” I said to myself as the alarm went off at 5am. It’s a good job then that I wasn’t going to war but instead to Bristol. I know that these two things have often been confused and once led to the USA invading the city to spread freedom in the name of releasing its oil supplies to the west. But I digress. My reason for visiting Bristol on this particular day was to serve as a judge at The Independent English Wine Awards. No, not serve the judges, but to be a judge.
This truly independent wine competition is the brainchild of Alex Taylor and is now in its fourth year. An award winning marketer (I have scheduled in some Bill Hicks time with him in the coming weeks) Alex established the competition for a few reasons; partly he was frustrated with the ‘novelty’ view many consumers hold of English wine. Alex holds WSET qualifications and had realised that this misconception was rather common (a bit like ‘all German wine is too sweet’) and wanted to play his part in putting it right. Alex is also a passionate expert in the field of comms (as the cool kidz call it) and saw a variety of opportunities arising from an independent wine competition.
The IEWA pulls together some of the country’s finest and most established producers alongside smaller, less well known and perhaps newer ventures. It’s a testament to both Alex and the competition he has crafted that every year sees an increase of entries. This year was no different, with around 150 wines on show. Alex also assembles an Avenger level of quality judges. Each judge tends to have a strong social media game but, more importantly, a keen interest in and understanding of English wine. The judges include broadcasters, journalists, wine makers, retailers, wholesalers and even masters of wine. Yep, somehow I got an invitation too. Some government scheme I think.
Not being a morning person the 5am alarm hit me particularly hard but I was as excited as a puppy that had just been appointed Professor of Excitement at Oxford University. By 6am I was on the road to Bristol. Contrary to popular opinion this is nothing at all like being on the road to Wigan Pier. Rather than interrogating the social and historical reality of the working class I would instead be examining a range of sparkling and still wines. The former could wait until after the post judging beer. On the journey to Bristol I thought up some anecdotes I could share with the judging panel to help lighten any tension. It was only before we started that Alex asked that anecdotes be kept to a minimum due to time constraints. Even though they were the anecdotes we deserved, they weren’t the ones we needed right now.
I was the first judge to arrive at our venue, the wonderful Pasture restaurant. A large space perfectly suited to socially distanced wine judging. As the other judges started to arrive I realised just how lucky I am to be part of the IEWA. Excepting myself, the IEWA judges are all smart, interesting and thoughtful individuals who each bring a unique perspective to the field of English wine. From masters of wine to winemakers there was a huge level of talent and insight to be found among the 16. It’s little known fact that I have a talent for creating a snooker analogy to fit almost any real life event or happening. It seems to me that life in general is like a final frame decider in a snooker competition. All you want is a chance. I have been fortunate in life to have a few chances offered to me at the right time. This instance was no different, Alex had asked me to be a panel chair. What a chance to be offered.
A panel chair is supposed to keep an eye on pace and timing whilst ensuring that each judge on their panel has the opportunity to speak up and share their views. The chair also plays Devil’s advocate as well as making sure that each wine is treated fairly and without prejudice. I believe it’s seen as a position holding a certain level of authority. If we’re ever in a position where I have authority, we’re in a bad place. It was great fortune that the panel with whom I was to judge didn’t require a panel chair; my three judging colleagues are all brilliant individuals who just ‘got’ the whole idea. Each judge was fair and considered in their approach and heard and thought about every opinion given. What a privilege it was to taste wines with them. My fellow judges were winemaker and England’s newest vineyard owner Corinne O’Connor, TV producer, director and usually shirtless Andy Clarke, and instagram’s best wine host, Brad Horne.
Our first flight was English sparkling. All traditional method wines (as one would expect) but a combination of traditional varieties as well as wines made from more ‘local’ grapes. I always say that blind tasting is the easiest thing in the world because the answer is there in front of you. I also always say that blind tasting is the hardest thing in the world because there are so many variables and it’s easy to be led away from the true answer by one red herring.
Most wines are consumed sighted (as in the label is seen before pouring) and thus most of us have already made up our minds as to whether the wine is good or bad. I’m not sure but this perhaps is an example of collapsing the wavefunction before truly experiencing the event. Yeah…take that Schrödinger. Anyway, when a wine is tasted blind it truly exists in a quantum superposition of being both good and bad until tasting…sorry, I get carried away sometimes. (Also, I was in Bristol, birthplace of ‘Britain’s Einstein’ Paul Dirac).
The first flight revealed the depth and range of English sparkling. We had 16 wines that also showed the variance of quality. There was nothing truly bad at all, but there were some wines that were clearly head and shoulders above the others. What was wonderful was hearing the different approaches to the wines we had. Andy Clarke articulates the wines in a way similar to the great Oz Clarke; he is expressive and paints such a vivid and inviting picture. He often refers to ‘the journey’ of the wine; how it moves through the palate and takes you along with it. I love this approach as it is somewhat similar to my own; although I obviously lack the articulacy and vocabulary.
Brad has a lovely ‘everyman’ approach to wine. Brad will often say his knowledge isn’t the greatest, but he undersells himself. His knowledge, particularly of English wine and the producers is outstanding. He describes the wine in a wonderfully accessible and unpretentious style that would encourage even the most shy taster to speak up. He is also perfectly democratic; hearing all views and carefully considering them. How I was panel chair and not Brad I’ll never be sure.
Finally Corinne brought the fabulous insight of a winemaker. Not only does she have familiarity with techniques but also varieties. She was able to coax characters from the wine with an understanding of how and why they were there. Corinne’s knowledge of English vintages was also exceptional; especially as she has only lived here for just over a year. Then there was me. I just wear a silly shirt and try to build a picture of what the wine is and what it aspires to be.
After the first flight we broke for coffee and biscuits. These were desperately required and hit the spot. The 4 panel chairs then took to judging the nominated gold medal winners from across all 4 panels in order to discover a supreme champion. This was where I learned the most. The other panel chairs are all extremely qualified, experienced and precise tasters and communicators. Ben Hulland, a Devon winemaker. Susy Atkins, respected journalist and broadcaster. Liam Steevenson Master of Wine and global winemaker. For me it wasn’t what these titans could taste, but how they went about it. This was next level tasting ability and I aspire to get somewhere near their technique before I retire. It will be a close run thing. Having decided on the overall winner we had time for the briefest of coffees before flight 2. Alex Taylor runs a tight ship here.
Flight 2 saw an increase in wine numbers to 20 bottles. There was also a key change from sparkling to still. Our panel faced all white wines made from a variety of grapes. Strangely we only had one Bacchus, which was part of a blend. Another panel had a huge range of varietal Bacchus wines to navigate. As with the sparkling we saw the breadth and diversity of English wine. This was thrilling for me as I would love to see more focus and air time given to our still wines. England made her name with sparkling, but we can offer so much more. Again the wines covered the quality spectrum with only 1 or 2 being questionable. The wines that really sang to us as a group were the blends. We don’t often talk about white blends in wine generally but certainly not in England. Given that the climate remains marginal, despite climate change, planting multiple varieties and blending them together is a wise move. These wines were the most complex and interesting in terms of the character and the journey on which they took us.
Following the conclusion of this flight the panel chairs once again reconvened in order to find a supreme champion. Strangely this was a little more challenging than the sparkling where certain wines stood out rather obviously as being clearly superior in some way. With the stills this was less pronounced which suggests that quality is perhaps more consistent in this category, particularly at the top level. After much deliberation, we chose our supreme champions. This involved me making what felt like a rather obvious (if exceptionally quick) pun that made Susy giggle. Maybe that pun will appear in print one day. Who knows.
The day concluded with a fabulous lunch of caramel pork belly followed by rare strip steak. At this point the judges moved outside with the bottles unveiled (only once final scores, decisions and judgements had been finalised). This was the chance to really relax and unwind. The discussion flowed with humour, insight and warmth. What a privilege to be around these English wine experts. Again, I learned huge amounts from my fellow judges. Wine flowed, jokes and gentle ribbing kept us all relaxed and down to Earth and I couldn’t help but immediately realise how lucky I was to be here.
I mentioned earlier the snooker analogy of a final frame decider. I realise how lucky and privileged I am in my life to be able to do something I so thoroughly love and that means a huge amount to me. Throughout my career there have been so many occasions of me being offered the chance. My first wine job, being given the run of a new independent shop in Oxford, an employer funding my WSET diploma, being given the stewardship of a global wine school and opportunity to teach and lecture in Barbados, being tasked with creating and leading a national training program…I include in this the chance not only to judge at the IEWA but also to be offered a panel chair. I only hope that in each of these chances that I have been given that I have met the expectations and hopes of those doing the offering. What (undeserved) luck to be part of something so special.
My huge thanks to Alex at the IEWA, and everyone involved in making this happen. I have only written about the judges with whom I tasted, and my enormous thanks to them for showing faith in me as a chair, and for making the day so enjoyable. There were of course 12 other judges, and they all shared profound knowledge and insight with me over the course of the day. Thank you to them. In fact, thanks all round. A special shout out too to Sanja Taylor; not only did she number all the wines before hand, she kept on top of all the scores and reviews.
Keep your eye on The IEWA for the publication of the final results.
Remember: It’s Just Grapes.