The King of Wine Contests

Tony Aspler travels to London to judge the Decanter World Wine Awards, and consumes a lot of wine — and cheese
FOR THE PAST TWELVE YEARS, I have been flying to London in the last week in April to participate in the world’s largest wine competition. 

The Brits seem to have cornered the market on vast international wine contests. England mounts the International Wine and Spirit Competition, which was established in 1969; the International Wine Challenge, founded in 1984; and the biggest of them all, the Decanter World Wine Awards, which is a relative newbie that burst onto the scene in 2004.

Decanter promotes itself on its cover as “The world’s best wine magazine,” so perhaps it’s only fitting that it should extend the hyperbole by trumpeting that Decanter’s wine competition is now the largest in the world. The numbers for the weeklong competition this year were certainly impressive:

Number of wines entered: 17,429 (Brexit does not seem to have deterred European winemakers from entering the competition, as the number of attendees were up this year over last by well over a thousand)
Number of countries that entered: 58
Number of judges from all over the world: 219
Number of Masters of Wine judging: 68
Number of Master Sommeliers judging: 20
Number of Riedel glasses used each day: 7,000

The man behind the creation of the Decanter World Wine Awards is Steven Spurrier; and if the name sounds familiar to non-wine people, Spurrier was the character portrayed by Alan Rickman in the 2008 comedy-drama Bottle Shock. On May 24, 1976, Spurrier organized a wine tasting in Paris, pitting California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon against France’s great white Burgundies and red Bordeaux. Famously, the California wines, judged blind by French critics, were placed first in both categories. This seminal event became known as “The Judgment of Paris” and has been copied by aspiring wine regions ever since.

At the opening of each morning’s tasting session, Decanter’s publisher, Sarah Kemp, gives the assembled judges a pep talk. I recorded her words this year: “We know we have the world’s greatest judges here. I don’t believe in false modesty but I do believe there is no greater group of talent in the wine world than are at this competition.” Which is very flattering and sends us off in a good mood to taste — in our panel’s case, over 80 wines a day for four days.

For the first 13 years of its life, the Decanter World Wine Awards was held in a large photographic studio called The Worx in Parsons Green, a village-like area in southwest Greater London. Across the road from The Worx is one of the best pubs in London, The White Horse. This was fortuitous, since each judge is given a beer voucher for a post-tasting pint over which we can relax and schmooze with our colleagues from around the world. When Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of wine writers, did a day’s judging in 2006, she subsequently wrote in her blog: “[Sarah] Kemp has successfully created a salon in her photography studio and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with so many luminaries from all over the wine world gathered in one place …”

But the Decanter World Wine Awards have long outgrown The Worx and its next venue as well: Tobacco Dock, a former bonded warehouse in Wapping, east London, that looks from the outside rather like a women’s prison. The competition’s latest home, where it moved this year, is ExCel, a vast convention centre that occupies a 100-acre site on the north quay of the Royal Victoria Dock in London Docklands, between Canary Wharf and London City Airport.

It costs £100 to enter a wine in the Decanter competition, and wineries have to send four bottles with each entry. This means that Decanter’s team of 50 red shirts have to label, bag and put into flights 70,000 bottles over the course of five days.

Using iPads, judges enter their scores (out of 20 or 100; our panel used the 100-point system). Commended wines are scored 81 to 84 points; bronze medal wines 85 to 89; silver medal wines 90 to 94; and gold medal wines 95 to 100. On the final day we re-taste all the gold medal wines to decide whether they are worthy of their gold, and which should go forward for regional or international trophies. 

Medal winners can purchase Decanter decals so they can strut their stuff on wine store shelves. And what is the impact of a medal-winning wine at Decanter? According to Sarah Kemp, “Producers have experienced 300- to 500-per-cent uplift in sales and literally selling out overnight. You have a chance in this competition to put a spotlight on wineries who would never get recognition otherwise. It’s all about rewarding quality.”

This year, wines from British Columbia and Ontario won 12 gold medals. Scoring results, with tasting notes, of the wines will be published in the October issue of Decanter magazine.

And here’s one final statistic from this year’s competition: 

Number of kilos of cheese consumed daily at lunch by the judges: 25 

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest,
Canadian Wineries.
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