Thu 04 Apr 2013

Wine Champs – my first impressions

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Tim Sykes, The Society’s head of buying, reports on this year’s Society Wine Champions taste off

I am delighted to report that the 2013 Wine Champions tastings have taken place, and that this year’s winners will shortly be unveiled.

Tim Sykes putting a potential Champion through its paces

For those members unfamiliar with ‘Champs’, as we refer to it in the Buying department, each year we hold a mammoth series of tastings to pick out the wines that we consider the best of the best from our range. Rather than selecting wines which we consider will develop into stars after a few more years in bottle, Wine Champions is all about pinpointing wines at their very peak, which will provide immediate drinking pleasure for members.

This year’s Champs was my first since joining The Society, and I have to admit to being staggered by the sheer number of wines to be tasted. Several weeks before the scheduled tasting sessions, each buyer is invited to propose wines from their respective areas of buying responsibility for the various categories to be tasted (for example Aromatic Whites, Mediterranean Reds, Rhône varietals under £15 per bottle, New World Pinot Noir, Bordeaux varietals etc), and the nominated wines are assembled in, or perhaps more accurately shoehorned into, the tasting room in Stevenage.

To ensure absolute integrity and to eradicate any potential bias in the process, all 500+ wines entered into Champs are tasted blind. Canvas sleeves are placed over the bottles to be tasted and all capsules are removed to ensure that none of the judges recognise any of the wines being tasted. The wines are then lined up in flights of approximately 20 to 30 wines, normally in ascending order of price.

Anonymous bottles awaiting judgement

Then the fun begins. The buying team assembles in the tasting room and everyone present tastes through the flights at their own pace, earmarking those wines they believe to be candidates for the honour of Wine Champion. We are looking for wines that raise their heads above the parapet, and which we believe offer the character, typicity and sheer drinking pleasure to be worthy of the moniker of Wine Champion. At the end of each tasting session we hold a post mortem; each judge nominates the wines that he or she believes to be a Champion, and where there is no consensus or where there is a dissenting voice we retaste the wine in question, and debate its merits. As one can imagine, in a room full of highly competitive buyers, there is a great deal of pride at stake, so the debates can be become quite animated.

For me the whole tasting and judging process of the Wine Champions neatly encapsulates the culture of fairness and integrity that is at the heart of The Wine Society. We go to great lengths to ensure that the wines will not be recognised by the judges; my colleague Emma Dorahy, who organises the samples and coordinates the tastings, is the only person who knows exactly which wines will appear in the final lineup, and for that reason she graciously declines to be included in the judging process.

This year’s Wine Champs has thrown up a very diverse range of winners, both in terms of wine styles and prices. Whilst the pricing ‘sweet spot’ for winners sits in the £9–£15 price band, there are nevertheless several worthy winners below £9 per bottle. I am also gratified to see that a number of Society and Exhibition wines have been crowned Champs – recognition of the time and effort that the buying team puts into these two standard-bearing ranges. Pinot noir has this year garnered a higher than usual number of Champs gongs, partly the result of good recent vintages both in Burgundy and New Zealand, and the emergence of Chile as a serious producer of this most capricious of varieties. And chardonnay, in its various guises, has made a comeback this year with some stunning wines to excite members’ palates.

Look out for further news in the coming weeks in the run-up to our release of the Wine Champions offer in June.

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