Tue 15 Apr 2014

Wine Champions 2014: My First Impressions


Starting a new job can be a stressful experience. When I was a young wine débutant, freshly graduated from university box wine, I dreamed of joining such a respected and knowledgeable buying team as The Society’s. Having spent three years working in Member Services as a fine wine adviser and part of the Quality Assurance team, I took up my new role as trainee buyer in February 2014. If I had any trepidation about this new job, I certainly did not have time to notice it, such was the pace and intensity of my first few weeks. I thought members might be interested in the most formative of my experiences so far.

joe champsAs many members will know, each year The Society makes an offer of ‘Wine Champions’: wines that are perfect for drinking right now. Known affectionately in house as ‘Champs’, this offer involves a vast number of wines and a lot of tasting. Perhaps ‘a lot’ could use some clarification: the 2014 ‘Champs’ campaign saw us taste over 600 wines across 17 different sessions, ranging from sparkling to fortified and everything in between.

My very first morning involved a modest tasting of rosé wines – perhaps around 40. That afternoon was devoted to Champagne and sparkling rosé wines. The second day heralded an extensive examination of chardonnay – both old world and new. Wednesday’s task was to taste through around 50 new world Bordeaux-style blends, ranging from £5.50 per bottle to over £30. By this point, I was becoming increasingly clear that this exciting, fascinating job about which I had dreamed was also incredibly challenging. I’m no stranger to tasting wine, but the concentration and resilience required to do so accurately and quickly for such an extended period of time is phenomenal. I had a great deal of respect for The Society’s buyers before I joined the department. By the end of my third day I was in awe.

The second and third weeks followed very much the same pattern as the first, and as my nose and palate got used to the vinous assault, so my appreciation of the process grew. ‘Champs’ is essentially a range tasting – every wine The Society sells can be included (though some pre-selection obviously occurs). Tastings are blind – the corks, screwcaps and capsules are removed and the bottles placed in numbered bags. Some buyers taste more quickly than others, and all are free to revisit particular wines at any point. Once each buyer has tasted every wine, we reconvene in the tasting room and give our scores for the wines.

There inevitably follows a certain amount of lively debate, and not a small number of retastes. Eventually, agreement is reached, and a ‘champ’ is elected. Or two ‘champs’. Or none. Sometimes, a tasting will be chock full of very, very good wines (it is a Society tasting, after all!) but despite the quality, one will hear the repeated refrain ‘good, but not a champ’. The wine might need a little more time in bottle before it is ready to be classed a ‘champ’ or it might just lack that hint of class or complexity that turns a great wine into a champion. Whatever the reason, if a wine is not a champ, it simply does not make the offer. After all the tasting sessions are complete, we assemble all the ‘champs’ and one or two runners-up and re-taste them – just to confirm our original assessment. The process is as rigorous as it is exhausting and rewarding.

I am tremendously fortunate to be involved in such an exciting and interesting offer, and I am confident that members will be bowled over by this year’s Wine Champions selection, which will be released in June.

Joe Mandrell
Trainee Buyer


  1. Peter Sheehan says:

    Very enjoyable and interesting article. A good insight into what effort is required and the thoroughness of it all. I suspect its good to have a new taster to keep everyone on their toes. What a great job and experience.

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