Grapevine Archive for Wine Champions 2014
It has been two weeks since we revealed the results of our 2014 Wine Champions tastings: an annual exercise undertaken to whittle down hundreds of bottles to the best of the best for drinking now, all under strict blind-tasting conditions. We hope Society members are enjoying the victors!
A number of photographs were taken throughout the tastings for the purposes of this offer, and we include a few choice shots in the gallery below, hopefully to give a little more of a flavour of what this remarkably interesting but admittedly also rather gruelling exercise entails!
Having heard recently from trainee buyer Joe Mandrell about his first experience of our annual Wine Champions tastings, we now feature a report from Janet Wynne Evans, who wonders whether the 2014 sessions will be her last…I suppose I’d attributed to impending old age the longer-than-usual exhalation of breath as I put my feet up after the last of 17 blind tasting sessions. After all, it’s the usual explanation these days.
But when I totted up the statistics to share with members in the June offer, the reason was clear – over 100 more wines tasted this year than last year, one record-breaking session of over 80 bottles, and two consecutive days of 100-plus wines. Time I hung up my tastevin, apron and quill, perhaps?
My first experience of something as full-on as a hard day at the Champs mill was a trip of Bordeaux in my early career with Society Old Boy and author Clive Coates, MW, and a back-to-back tasting of over 70 Sauternes from the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages. I have never forgotten what a privilege that was, and one that has served me well since, but if I’m honest, the undisputed champion on that day was the lily-livered, UHT-laced cup of tea I had afterwards.
Of course for any wine professional, tasting this number of wines is second-nature and my buying colleagues are often faced with many more at a time, which is why the words ‘stamina’ and ‘focus’ are important ones in any recruitment advertisement for the job. For me, a blind tasting demands an especially high degree of both, even if it isn’t the kind of Palate-of the-Year competition that will surely soon join The Voice, Dancing on Ice, Strictly or Bake-off in the remorseless spread of reality telly.On the one hand, there is complete freedom from the baggage that comes with knowing the identity of the wine. On the other, there’s the pressure to use well and wisely this rare opportunity to judge objectively and to cut to the chase – is it sound or not, ready or not, or – in the case of Champions – simply and indisputably delicious?
With the Champions campaign comes the added responsibility of recording one’s impressions for sharing with members when the final cut is made. Barely 10% of the original nominations will ultimately appear either in the annual June Wine Champions offer or the August Fine Wine List, but which? So, I do my best to be usefully eloquent about each wine so that my initial impression still reads fresh and true when the time comes to reveal the winners.
All too often, I lapse into abbreviations. Looking at tasting-sheets past and present, I note that some of them pop up rather a lot. I find I immediately dismiss very tannic wines (gbtb – go back to bed!) and then find myself redeeming them with vgf (very good finish) or not (booh = bat out of hell), or, exceptionally, bhcds (Bourne & Hollingsworth Closing Down Sale, ie interminable).
I note I’ve also taken to commenting, increasingly critically on bottle weight on a range of vhb (very heavy bottle) to uhb (unnecessarily or ultra) and sometimes beyond, which I leave to your imagination.
If nac (not a champ) has satisfied quality control but failed to send me into raptures, nb (no- brainer) is my second highest accolade (see below).
Cp (crowd pleaser) is a readily likeable wine I can imagine my friends, to a man or woman, swigging happily. Ubc (unshowy but convincing) proves I’m not always swayed by the swaggering thrust of the iyf (in-yer-face) or the studied, pageant-friendly appeal of the sp (show pony) both of which can overpower very good wines less inclined to show their hand.
Less widespread, I’m glad to say is au (actively unpleasant) or, the worst indictment, yhal (you’re having a larf!) and more often than not, these are crossed out as another bottle is tasted or the one on the table suddenly explodes with previously unexpressed flavour. At that point yolf (ye of little faith!) might make an appearance.
Wow, on the other hand is not an acronym. It’s clearly a champion. If not, obviously wwr (we was robbed).
And with that, I hang up, with some relief, my tastevin, apron and quill.
Janet Wynne Evans
The 2014 Wine Champions will be revealed on Monday 9th June.
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.
As 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.
At last! After the wettest of starts, spring seems finally to be springing in the UK. Here at The Society we are in full swing planning a number of offerings for that elusive warmer weather.The highlight, as ever, is the annual unveiling of our Wine Champions.
The Champions are gleaned from a series of blind tastings by the buying team. All labels are concealed, allowing no room for potential bias and enabling the tasters to focus entirely on what’s in the bottle rather than on it. Hundreds of wines are tasted and whittled down to best-of-the-best selection of ‘Champions’: wines that are giving of their delicious best, at the top of their game and guaranteed to please Society members over the summer and beyond.
I have been fortunate enough to take part in these fascinating, enjoyable and admittedly rather exhausting tasting sessions for three years now, and each campaign throws up its own trends, conundrums, excitements and surprises.
What made 2014’s Championship?
I am, of course, sworn to secrecy as to the identities of the winning wines themselves. However, to whet members’ appetites, I have been permitted to divulge the following:
Two of our buyers’ tweets from the tasting should tell you who one of the star countries was this year:
amazing blind tasting this am in Stevenage. 51 wines most from Italy. Some real gems here for members to savour this summer @TheWineSociety
— Marcel O-Williams (@owmarcel) February 12, 2014
— Pierre Mansour (@pierremansour) February 13, 2014
This is perhaps unsurprising given the diversity of Italian wine, with its thousands of native varieties and disparate styles. However, I cannot recall such a buzz about Italian wines in previous ‘Champs’ tastings I have been here for. Do look out for the wines from The Boot in this year’s offer.
Sweet spots: Portuguese white and Argentine red
Also particularly striking in 2014 were these two heartening ‘sweet spots’. The quality of Portugal’s red and white wines has been on a glorious upward curve for some time now, and their white wines showed this year that, for style, flavour and value, they can compete with anyone.
Able to satisfy and stimulate across a range of price points, Argentine malbec’s irresistibly moreish, food-friendly flavour has long been a favourite of UK wine drinkers. Rich pickings indeed – but these wines are not just about richness. We found some remarkable examples, benefiting from creative blending, old vines, an emphasis on finesse rather than power and some recent successful vintages. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did!
A quick peek inside the tasting room during this year’s Bordeaux round.
Tasting hundreds of wines all day sounds like a dream come true (and it is, of course), but those who have not had the pleasure of tasting a large number of tank samples may not appreciate how difficult it can be after a while! The buyers are very experienced at tasting and assessing tank samples, but a late 2013 vintage across so many regions meant that several of the infant wines’ samples that reached us were particularly embryonic. Healthy and sometimes impassioned debate is as mandatory as the quality of the final shortlist, for one begets the other, and meticulous retasting and deliberation ensures each wine gets the fairest chance it can in its category and line-up. This was especially necessary for many of the 2013 tank samples, as the team expertly sifted through the sulphur aromas and primary fruit to form consensus.
A final mention must go to South Africa: we may not have chosen a vast number of Cape Champs this year, but I can’t remember the wines showing better. In only three years of my attendance at these tastings, the progression in quality has been noticeable, something I find quite breathtaking. It would be difficult to refute the assertion that, of all the countries making wine today, the Cape has the biggest spring in its step right now.
Fine Wine Champions
The fun doesn’t stop once the initial list of Champions is unveiled: the Fine Wine Champions will follow shortly afterwards in the August Fine Wine List. I could write at least as much again about the exceptional wines and happy surprises that went into the premium line-up. Perhaps I will nearer the time…
The 2014 Wine Champions will be unveiled in June.