Jefford on Monday: A Decade on the Bench

What’s a decade? One-fifth of a working lifetime, in most cases: a significant span. I’m now home after the tenth year of sitting in judgment as a panel chair for the Decanter World Wine Awards – for Regional France on this occasion. What have I learned?

DWWA 2013

1: Listen up
A wise judge is a good listener. Wines don’t talk, I know, but the metaphor usefully stresses openness and a lack of prescription, and implies attentiveness to all those ways in which a wine might be excellent. If you have too strong or fixed an ideal about what a wine variety, style or appellation should deliver, you’ll find that almost every wine you taste will fall short. You begin to lecture the wines, rather than allowing the wines to talk to you. The good of this world don’t have to be saintly; being good is enough. I’ve yet to meet a drinker who was unhappy with a delicious wine because it wasn’t ‘typical’, or because it didn’t measure up to some formal ideal. In any case, violent departures from what nature intended (the true meaning of typicity in the long term) are rarely delicious. Meet each wine on its own terms; be as sympathetic as you are able to its beauties and charms; and judge on that basis.

2: Look for quiet excellence
As any lifelong wine drinker knows, great wines don’t shout. Indeed they can often be discreet when you meet them; their excellence is, if you like, subcutaneous. In the competitive tasting context, this makes them easy to overlook. It takes both concentration and confidence for members of a judging panel to get behind that ‘quiet gold’ – but such medals exist, at least for the panels I’ve been lucky enough to chair. Of course showy wines deserve their golds: they’re enormous fun. But if I’m proud of anything, it’s that for the past three or four years the panels I’ve work with have found quiet golds. (It’s one reason I particularly relished judging the rosés of Provence this year: excellence always whispers there.)

3: Taste projectively
Tasters are surrogate drinkers – but drinkers will spend an hour or two with a wine, mostly over a meal, whereas we tasters have just a few minutes to taste the wine in artificial isolation. The most difficult skill for a judge to acquire is the ability to taste with drinkability (and the food context) in mind. It’s a kind of papillary astral projection, an out-of-palate experience, because the minor protuberances and gruff or austere emphases which finely honed but literal palates object to on flight two of the morning may be just what the mealtime or full-bottle drinker needs and loves. European red wines are sometimes over-berated for apparent failings in this respect.   

4: Never turn off
Jaundice is contagious. If a flight or flights aren’t going well, gloom sometimes sets in, and that’s when wines risk going under-rewarded. Everything we taste is someone’s year’s work; it deserves sympathetic scrutiny. Cheerful attentiveness characterizes the perfect judging temperament. Tasters should always travel hopefully.

5: Share, share, share
None of us knows what it’s like to possess someone else’s mouth or nose. The utility of sharing the tasting experience, and appreciating the felicities others note first, is the fifth great lesson I’ve learned. Obduracy has no place on a tasting panel, particularly to negative end; no single palate, including that of the panel chair, is ever ‘right’. The most useful role of the chair, in fact, is not to douse enthusiasm or lay down law but to ensure that no excellence goes unremarked or undiscussed, even if it never goes further either. Honestly, there’s no greater pleasure than seeing fellow panelists come, smilingly, to enthuse about a wine which had initially unhooked a dusty score.

I’ve been lucky, I admit, to have judged panels down the years for regions whose finest producers see the utility of entering this competition – and lucky, too, to have judged the international trophies (which pit regional trophies against one another) on several occasions. When I’ve tasted at that level, of course, I’ve realised the final lesson of the last decade: that all beauty is unique. But that one I knew anyway.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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