When the tasting has to stop

Sarah Jane Evans, Peter Richards MW and Anthony Rose judging at DWWA

This year the future of communal wine-tasting activities has been called into question. No wine fairs. No en primeur tastings. Perhaps no wine awards such as the DWWA shown above (left to right Sarah Jane Evans MW, Peter Richards MW and Anthony Rose at Excel 2019). So what happens next? A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

See this guide to our coverage of Bordeaux 2019.

Wine drinking is a quintessentially social activity. Around a table, the drinkers are connoisseurs. The lone wine drinker is a lush.

But how about wine tasting, a very different business? Travel to wine regions is out and the busy London professional wine-tasting calendar has been blank since mid March so new wines are being launched via Zoom, and I’m having to do all my wine tasting at home. My neighbours and family are benefiting from even more leftovers than usual.

Nowadays third-party scores, awards and recommendations have become a hugely important part of selling wine, typically generated at events where social distancing is the opposite of the norm. The two most important American wine competitions, one in San Francisco and one in Texas, took place before this year’s lockdown but the three big wine competitions held in the UK are usually held at this time of year. The medals, trophies and awards they dispense are seen as vital sales tools by producers and retailers around the world.  

The 120 pallet-loads of entries into the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) reached their UK destination, the warehouse of Sensible Wine Services in the Kent countryside, just before lockdown. Karl Franz of Sensible has been in charge of logging them all, plus entries for the International Wine & Spirit Competition, owned by The Conversion Group that poached the head of Decanter’s awards a year or two ago. What with wines from two major professional wine tastings that had been planned for March in London, he reckons they are holding about 100,000 bottles of wine in total, yet, as he said, ‘I just can’t see any wine tasting taking place before the end of the year.’ That from someone who makes his living from logistics for wine tastings.

The Asian version of the Decanter awards has already been cancelled but the London one is a major contributor to the finances of the sister magazine Decanter, recently acquired by media company Future plc. The management is sitting on the entry fees, about £170 per wine, but with no prospect of being able to judge the wines any time soon. Chief awards organiser Natalie Earl is hoping to re-stage the judging process in the autumn, but has not been helped by the fact that the judging usually takes place in the Excel exhibition centre that was so famously and rapidly converted into a hospital for COVID-19 patients a few weeks ago.

Michael Hill Smith MW, Andrew Jefford and Sarah Jane Evans MW, co-chairs of the Decanter World Wine Awards
Michael Hill Smith MW, Andrew Jefford and Sarah Jane Evans MW, co-chairs of the Decanter World Wine Awards

The International Wine Challenge, owned by William Reed Business Media, is the main rival of the Decanter World Wine Awards, although most of the IWC judges are based in Britain whereas wine tasters fly in from all over the world for DWWA. Judges are paid a few hundred pounds a day and for some of them, these competitions represent a significant proportion of their annual income. See one judge’s lament below.

Chris Ashton in charge of the IWC decided on 17 March to cancel the forthcoming 2020 judging, even before the official lockdown in the UK. They managed to prevent UK-based entrants from sending wines but their internationally submitted bottles are sitting in their temperature-controlled warehouse in Pease Pottage. He is hoping to hold the judging in the first two weeks of November, at the Oval cricket ground as usual, but says that entrants can claim a refund if they no longer wish to submit the wines, especially rosés and the simpler whites, they sent in. (See my 2006 comparison of DWWA and IWC.) A pre-pandemic version of the IWC awards dinner (which continues to use the slogan I used when filming it in the 1980s, 'the Oscars of the wine trade') is pictured below.

International Wine Challenge awards dinner

Someone who reckons he has spent almost €10,000 this year entering various European wine competitions that may well not be held at all is Philip Cox, whose company Cramele Recas is the biggest exporter of Romanian wine, and supplies many a retailer around the world. He is concerned about the cessation of the ‘dripfeed’ of medals and so on that he depends on to sell to many of his customers. But he is even more worried that virtually all professional wine fairs where so much business is done have been cancelled. The many scheduled in Hong Kong and China have little but a website to show for themselves. Prowein in Düsseldorf is currently Europe’s most popular wine fair. Hoteliers there were already unpopular with the wine trade for what was seen as gouging. They are now even less popular for having refused refunds.

The other big wine event with major ramifications for sales that has had to be postponed is the annual showing of the latest vintage in early April in Bordeaux. For the last 20 or 30 years increasing numbers of commentators and foreign wine merchants have been invited to France’s biggest fine wine region to taste cask samples of embryonic wine to, respectively, score and buy them. Buying so early (‘en primeur’) dates back to a very different era when even the most famous Bordeaux wine estates were so unprofitable that their owners needed cash to be able to make the next vintage.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux usually welcomes between 5,000 and 6,000 wine professionals to the region to taste and gossip. This has become an essential preamble to calculating, for individual wines, the release price the market will bear. Over the following month or two the château owners, sometimes as many as a dozen a day, announce their prices and watch to see how rapidly the allocations they have given their favoured négociants are taken up by the négociants’ customers.

The UGCB seemed determined to go ahead with this year’s primeurs extravaganza right up to the last minute when President Macron locked down the country. And even now they have announced a plan to ship samples of these infant 2019s around the world to key customers and media. I have declined their offer of 140 bottles for all sorts of reasons. I have long felt it would be much more accurate to taste wines designed for a long life at a later stage in their own life. And the top châteaux, the ones with the greatest chance of generating demand for their 2019s even in these exceptionally straitened times, are not cash-strapped.

I am extremely concerned about the wisdom of shipping unstable, unfinished six-month-old wine around the world in summer temperatures. You have only to track a parcel with a courier company to see just how tortuous a journey most of them take, and how many people handle each consignment en route. There is the health of the wine and the health of the recipients to consider.

(Some observers may point out that a significant proportion of the wines tasted during London’s Burgundy Week every January are cask samples. But they are very much more evolved – 16 rather than six months  - and are shipped in low winter temperatures, generally direct from the region by a representative of the importer in a single journey.)

And all of the above is without even touching on the unavoidable fact that any professional wine tasting involves one heck of a lot of spitting.

A wine judge laments

Roderick Smith is a Master of Wine based near Nice.

‘Judging wine competitions, although not especially lucrative, is an important part of my professional life, and I really enjoy it. The opportunity to keep up to date with diverse wines (especially when one lives in a market of limited imported wine availability, as I do in France) is very important, as are the networking opportunities of meeting so many different people – friends, contacts and new acquaintances – within the trade.

So far this year I have had competition judging postponed in Russia and China, and of course the DWWA in London, where I am Panel Chair (for Provence). An especial factor affects this particular sector in that the majority of wines assessed are current, 2019, vintage rosés. The consumer believes, largely although not always correctly, that the current vintage is the one to go for, and now the results will be delayed until after their summer drinking season has passed.

‘It remains to be seen what impact the current crisis will have on the wine and drinks sector, and of course it pales into insignificance next to the human tragedy. International travel seems likely to be altered enormously, and I firmly anticipate having to find new and different revenue streams for the future, but I very much hope that wine judging continues to be a part of it.’