Dan Nicholl: Some thoughts on wine judging
By Dan Nicholl, 31 May 2023
Every eight seconds or so (on a quiet day), my phone springs to life, as a new contribution to the world’s most frenetic WhatsApp group touches down. I’m not normally one for these frenzied digital communities – between my grade one and grade three kids, there are 82 school groups I could be part of, and that’s before the neighbourhood watch, the local street, and the new group my mum accidentally creates each week, all diligently exited as quickly and quietly as possible.
But the exception I make is for a wine group presided over by Daryl Balfour, the celebrated wildlife photographer, and Angela Lloyd, as devoted a wine writer and judge as South Africa has had. Together, they’ve tasted just about every wine ever made, and in Daryl’s case, he seems to have all of them, stored in a Lowveld cellar that’s almost certainly a refurbished aircraft hangar, such is the volume of fine wine introduced each week.
As furious as the stream of messages might be, however, there’s considerable value to wading through them: the 200-odd members represent a wide spread of the industry, and most days I discover a new wine, learn more about an old one, or watch debate erupt when a contentious topic arises. Which brings me rather nicely to the latest addition to my CV: assistant junior deputy trainee apprentice judge for Winemag.co.za’s recent Prescient Shiraz Report. LinkedIn has been duly updated…
Without delving into too much detail, the most recent debate on the group surrounded awards, competitions, reports and judging: who oversees them, how they’re managed, and what their value might be. There was an assortment of opinions, which gave a timely framing to my debut in the judging space. Granted, it was wine’s equivalent of being pulled out of your village football team to play for Barcelona, but despite being some way out of my depth, seeing the process in person was as fascinating as it was enlightening.
Firstly, it’s completely blind: sommelier Samuel Ross poured all of the wine (two flights of 20, and a third of 10) from within black sleeves. That had the most impact on me, as the skill of the judges – Christian Eedes, Ndaba Dube and Malu Lambert, along with Kenny Nash – was made apparent. I waded through the first flight looking for signs that each wine was indeed shiraz; the all-star quartet were picking regions at will, plucking out tasting notes I’d never have thought of, nailing style and probable vintage with a fleeting sip. This one was picked on a Tuesday morning. That one was made by a left-handed winemaker. Clearly the barrels used were from Hungary… I exaggerate, of course, but not by much.
Then there was the judging itself: what score to ascribe to a wine? It’s a process that can only ever be subjective, but that subjectivity is guided by democracy. Each judge announces a score, and if there’s a range of numbers, discussion ensues. It can get quite heated (Malu may or may not have had Christian in a headlock on a couple of occasions, until he came round to her way of thinking), but the reasoning and interpretation made for great insight.
Finally, the stamina required. Even though the wine tasted all ends up in a spittoon, you’re still working through an endless queue, as mouthful after mouthful seeks to entice your palate with something distinctive. For the experts, just another day in the office; for me, a mouth left reeling from tannic assault by the end of the first flight, and in need of a 2024 sauvignon blanc for a blast of cleansing acid to peel my top lip from my (dark red) teeth. It takes years of practice to master this art, and develop a palate that can still give due diligence to wine number 40 or 50 during a long session – to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell, 10 000 wines would likely be a starting point.
And so, as per the debate that lit up WhatsApp: what value to take from awards and competitions? Christian is the first to point out that you’re most unlikely to get a Sadie or a Savage entering such spaces, but you still get a wide range of producers. From those, pointers to changing style and interpretation emerge, and importantly, so do new producers – Christian speaks of the talent spotting aspect of the reports that Winemag.co.za delivers, and the sudden interest in newer producers like Wildeberg and Mellish attests to that.
There are myriad competitions around, and there’s no doubt that an element of confusion exists for consumers trying to ascribe meaning to a particular sticker on a supermarket bottle. And the variance in scores between different judges and competitions can certainly compound that confusion. But for me, there are two simple points of considerable value. The first is the debate that’s stirred, as wine is discussed, dissected, considered and ultimately celebrated. And the second is the people and processes at play. Whether it’s the Winemag.co.za Report, or any of the other such gatherings, there are some accomplished wine experts sharing their opinions. Will we always agree with them? Of course not – that’s a fundamental beauty of wine. But with new options hitting shelves every day, they provide some much needed guidance and reference to wine lovers overwhelmed by choice. And they do make certain WhatsApp groups all the more entertaining.
- Dan Nicholl is the founder and host of Dan Really Likes Wine. Dan is a former PICA Magazine Columnist of the Year, and has worked on television, radio, and in print and online journalism.
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