“You might come to hate wine after your first day.” - Michael Fridjhon, Day 1 of the Wine Judging Academy
I had had every intention of making up for my lack of experience with theory: I’d write summaries of the prescribed readings, go through my WSET flashcards and have a PhD comparable knowledge of world geography and appellations. But alas, the demands of life and employment meant I was still furiously reading the final article five minutes before the first lecture, my hastily packed bag woefully undersupplied for the freezing temperatures of the tasting room. The doors opened and my equally nervous and frantically reading classmates and I shuffled in to take our seats. Over the next two and a half days we would taste some 300 wines from countless appellations. Spittoons would be missed, kilos of water biscuits consumed and stained teeth compared, all in the name of judging wine.
Be it art, music, movies or wine, how do you judge aesthetic appreciation? There are no mathematical equations to rely upon – taste is subjective, after all. Yet, you do need to possess the theory of beauty if you are to judge it. Or, in the words of Christian Eedes, Cindy Crawford wouldn’t be Cindy Crawford if her mole was on the tip of her nose. But unlike Cindy Crawford’s mole, there’s more to a beautiful wine than winning the genetic lottery. When looking at a beautiful wine, you’re looking at intricacy, purity and balance. These things come down to skill, not chance.
Typically, a judging panel consists of five or so judges with an arbitrator or chairman responsible for finding consensus amongst the scores: faulty, commercial, bronze, silver and gold. The difficulty in judging wine, however, is that wine is a moving target – a wine that’s just been opened tastes very different than when it’s been standing in a glass for an hour or two. Because of this, wines are often tasted in different orders by each judge – front to back, back to front and starting in the middle.
We started the day by identifying faults in wine (arguably the only clear area of objectivity when it comes to judging wine) and aromatic blind spots. While we can identify thousands of smells, roughly two-thirds of our sensory receptors are, for one genetic reason or another, defunct. Basically, we all have aromatic blind spots. I had my own: baby puke. Or butyric acid, depending on the company you keep, a fault caused by contaminating bacteria. I didn’t know whether to be jubilant at the aromatic respite or depressed by my genetic deformity.
However, there was very little time to dwell on my newly discovered handicap, as there was much wine to be tasted, spat and scored. Michael Fridjhon’s opening words haunted me, and I wondered if I really might start hating wine by the end of the day. Certainly, when Pieter Ferreira of Graham Beck poured me my twenty-fifth champagne in what must have been close to my ninetieth wine of the day, I debated the room’s reaction if I refused.
I took the champagne.
Endurance. When you’re tasting hundreds of wines in a day and your teeth are screaming from the acidity while your mouth has turned to one ginormous puckering tannin and your tongue feels like it might crack off at the root, it’s the skilled judge that compartmentalises the pain of palate fatigue and continues to give each wine its due concentration. Speed is of equal importance. To make the day’s deadline, you’ll only have about two minutes per wine before moving on to the next. In all of this, avoid your own mind games (for there will be many) and trust your palate. And lastly, be controversial. When everyone else in the room condemns a wine to bronze, stick your neck out and defend a potentially missed gold.
By Day 3 my mouth looked like something out of The Walking Dead, the dread from Day 1 now replaced by a fervent tasting-spitting-scoring rhythm. I had tasted wines I will be lucky to ever taste again: Louis Roederer Cristal 2009, Vouvray from the 60s, a vertical tasting of Saint Julien dating back to 1975… By the time we emerged from our exam, blinking in the sunshine, we felt like conquering troops. We had battled palate fatigue and won. Could we give you a definitive answer on how to judge the aesthetics of wine? Probably not. But we’d fall on our swords trying.
We're lucky to have some of the 300 wines we tasted at the Wine Judging Academy on Port2Port and invite you to judge the aesthetics of wine for yourself.