I spent last week holed up at the University of Calgary's MacEwan Hall in a frigid room with peers from across the country. We swirled, sniffed, sipped (and spat) more than 1,000 wines as part of Wine Access' International Value Wine Awards (IVWAs); the idea of the competition is to find the best of what's available for under $25 across the country.
Separating the best from the rest is a fascinating, extremely rewarding experience (although my poor teeth and gums might tell a different tale). It's an exercise that gives all us judges a chance to reflect on what constitutes a great value wine. As wine critics and sommeliers, we're often pushing wines that are more off-the-beaten-track -- not as "mainstream"-- to the detriment of some of the most popular reds and whites in our markets. The IVWAs are a great way to remind us that some of the best value wines out there are also some of the most popular.
In other words, it's an exercise in humility.
How does the judging work? The first few days are the preliminary rounds -- all 1,000-plus wines submitted are organized into groups (or "flights") of six to 12 of one particular grape or region (or, in the case of red or white blends, by style). The wines are poured into numerically labelled glasses in the back room and then wheeled out to the IVWA judges, who are split into panels of three or four.
In other words, judges taste the wines blind -- we don't know which brands we're tasting. All the information we're given is the type of grape(s) in the bottle and that it costs $25 or less. We make notes and score each wine out of 100. A computer program crunches the numbers and the best-scored wines proceed to the final rounds. The process is repeated and the cream rises to the top (results are published in the October/November issue of Wine Access).
It's when we get to peruse our scores post-competition that judges learn the most about value wines available in Canada, and about which "mainstream" wines deserve more attention than we otherwise give them. Each judge receives a binder with his/her tasting notes and scores, as well as an answer key for each flight that reveals the producer and vintage of each wine. As we flipped through our binders post-judging, there were many raised eyebrows and heads shaken in disbelief as the best wines were revealed.
Are the "best" wines under $25 immediately and deliciously drinkable? Are they surprisingly age-worthy given their price? Do they best reflect the characteristics of their grape variety and/or origin? It depends on the grape variety or style of wine, but for me I'd need at least one "yes" answer to the above questions to consider a wine a great value. A $15 Pinot Grigio, for example, shouldn't end up in your cellar, but should deliver bright fruit, floral and mineral aromas/flavours as well as a vibrant freshness. It doesn't need to shift my paradigm -- it just needs to taste great as I sit in the sun on a patio.
NOTE: Judges don't learn the final overall scores until they're published in the fall -- these tasting notes are only my own, and I don't know how these wines fared overall.