From the Judge's Corner: Wine Competitions Explained

Our own Julie Albin recently judged two wine competitions in London – the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards. Here's the inside scoop.

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We’ve got some exciting news to share. Our very own Julie Albin, Head of Wine Education, was among the few selected to judge at highly revered wine competitions. She just returned from an action-packed week judging two international wine competitions in London – the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards.

We couldn’t be more proud to have such a developed, dedicated wine professional on the Bright Cellars team. In fact, we’ve been buzzing with questions ever since she got back to the U.S. What exactly is a wine competition? What happens there? And how do these competitions eventually impact the consumer (aka the wine sitting on my kitchen counter?)

We asked Julie all our burning questions. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at wine competitions, from the judge herself.

Haven't met Julie yet? Learn how working in wine changed her life here.

Q&A with Head of Wine Education Julie Albin

Q: What is a wine competition?

A: While each competition is unique, wine competitions are events where wines are blindly and objectively assessed by a panel of wine experts. (Not with actual blindfolds - that would certainly make for a lot of typos in our scoring notes!) Several different panels taste flight after flight of wines ‘blindly’ without knowing who the producer is.

This year more than 18,000 wines from 56 countries were submitted to the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). That’s a whole lot of wine!

Wine expert

Q: Who judges wine competitions?

A: This year’s DWWA judging roster included nearly 300 wine industry experts from around the world including over 60 Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers. Let’s just say, it was a humbling experience for me personally. I was mentally pinching myself ever so often as I judged with many of the biggest names in wine including some who inspired me to start working in wine.

Fangirling aside, the judges come from every corner of the industry from wine buyers to journalists and winemakers to educators. One of the things I love most about being a judge is that I’m literally in a room with some of the world’s best talent with so much insight to share on what’s happening in the international wine market.

Q: What is each day like?

A: Each day began at about 9:00 am with a double espresso in hand and straight into that day’s judging panel. We had about 5-7 flights of 7-13 wines each day. (If you do the math, that’s some serious purple teeth around the room!) Midday lunch was an appreciated time to fuel up on food and more caffeine.

Once we were finished, all of the judges had the opportunity to taste the wines that earned a gold medal that day. I loved this part because I got to taste the top wines from all the other regions I didn’t get to judge. Then I’d eventually hit my ‘wine wall’ for the day, and off the judges went for a round of beers – a very welcome palate shower.

Wine awards

Q: How are the wines judged?

A: Each wine is placed into a specific flight based on its category, which often includes the price range. That way each wine can be fairly assessed with more context and focused attention.

We evaluate things like complexity, aromatic intensity, acidity, tannin structure, finish, approachability, and overall balance. We also consider wines that perform really well from more value-driven price points. Lastly, we consider the wines’ longevity to ensure consumers are introduced to wines that are fresh to enjoy well after the results are released. Call it a form of predicting the future for each wine!

Q: What trends did you take away from the competition this year?

A: So many. This year I sat on a different panel each day including Languedoc-Roussillon, Piedmont, Spain, Portugal, and the U.S. I was actually quite impressed with the finesse and balance found in the red blends from Languedoc-Roussillon and in a flight of Barbera we tasted. Those are all wines I rarely order off a wine list, so I always get excited when the opportunity arises to taste them.

I also noticed a bit of experimentation in both traditional and new world regions like seemingly early-picked Chardonnay from Oregon and orange wines from Portugal and Spain. And, I must say, finishing off the Portugal day with a flight of delicious Moscatel de Setúbal was such a treat!

Exclusive Interview with Award-Winning Wine Journalist and DWWA Regional Chair Anthony Rose

As the competition wrapped up, Julie also sat down with award-winning wine journalist and DWWA Regional Chair Anthony Rose who also had some thoughts to share.

Q: What’s something you often notice while judging wines?

A: Well, for starters, no competition can give a definitive judgment – but a professionally judged competition with high credibility such as DWWA can offer the next best thing. The results are a good indicator of what’s working and what’s not.

For example, sometimes you’ll find brilliant consistency across regions. Less so at other times. As DWWA’s Regional Chair for Southern Italy, I recognize this area has a massive variety of styles yet slightly less consistency of quality than the entries you might get from somewhere like Australia (of which I was a previous panel chair). But it’s important to judge each wine individually based on style and, where indicated, price category.

Q: How does a wine competition like DWWA impact the global wine market?

A: The focus of DWWA is on the consumer so that’s where its greatest value lies.

These awards can really be impactful in guiding consumers to quality wines across the categories, styles, and price points they’re looking for. Essentially, we’re doing the hard research for them. Secondly, a byproduct of the awards is that the producers can also benefit from feedback on their wines and insight into current trends throughout the industry.

In Vino Finito

The next time you’re sipping your Bright Cellars wine, remember – this wine is approved by a legit wine judge who’s tasted, scored, and reviewed wines from all over the world. Pretty impressive, huh?

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