Interview- The SIWC was superbly organized

Steven Spurrier internationally renowned wine expert and chairman of the Sommelier India Wine Competition looks back on the inaugural Sommelier India Wine Competition and tells Brinda Gill why he considered it a success

How was the Sommelier India Wine Competition decided upon?
I put the idea to Reva Singh (Publisher and Editor, Sommelier India) and David Banford (Director, The Wine Society of India) about nine months back. At that time we were under the impression that the India Wine Challenge was not going to happen, and I thought we should have a competition to fill the gap. It was only later that the IWC came to be scheduled. However Robert Joseph and I are good friends and we are relaxed about it.

Any features regarding the criteria of the SIWC you would like to comment on?
The SIWC was superbly organized from top to bottom. The judging conditions were perfect. The lighting was good, the glasses supplied by Riedel were good – it makes all the difference tasting from a quality crystal glass, and the service of the hotel staff was perfect.

We had a fantastic panel of 18 judges, who have a huge experience in wines. The poster is brilliant. You can feel the elephant smiling. It captures the spirit of the competition.

At the SIWC we followed the criteria of judging wines by region, grape variety, vintage, and price range that comprised 11 categories. I feel it is important to define a wine by its price range. It is really not fair to compare a wine in category ‘A’ (that is upto Rs 500) with a wine of category ‘G’ (between Rs 4,001 and 5,000). There is no chance in the world that ‘A’ would get a medal and not ‘G’ if they were in the same category.

Was there any difference between the SIWC and other renowned international competitions?

In terms of judging, the competition is pretty much the same as it would be at any other international competition. The tables did what they had to do and the interaction between the judges was very good.

The SIWC had a panel of 18 judges of which 14 were Indian judges and four were international judges who are based or work in India, which was good for an Indian competition. Apart from the fact that bringing in international judges is expensive, they really don’t know the Indian consumer, Indian wines or the Indian context.

The Decanter competition has international judges while the JWC (Japan Wine Challenge) no longer needs international judges as the Japanese are well versed with wines now.

Decanter accepts entries of all wines – that is wines that are not being imported into the UK can also enter the competition. So if a producer wins a medal at the Decanter competition, he can put a sticker on his bottle and he can mention it to make his entry into a new market. It helps his chances of exporting his wines into different countries.

At the SIWC we decided to accept entries only from Indian wines or foreign wines already being imported into India. The competition was held on Thursday (19 November) and the results were declared on Friday evening. So if a consumer wanted to buy a medal wining wine on Saturday morning it was available in the market.

Signing SIWC poster

How did the tastings go off?

It was all very professional, not that I didn’t expect it to be. The judging started at 3.00 pm and ended at 9:30 pm, and was continuous apart from a few short breaks. No one complained about judging for six hours. They were there to do their job, and it was very satisfying to see the tasting go off so professionally. There was a very high level of commitment from the judges, with increasing conviviality as the evening progressed but without any loss of professionalism!

What was your role in the competition?

As chairman of the Competition, I was not a judge (neither was Reva Singh, who was co-chairman) so I was not tasting at a table. I was there as a judicator, going around tables and was called only in case my opinion was needed to judge for a particular wine. For instance, I was asked to offer my opinion at a table where two judges gave a 17 to a wine and one judge gave 18.5. I was asked if the wine was worth a gold (a wine receiving between 18.5 and 20 marks is regarded as outstanding and receives a gold).

Does the palate get jaded over six hours of tasting?

Wine competitions are tiring for the brain. You have to concentrate all the while. In competitions where I am a judge, the numbers (marks) automatically run through my mind and all the responses to the wine are automatically being processed by the mind as I taste.

Yes, there is a human element to the judging and your judgement may be less accurate at 8.00 pm than at 4.00 pm. Since there was a panel of three judges per table at the SIWC you get the best results. Also the flights of wine were planned to start with light whites and gradually build up towards stronger reds. As the hours pass the palate may tire and the attention may waver, but the wines get stronger so the judging is not affected much.

A wide range of wines were tasted at the SIWC; we moved from whites, to rosés to reds in ascending order of tannins and robustness. If you tasted a dry light white at 8.00 pm, after five hours of tasting, the judgement wouldn’t come out well.

Is there a bit of chance in wine competitions?

That is in the nature of a competition – any competition – an FI (Formula One?) competition or a football match. You cannot reproduce the results if the competition takes place one day later. It could be a different bottle of wine of the same vintage or the human element of the judging process. It is all about judging at that point of time, on that day.

Speaking at SIWC

What did you tell the judges at the SIWC?

See also  Judgement of London: Wines, Judges and Scoring Criteria

While judging a wine you need to separate the good from the not-so-good. I mentioned in the guidelines that the judges should judge severely but should not be ungenerous. However the wines that receive a medal should be medal-worthy wines. Even the commended wines must be good, it should not be that an absence of faults makes a wine good. Character should be preferred over blandness. For the higher rankings overall harmony is important, whatever the state of maturity.

The SIWC used the international 20-point scoring system. Each judge filled in the marks and tasting notes. If the wine is not good then the tasting notes invariably are sparse. However if the wine is good then the tasting notes are invariably descriptive- such as a very deep colour, still young, nose of crushed berries, light touch of oak, continues on the palate, good depth, good finish and so on.

Personally, I am never confident at the start of a major wine tasting and always like to compare my first one or two judgements with my colleagues, to make sure that we are “in line”.  This is what I insisted was done at the SIWC when the tasters began to taste.  We all judge differently and in the major professional wine judgings in London, if I find that I am half a point above Jancis Robinson MW (who is slightly severe) and half a point below John Avery MW (who is slightly generous), then I feel I am judging correctly as far as my own palate is concerned.

Doesn’t individual preference sometimes step in?

True, one of the problems in a wine competition is that one tends to go for one’s own preference. The guidelines state that a judge should ask himself/herself “Is this a good wine” rather than “Do I like this wine”? It is like if you prefer blondes you may turn your head when a blonde walks by but not when a brunette walks by even though the brunette is equally beautiful! So it is important that the judges take out their personal preferences and be independent in their judging of wines.

Indage Vintners, the largest producer of wines in India did not enter. Were they missed?

Since it was a blind tasting we didn’t know anything about the participants. But yes, it would have been nice if Indage had participated.

What do you feel about the role of wine competitions for wine producers and consumers?

Logically in an expanding market producers and consumers should see the value of a wine competition as it works well for both. It benefits a producer of an award-wining wine as it helps him to sell his wine.

From the consumer point of view the wines at the SIWC have been judged by the best professionals in the market. The consumer gets this information through a sticker of an award-winning or commended wine bottle, and it helps him/her make an informed choice. The SIWC results are results consumers can trust.

Steven S. WSI Gala Dinner

Do you feel wine competitions have a significant role to play in India as alcohol advertisements are banned?

Yes, wine competitions are a way of informing consumers in India about good wines as you are not allowed to advertise alcohol. If a producer paid around Rs 2000 per wine entered at the SIWC, and if his wine receives a medal or a commendation it is of great value to him. He can place that information in his press book or his sales representatives can mention it to restaurants they visit, and to shops where they retail their wines. So it benefits the producers of wines that win.

What about the significance of the results for wineries who did not receive acommendation or medal?

A. Wine competition results tend to stress the medal side. However the non-medal side is equally important. Producers whose wines have not received an award should think about what they can do to improve the quality of their wines.

Are wine competitions particularly helpful for wines at certain price points?

I think a wine competition is of greater value for middle-of-the-road wines. There are lots of imported wines in India in the Rs 1500 to Rs 2500 rage that need recognition. The very expensive wines do not need a medal or recognition. It is almost not in the interest of the very very best wines to enter a wine competition.

For instance the Decanter wine competition has about 10,000 entries. The First Growth wines (from Bordeaux) do not enter. There are no wines from Grand Cru vineyards (from Burgundy). They really don’t need the recognition that a wine competition gives a wine. Besides, if they did put their wines and didn’t receive a medal it would be an insult to them. So generally wine competitions are more helpful for middle-of-the-road wines.

What kind of initiatives can help popularize wine in India?

I have heard that the Barista chain of coffee shops may be serving wine by the glass. That would be sensational. People can stop by for a tea, coffee or a glass wine if they wish. If a coffee shop can serve two reds, two whites and one rosé it would be a great start. Each serving could be 125 ml for Rs 100, which would be a bit more than the price of a tea or coffee there.

I believe some hotels are planning to include half-bottles on the menu which is a brilliant way to go. A half-bottle does perfectly for two people for a meal. At the point the Indian wine market is poised today, the consumer trusts the bottle. So if diners have a half-bottle opened in their presence they are assured of the wine.

Can we look forward to the second SIWC next year?

Well this has been the inaugural competition. We will see the reaction of producers, the trade and importers, and review these reactions in about January or February. We hope the response will be positive, and we can organize the second SIWC competition next year with more wineries participating and more entries from wineries that participated this year.