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IWC 2016: On the judging trail with this year's 400 judges

Published:  15 April, 2016

The International Wine Challenge 2016 opened the innings of Tranche two, at the Kia Oval, in South London on Tuesday, which will now be home to the IWC organisers, hard-working crew and judges for the next two weeks.  With over 15,000 wines to assess across Tranche one, Tranche two, and the Sake Challenge, by more than 400 judges, in panels of up to 5, it's a feat of gargantuan proportions, requiring meticulous planning, and organization on a military scale.

Two days in, and between, 272 judges, we've worked our way through over 5000 wines, with a similar number to cover over the next 2 days. 

With wine entries from over 50  countries, week one is all about tasting through every entry, and sorting  'the wheat from the chaff'.   Wines are analysed in flights, organized by style or country.  Any wine deemed worthy of a medal, will then be re-judged by different panels next week, when the prized golds and silvers, together with the bronze medals will be teased out.  The conclusion of this marathon occurs on the final weekend, when the ultimate prizes, the Trophies will be determined by the Panel Chairs, the most senior and experienced judges involved in the competition.

At this stage, it's too early to gauge any specific trends in what's showing well and not. In any case, we are told in no uncertain terms, by event director Chris Ashton, not to tweet or broadcast any particular winners or sinners at this stage. After all, raving about a rare Lithuanian Tannat, at this stage, would be a bit of a give away.  So more on the wines, the judging process, and the separate Sake Challenge, as we progress through the weeks.

What's interesting, at this stage, is the eclectic mix of multinational judges, who flock to the IWC family each year.  The judges are  veritable smorgasbord of talent and experience, including winemakers, buyers, wine writers, importers and independent/shop managers, and WSET students. The judging panel is oversubscribed every year.  So why do many people travel, at their own expense from all corners of the world to judge for even just a couple of days?

For associate judges, the first rung on the ladder, it's an opportunity to improve knowledge, to learn from working with experienced wine tasters, and for those flying in from Australia, Turkey , Japan etc, it's a way of experiencing an incredible diversity of wines that they may not otherwise have the chance to try.  It's a time to grow their own experience, discover new wines , and be part of this iconic wine competition.  Lisha Zhu from Sydney said:  "It's amazing; I've learnt so much from the team. It was well worth the investment of travel, and I've discovered far more about European wines'.

The excitement and learning curve continues right up the judging scale, right through to senior judges and panel chairs.

"It's fascinating to taste such a wide variety of flights, which could be from anywhere," said Ed Robinson, buyer at the Co-Op. "The judging experience helps recalibrate the palate, opens the mind to new things and challenges existing views. It's also great tasting with winemakers, as they come at it from a totally different perspective."

Brendan Heath, a highly-respected consultant winemaker from Australia, who has risen through the ranks from associate judge to panel chair since his debut in 2008 has seen the Challenge evolve each year. He said: "What's so important is not just the exposure to such a wide variety of wines, but the difference of opinions and the different mindsets. That's what makes the competition so strong. It's all inclusive, it aims to get the best out of everyone, and the unique combination of all those factors results in rewarding the best wines in an analytical but highly democratic way, to make sure we get the right results."