Tag Archives: wine competition

It’s time for your Missouri wine update

I’ve been trying to figure out when I first started judging at the Missouri State Fair Competition; I think it’s been twenty-five years since my first competition. Maybe it’s been longer, but the interminable feeling as one fatally flawed wine after another passed my lips is long gone. Sitting down to several hundred wines at the 2008 Missouri State Wine Competition, there’s no feeling of grim trepidation.

Instead I’m excited, if worried. 2007 was the annus horribilis, as the British Queen once said of another vintage. The vintage was unkind to Missouri’s favorite grape, Norton, most of which was wiped out by the so-called “Easter Massacre”. On April 5th, Easter Day, the temperature plunged into the low twenties (and even lower in many areas) where it stayed for five or more days.

By itself, these frigid temperatures wouldn’t have done a great deal of damage. But the preceding three weeks had been unseasonably warm and sunny and most vines had wakened up, believing spring was at hand. The sap had risen up into the wood and when that sap froze, vines literally exploded. The result was the loss of three quarters or more of many of Missouri’s crops, not least of which included most of the state’s wine grapes.

The initial report was that 95% of Missouri’s Norton crop was gone. Other grapes suffered to similar degrees (pun intended). So for the 2008 Missouri State Wine Competition, I wasn’t sure there would be many 2007 vintage wines to taste. And a weather disaster like the Easter Massacre was bound to leave a lasting impact on the wines fashioned from those grapes and vines that survived. Would there be balanced wines?

The short answer is yes. Among the white wines, there were a number of lovely dry 2007 Vignoles, the finest of which was from the oft-awarded Montelle Winery. Their 2007 Dry Vignoles was judged to be the best wine of the entire show, and was handed the Governor’s Cup, giving Montelle’s winemaker, Tony Kooyumjian, the Governor’s Cup four out of the last five years. A remarkable achievement.

Most of the wines in the flights of Vidal Blanc and Vignoles contained attractive 2007’s. The entire Seyval Blanc flight was far more encouraging than last year’s group; the 2007 vintage clearly had some benefits for Seyval Blanc.

Tony Kooyumjian’s Semi-dry Seyval Blanc, which he produces at Augusta Winery, was every bit as good as his superlative Dry Vignoles. Between Augusta and Montelle Wineries, Tony managed to bring home six of the ten “Best of Class” awards. His other Best of Class winners included Augusta River Valley Red, Montelle River Country Red, and two absolute beauties: Augusta 2007 Icewine and Montelle Peach Brandy. I would put those last two up against competitive products from anywhere and they would match or even beat the competition.

The sad truth is that most people reading that last statement don’t believe that I’m serious. Of course, they haven’t really tried most Missouri wines. And despite probably tasting only a few inexpensive Missouri wines, most tasters think they know the quality of Missouri wine. It’s like tasting some California box wines and saying that you can extrapolate from those how Phelps Insignia tastes.

It shouldn’t be, but it might be a surprise to some people to know that the Missouri wine industry has a pretty strong reputation outside of the state. At least within the wine industry, there is a strong sense that there are a lot of smart people working here. Even many California winemakers have heard good things about Norton, Missouri’s state grape, even if they’ve never actually tasted one.

At the 2008 competition, there were other surprises, if smaller and less momentous. For one, there seemed to be fewer Chardonels than last year; that was welcome news. I hate to badmouth a grape and its entire output, so I won’t. But far too much Chardonel is boring or worse.

Add to the good news that those who are making Chardonel are less frequently smothering it in oak in the vain hope that the lightweight grape can grow wings and fly away as a fully formed Chardonnay, one of its parents. As they say, you can put lipstick on the pig but…

The other top winners were Stone Hill’s Golden Spumante and their 2007 Vignoles, made in a delicious, sweeter style. Not surprisingly, Stone Hill took home the award for the best fortified wine as well, with their 2005 Port, fashioned from the Norton grape. Blumenhof Winery had an absolutely stellar Cynthiana (that’s Norton, as well) from the 2006 vintage; that wine deserves your attention as well.

It’s exciting that Blumenhof is back in the winner’s column; their wines can be first-rate and they don’t show up in the press as often as they deserve. Best of all, their victory in the Norton competition reflects a sea change in Missouri wine. No longer is the winner for top Norton a predictable battle between the heavyweights in the state; these days more and more wineries are making great Norton.

Before we leave 2007 behind…

So I judged at the Sydney International Wine Competition in late 2007, and aside from the beauty of the Blue Mountains, it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had at a tasting. Let me explain…

The Methodology

First there is the methodology. Each wine is tasted several times. After an initial culling process, each of the promoted wines is placed in a particular weight class (light medium, heavy) and then each wine is tasted again to set its position within its weight class (is it very light bodied, or only somewhat light-bodied?). Next, within their weight categories, the wines are first judged on their own, and then the wines are re-tasted alongside a particular food pairing. This reflects the organisers’ belief that wines are judged in an unnatural setting if they are tasted by themselves and not with food. While many of the world’s wines seem intended for consumption in the cocktail hour, wine’s traditional place is at the dining table and judging wine alongside food should be obvious. Instead, it’s virtually unknown in any other wine competition.

The Judging Panel

While the tasting methodology offers enough differentiation from other competitions to make it unique, there is another critical difference the Sydney International Wine Competition has to offer: the caliber of the judges is top notch. While there were only fourteen judges, each judge was an experienced and skilled professional with demonstrable expertise in the business of wine judging. And the fourteen judges represented seven different countries, so there was far less opportunity for the “regional palate” problem to influence the outcome. Depending on which stage of the elimination process to select the Award winners it represented, each flight involved a different group of judges; in the earliest stages there were only two judges on a flight. But for the Finals judging there were six or more judges assessing each wine in the Category.


As I write this, I still don’t know the results of all our efforts. But I am clear enough in my reactions to the wines I judged to draw a few conclusions.

Conclusion One

Flawed wines were far less prevalent than in other shows I have judged. Within the groups of wines we tasted, as well as many from well-known New World wine regions, there were wines from Bordeaux and other traditional regions of France. In general, Bordeaux, though it likes to claim otherwise, has a problem with Brettanomyces. While I have heard numerous Bordelais winemakers claim that those band-aid, leather and animal notes represent terroir, I disagree. These aromas derive from barrels that are laden with Brettanomyces. Some New World wines share this problem. And some New World wines (often in California and Washington) exhibit high amounts of volatile acidity. It’s a problem that shows no sign of abatement in many such regions. Many South African wines suffer from issues with both Brettanomyces and volatile acidity. Yet the overwhelming proportion of wines (including wines from those countries) represented in this Competition showed clean winemaking. But it should also be strongly noted that the entire New World is struggling to control alcohol levels; some of the wines we tasted had alcohol levels that were bordering on the absurd.

Conclusion Two

The move towards cooler New World sites has not resulted in wines of better balance than those from the better known areas in general. Instead, we experienced an array of wines with green and bitter tannins. California has traditionally struggled with this issue. Its hot climate results in rapid ripening of the grapes, so the grapes become sweet and mature before the tannins can soften and ripen. In California, the tradeoff is that the best of these wines have tremendous richness, and the green and sandpapery tannins are offset by rich flavors. With some of the Australian Cabernets and Merlots I tasted, the tannins were green, but the sweet and jammy ripeness so typical of great Australian reds was missing.

Conclusion Three

Australian and New Zealand Chardonnays have become better balanced, cleaner and less oak dominant than their Californian counterparts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more interesting wines.

Conclusion Four

Finally, I would draw one more conclusion from my participation in the Sydney International Wine Competition: the methodology of the SIWC offers great benefits. I say this because:

  • It is appropriate to taste and assess wine with food.
  • It is appropriate to taste the same wine several times before reaching a final conclusion.
  • It is appropriate for a wine judge to consider, “should I offer this wine greater merit when it demonstrates that it can skillfully handle a plate of delicious food?”

Postscript: so why was this a grueling tasting? Imagine tasting the same wines four times in four days. And imagine being in Australia but not really able to cut loose and see your friends and see new places and, well, I’m just whining now, aren’t I? I am a Master of Whine,  after all.

One more note: while I wrote above that other competitions don’t include food, one of the competitions I help run, the Mid-American Wine Competition is doing that this year – it’s been in the works for a year. But I knew that judging at the Sydney Competition would assist me in my understanding of the process, so for that as well as many other reasons (cool judges, etc.),  I’m glad I was there.