From whence the stickers come…

The international Veritas judges, Guido Francque (Belgium), Thomas Lüber (Germany), Janåke Johansson (Sweden), and Joe Wadsack (UK). Photographer: Andrew Gorman

Ever wondered how those stickers end up on the wine bottles that you see on the shelf in the supermarket?

Well, they are largely the result of wine competitions, of which a number take place each year, locally and internationally.

Now there are competitions and competitions, and it is fair to say that not all competitions are equal.

Generally, the more competition stickers appear on a bottle, the greater the likelihood that it will be bought. But it is a well-researched fact that, among wine drinkers who pay attention to the wine competition circuit, the stature of the competition which awards the medal, be it bronze, silver or gold (or double gold or platinum in some instances), is a determinant of its worth.

South Africa, like many other wine-producing countries, has more than its fair share of annual competitions, and Veritas, one of the largest, takes place at Nederburg Estate each year at about this time.

For the second year running, I was privileged to be a member of the cabernet sauvignon panel, most ably chaired by Spier’s Johan Jordaan.

Although not the largest class, cabernet sauvignon is one of the larger, with 142 entries this year. The tasting takes place over five days, with the larger classes requiring a commitment by panel members of up to four days, and al-though one only tastes until lunchtime each day, the pace and pressure is relentless.

The wines are all tasted blind, which means that the panel members have no clue about each wine other than its vintage, and class.

Each panel generally includes an international judge, and this year Swedish wine importer and wine judge Janåke Johansson joined the cabernet panel. The rest of the line-up included Warren Ellis (Neil Ellis Wines), Bertho van der Westhuizen (Alto), Nerina Cloete (Blaauwklippen) Monique Fourie (KWV), and what an experience it was tasting with these great palates.

The wine is presented in flights of 10, starting with the youngest and moving through to the oldest in terms of vintage. This year, we started with 2016 (only one), large numbers of 2015 and 2014 wines – and then declining numbers through 2013, 2012, 2011, and concluding with two 2010 wines.

For people unfamiliar with the judging process, it is usually perceived to be a cushy billet, during which you’re able to imbibe at leisure while you consider the offerings entered. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We had to get through 142 wines in three mornings, including the very tough business of re-tasting the wines which were awarded gold medals in the initial tasting, so you can’t dawdle, and you most definitely can’t swallow every sip of wine that you take, or you’d be inebriated after the first three flights.

The only way to maintain the required pace, is to concentrate ferociously on the process – swirl, sniff, sip, swoosh around the mouth, spit, write the detailed tasting note and arrive at a score on the 20 point scale. Medal allocation works as follows: 14 points or less, no medal; 15 points, bronze; 16 points, silver; 17 points, gold; 18-20 points, double gold medal.

The judging process assesses the wine in three contexts: colour, aroma profile, and flavour profile which includes texture and mouth feel.

Again, this is easier said than done, because whatever score you arrive at, you must be able to justify in the discussion with fellow panel members that follows each flight of wines.

There is no such thing as a medal for attendance, which is to say that a wine doesn’t for example get a bronze medal simply because it was entered. Whatever the medal (or none) that is finally awarded, it is justified, and while there is often consensus amongst the panel on scores for a particular wine, this is not always the case.

Bearing in mind that a single point can make the difference between no medal, or a bronze, silver, gold or double gold medal, it is obvious that scores are hotly debated. It is not uncommon for one or more wines in a flight to be re-tasted after the panel discussion, affording judges an opportunity to reconsider their scores for those wines, but as our panel chairman pointed out, “your score is your score, provided you can justify it.”

Once all the wines have been tasted and scored, those awarded 17 points – a gold medal – are re-tasted to determine whether any of them deserve to be awarded double gold.

Once more, such decisions are hotly debated and hard-fought, and as a result few wines end up with this much sought after accolade.

It is tough but rewarding work, with the big reveal happening on Saturday October 8, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

When next you’re at the wine shop or the supermarket, cast your eye at the stickers on the bottle and see if you can find a Veritas 2016 award, and if you do, you’ll know that the wine deserves the medal and you can buy and drink it with confidence.