DWWA (Decanter World Wine Awards) is the world's largest wine competition by number of entries. In its 19th edition, held in London between 24 April and 7 May 2022, almost 18,500 wines from all over the world were submitted. Participating as a jury for the first time has allowed us to learn about the ins and outs of the competition.
The venue chosen to taste such a large number of samples was ExCel exhibition centre in Royal Victoria Dock on the banks of the River Thames in East London.
We alighted, appropriately enough, at Custom House station. This is the name used for government buildings in port areas that controlled the payment of taxes on goods entering and leaving the country, so it was inevitable to think of centuries of wine trade with the English.
With British punctuality, and staged entry times for the judges in accordance with Covid protocol (though masks are largely absent in London, even on public transport), the tastings began at half past nine in the morning for the first group of judges and at ten o'clock for the second group. This year almost 300 professionals, including more than 60 Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, put their noses and palates to the competition.
The logistics are extremely complex, both because of the large volume of wine that has to be handled, classified and wrapped to guarantee anonymity (all tastings are conducted blind), and because the tasting dates for the judges vary depending on their schedules. We were recommended to attend at least two days in order to get the most out of the experience. In our case, it was three days for Yolanda and two for Amaya.
The tastings are organised by country, or large areas (e.g. the Balkans or Central Italy). We were based mostly on room 2, devoted almost entirely to Spain, although we also tasted in room 3 alongside panels assessing wines from Germany and Portugal, among others. In each room, several teams of two or three tasters worked every day, plus a regional chair, who is an expert in the country or region and acts as chairman. They can be assigned to a single table or coordinate two simultaneously. In the latter case, there is usually a senior judge who is in charge of tallying the scores. In the event of a discrepancy, the regional chair tastes the wine and makes a decision on the basis of their opinion.
Each table is manned by a couple of assistants who are in charge of laying out the glasses, numbering them (very important so as not to get confused in relatively long flights) and pouring the wines. Each tasting table is equipped with its own computer displaying the daily schedule. All we judges had to do was sit at the designated table, type in our tasting notes and score each wine from 70 to 100, according to the ratings popularized by Robert Parker.
One of the most interesting elements of the competition is that we were provided with enough basic information to put the wines in context: region, varieties, vintage and, very interestingly, price bands, because this helps to push up the more affordable wines that stand out from the more expensive ones.
The flights are structured by themes and are designed to allow tasters to keep their palates in form. Mornings were usually spent tasting reds, while afternoons were devoted to whites, rosés and sparkling wines. And all of this was quite sensibly planned to alternate structured wines with lighter ones. Thus, for example, the morning could start with Valdepeñas or La Mancha, followed by Montsant, then Toro or Ribera del Duero, and finish with Bierzo or Ribeira Sacra. After a break of little more than an hour for lunch, the afternoon's flights continued. Some of the wines we tasted were cavas, sparkling wines from other areas, txakoli, Rueda Sauvignon Blanc... All in all, between 65 and 85 samples are tasted in the course of a single day.
Another element that makes the competition specially attractive is the brief debate that takes place at the end of each flight. The presiding judge checks the consensus of the wines tasted, suggests a final score in the event of dissenting scores, and assigns the corresponding medals: bronze (85-89 points), silver (90-94 points) and gold (95-100).
The golds, if there are any, then go on to a second round of tasting, which takes place in the second week of the competition. In this round, the co-chairs (this year there were four: Sarah Jane Evans MW, Andrew Jefford, Michael Hill Smith MW and Ronan Sayburn MS) decide on the golds, grand golds and platinums. They are also ultimately tasked with settling any divergent opinions at the tables.
It happened to us with a wine that was verging on gold and with another one that had a somewhat peculiar nose, but a really distinctive palate. The co-chairs give their point of view, judges discuss their points of view and decisions are made on the basis of their comments, all in a very civilised and professional manner. Indeed, despite the fact that fellow judges change regularly from day to day, the relationship is very friendly and professional.
The panel of tasters is very diverse and includes sommeliers, critics, wine buyers, educators, journalists.... Many of them —upwards of 60 this year— are Masters of Wine (MW) and Master Sommeliers (MS) —in fact, we have never seen so many together under the same roof except at their Institute's symposium held in Logroño a few years ago. As the judges' agenda varies, you may meet new tasting colleagues at the table, and this is undoubtedly a very enriching experience. In the Spanish room there were many familiar faces, starting with Ferran Centelles and Pedro Ballesteros MW, both in their role as regional chair, and continuing with sommeliers such as Guillermo Cruz, Pilar Cavero, Agustín Trapero and María José Huertas.
One of the highlights at the end of the day is the possibility of tasting all the gold medals awarded each day. They are all displayed on a table and arranged by region or country, but with their labels securely covered, ready for anyone who wants to improvise a final round of tasting.
Sarah Jane Evans, Co-chair DWWA
A great advocate and connoisseur of Spanish wines, Sarah Jane Evans has maintained a special connection with this country ever since she spent time working as an au pair in El Escorial in the 1970s. For her Master of Wine thesis in 2006 she wrote about the contribution of almacenistas to the quality of Jerez wine and has since published countless articles on the wines of Jerez and the rest of Spain.
A former president of the Institute of Masters of Wine, Evans is also a member of the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino for her services to Spanish wine. In addition to her work as educator, judge at international competitions, journalist and wine writer, Sarah Jane Evans is an expert on chocolate. Author of the book The Wines of Northern Spain, she is now immersed in the second volume, focusing on the south of the country.
Pedro Ballesteros, Regional Chair
Agricultural engineer and Master in Viticulture and Oenology, Pedro Ballesteros is the dean of Spain's Masters of Wine and one of the most lucid and enlightening communicators on the Spanish wine scene.
Although his main job is at the European Commission, Ballesteros finds time between his many travels to write for various international magazines, judge at wine competitions in eight countries and actively engage in training, promotion and consultancy activities for Spanish wine. Like Sarah Jane Evans, he is a member of the Grand Order de Caballeros del Vino. In addition to offering a wealth of information and analysis in an entertaining and accessible tone, his latest book, Comprender el Vino (Understanding Wine), is also an invitation to think and debate about Spanish wine.
Beth Willard, Regional Chair
An Australian based in England, Beth Willard started working in the wine industry because of her interest in travel and languages. She is currently purchasing manager for independent distributor Winetraders UK and specialises in Spain and Eastern Europe. Previously, she was buying manager at Direct Wines, one of the UK's leading wine merchants.
Beth is also a member of the Grand Order de Caballeros del Vino, travels extensively throughout Spain and is well acquainted with the country's wine scene. She has been a judge at the Decanter Wine Awards since 2015.
Ferran Centelles, Regional Chair
His professional life is linked to elBulli, where he joined the restaurant as a stagier in 1999 and stayed on as sommelier until its closure in 2011, the year in which he received the National Gastronomy Award. Nowadays, Centelles is not only a partner in the drinks department at elBullifoundation, but also teaches sommelier and wine courses at various training centres, including Outlook Wine in Barcelona, of which he is co-founder, and is the Spanish correspondent for jancisrobinson.com.
In 2016, Centelles published ¿Qué vino con este pato?, his first book on wine pairings.
In addition to the regional chairs, at each tasting table, comprising at least three people, there is a judge with extensive experience in the competition who can act as a coordinator if one of the regional chairs is in charge of two groups. At the Spanish tables we met Pierre Mansour, head buyer of The Wine Society, Christine Parkinson (co-founder and advisor of Brimful Drinks) and Ed Adams MW, consultant and partner with South African winemaker Bruce Jack of La Báscula Vinos.