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March 20, 2011

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Showing blind faith in wines

AT a tasting event held earlier this month in Shanghai by the International Wine Challenge (IWC), I tried a prized Pinot Noir, with charming ruby color, elegant note of vanilla, ripe fruit flavor and soft tannin, exhibiting typical old-world style. Unexpectedly, the label revealed it to be a Chilean wine and with a very attractive price.

In the world of wine, surprises of this kind are common. But whether its a wine's price, producer or quality, without expert guidance, such delights can only be found by chance.

For the uninitiated, selecting a wine can be daunting. When faced with a large list of wines on a menu or displayed in a wine store, what can we do? Ask the waiting staff or salespeople? In my personal experience, they are most likely to either recommend more expensive wines or promote a particular brand. Consult the sommelier? Not all restaurants hire professional staff. And, not everyone is fortunate to have a friend who is a wine specialist familiar with wineries, regions and vintage years.

What customers require is not an endorsement for particular wine producers but independent and objective voices to be their reliable reference when ordering wine. The wine ratings offered by a non-commercial wine contest are an option.

According to Paul Catchpole, the director of the IWC, the objective stance of their annual independent wine competition held in London, to a large extent, is determined by the rigor of the judging system, including how many judges they use, the judges' credibility and whether the wine is blind tasted.

"For example, IWC has 400 wine judges and 40 of them are wine masters consisting of wine writers, wine buyers and wine consultants," Catchpole added. "When tasting, they can only ask about the vintage and region and then give the mark. The wine is scored out of 100. A score of 85 or above qualifies the wine for the second round where it is reassessed. Finally, the organizer will announce who receives the gold, silver or bronze medal. This medal can become a consumer's point of reference when choosing wine."

So what happens if two judges give divergent scores for the same bottle? The answer is simple: Give the wine to the co-chairmen for re-tasting.

Catchpole also emphasized that to ensure the consistency of the judges, all wines that don't score high enough to qualify for the second round are re-tasted by co-chairman to ensure a decent wine isn't missed.

It is this type of competition and the blind tasting method that allows some small wineries to gain an international platform - hence my Chilean Pinot Noir surprise at the tasting event.

Such independent recommendations would be particularly welcome in young wine markets such as China, where expert advice is limited.

In the global wine market, China is still a new player but has developed quickly in recent years. Earlier this month, Vinexpo published its 2010 wine and spirits report, showing that China is the seventh-largest wine producer in the world and the fifth-largest red wine consumption market by volume.

Some wine importers said it is a pity a lot of wealthy Chinese wine consumers only know Chateau Lafite Rothschild. With a lack of other suggestions, the luxury brand has become the benchmark of quality wine in China.

For Chinese wine consumers, objective voices would make them feel more confident in making their selection and ultimately improve their wine experiences.


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