Wine Club: More reasons to celebrate

My panel settles down to a day of tasting at The International Wine Challenge
My panel settles down to a day of tasting at The International Wine Challenge
  • A Yorkshire supermarket stole the show at the International Wine Challenge Awards, writes Christine Austin.
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It was a good night for Yorkshire last week as Bradford-based Morrisons won the Wine Supermarket of the Year accolade at the International Wine Challenge Awards. Morrisons’ wine-buying and management team were there in force at the glitzy dinner in one of London’s top hotels and they seemed particularly delighted to beat off competition from Waitrose which had to make do with the Highly Commended award.

I caught up with Mark Jarman, head of wine operations at Morrisons, just after he had collected the trophy and asked him what changes his team had made to clinch this award for the first time. “This is the result of two years of hard work,” he said. “We have made a huge step forward in quality and in value across the range. We have sourced new wines from South Africa, Spain and Portugal, and done a complete range review of France. Value for money has been the watchword for the wine range and clearly our customers appreciate what we have done since sales have grown steadily during the past year.”

One factor which may have helped customers find their favourite wines and boost sales could be the way Morrisons wines are displayed on the shelves and described on their website. They have abandoned the classic country by country arrangement and instead have given their wines different taste profiles. So there are “Fresh” flavours in the Sauvignon Blancs, Argentinian Torrontés and Spanish Albariño. “Smooth” applies to Chablis, Viognier and some Pinot Noirs. “Intense” describes a deep-flavoured Côtes du Rhône, Rioja Reserva and a Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you are not sure what style of wine suits your palate, you can do the Taste Test on the Morrisons Cellar website (www.morrisons.com), answering questions about your tastes in salt, sugar and the way you like your drinks. That leads through to a selection of wines that should suit your palate.

As well as the top accolade of Supermarket of the Year, Morrisons won a whole fistful of medals for individual wines. Gold medals went to M Signature Grüner Veltliner 2014 (£6.99) for its crisp apple and minerally style. M Signature Chablis 1er Cru Chablis, 2012 and 2013 (£14.99) both won gold for their vibrant citrus and almond notes.

Silver medals went to a huge chunk of the port and sherry range. M Signature Manzanilla (£5.99 for 37.5cl) won silver for its refreshing, almost briny style. It was joined by other silver medal-winning sherries, a smooth, rounded Signature Oloroso, a balanced, refined Signature Palo Cortado and a rich, prune and black toffee style of Signature Pedro Ximenez.

M Signature Valpolicella Ripasso 2013 (£7.49) also won silver for its dark, damson fruit with leathery and cocoa overtones, while M Signature Red Douro 2013 has deep plummy fruit with touches of chocolate and spice.

What is clear from all these medals is that Morrisons’ own-label, M Signature range has been selected with high quality firmly in mind. Thirteen Signature wines won Silver or Gold medals.

As usual I was part of the judging process at the International Wine Challenge, although I had had no influence on the Merchant Awards. I spent two full weeks as a panel chair, judging around 100 wines each day, all of them blind. For one of those days I was joined by my apprentice for 2015, Laura Bennett who is from York but who at the time was working for Majestic Wines in Wolverhampton. Generally my apprentice is a wine enthusiast rather than someone already working in the wine business, but Laura’s application to join me for a day’s tasting in London was so enthusiastic, I just couldn’t ignore it. She joined my panel which that day included a Japanese wine and sake expert, a food and wine expert from Wales and a wine merchant from Somerset

The way the challenge works is very simple and to my mind is the most reliable and rigorous way of judging wines. I judge several wine competitions around the world each year and the challenge is the one that I regard as the best. Each wine is bagged up so the label and neck label cannot be seen. If it comes in an unusual bottle shape then the contents are decanted into a neutral-looking bottle. In the first week of the challenge, wines are presented in flights of up to 12 wines, grouped by style. The aim of the tasting is to decide whether any of these are potential medal-winners in which case they are put forward into the following week’s tasting, or whether they should be rejected or receive the first level of award, Commended. Although I am a panel chair, responsible for the group opinion of the five or six professional wine judges around the table, consensus is important and no one opinion dominates the proceedings. Even so, all potential rejections and commended wines are re-tasted by at least one of five chairmen.

In the second week of the judging process the whole process is repeated, and the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals decided.

Laura kept up with the fairly fast pace of blind tasting. At the end of the day she was still ready for more and went to join challenge chairmen, TV wine expert Oz Clarke and regular Yorkshire visitor, Charles Metcalfe. They took Laura through the process of being the ultimate arbiter in the competition, although even they need back-up from another chairman to change a medal decision. “Tasting with Oz and Charles was a fabulous experience,” said Laura, and clearly she did well since she has now been accepted as a regular judge for the 2016 Challenge.

The full results of the International Wine Challenge are listed on the website www.internationalwinechallenge.com.