How to properly evaluate a wine

It’s all about quality

I jokingly say that I have two jobs, as a pastor and as a sommelier.
A few months ago I was in Berlin for my second job, as a sommelier. It was time for Berlin Wein Trophy, Germany’s most influential wine competition and the world’s largest international wine challenge under the patronage of the OIV and the UIOE. For some years now, I have been one of several international jury members. It is incredibly interesting, educational, tiring, intense and above all fun.

How does it work?

Many people ask how a wine competition like this actually works, so I thought I will take the opportunity to invite you to join me at the table. We judges are divided into smaller groups of 6-8 people. Each group is led by a team leader. The wines that we will test are divided into different so-called “flights” where each flight contains about 15-16 wines. Sometimes fewer, sometimes more. Each flight contains the same type of wine. For example, white dry, or sparkling or sweet, etc. You do not jump between the wines as it would confuse the taste buds.

Anonymised bottles

All bottles are anonymous (covered with cute little black covers so that we do not see labels or anything else) The only thing we know when we are served is the vintage and grape. For example 2020 Pinot Noir. Then it is up to us in the jury to judge whether this is a good wine or not, taking into account, among other things, the grape and vintage. Note! It is not that we discuss whether it tasted good or not. Our personal taste is in this case completely irrelevant. What we are judging is whether it is a well-made wine, which has what we expect from this grape and vintage. Has the winemaker managed to bring out all the elements and nuances in a good and skilful way?

The different medals

To answer that question, we look at a number of different parameters such as scent, different flavour aspects, etc. and then give a rating where 100 is absolutely incredibly amazing with no errors whatsoever! (Nope, not yet encountered it. The closest was when Umberto tried a wine that got 98 points!) Between 92-100, it is “Grand Gold” ie a very very good wine that has everything plus that little extra! Between 85-92, the wine gets “Gold”, which means that it is a very good wine that is definitely worth buying and that is of high quality. 82-85 is “Silver”, which means that it is a perfectly good wine that you can absolutely serve without being ashamed.

The jury members

Each member of the jury gives their rating. The highest and lowest scores are excluded and the final score is the average of the others. Usually, the jury group agrees, but sometimes discussions arise in which case it is up to the team leader to lead the discussion and reach a result. A rather delicate task as there are sometimes four different languages around the same table. This is after all a very international jury. You test about 45-50 wines per day, so yes, you spit. And in order not to get completely confused, there is always a 15-minute break between each flight. A time when almost all jury members gather around the coffee machine (few things cleanse the taste buds from wine flavours as much as coffee and water) and compare experiences.

The diversity is the strength

As I said, these are incredibly fun and instructive days. We who are there are all in the wine industry in one way or another. Everything from Sommeliers like yours truly to wine producers, oenologists, professors, wine journalists, wine merchants etc. We all contribute to the final rating from our individual perspective. For example, several times I have sat on the same jury as a professor of chemistry and oenology who was able to tell the rest of us about how he senses certain chemical compounds in the wine that indicate a certain production method of the producer. (So interesting!!!) The fact that we are several different professions in the jury means that the wine gets a very honest multifaceted assessment.

Go only for the gold?

Is it then only the gold medal wines that are the “good” wines and the only ones worth buying? That depends entirely on you! If you like a wine, it is a good wine for you and something you should definitely buy and enjoy! The only thing the gold medal says (or any other wine competition rating) is that this is a well-made, high quality wine.
Whether it tastes good or not; well, that is in the end entirely up to you!

Maria Scharffenberg,
Sommelier and Teacher
Europäische Sommelier Schule