Not long ago, we mentioned the Northern Kentucky Wine Festival. It’s this Saturday, in Alexandria, and features Kentucky wines and some great food and crafts. Last Sunday, Kevin and I got to judge wines for the festival. We learned a lot on Sunday, and there’s almost too much for one post. But I’ll try to squeeze it all in.
When you think of Kentucky wines, does that country song, "Strawberry Wine," come to mind? It shouldn’t. There are fruit wines in Kentucky (some darned good ones), but there are also some good wines from vinifera.
Kevin and I served as two judges on a 4-judge panel. There was one sanctioned judge and one experienced judge plus the two of us. We tasted around 70 wines over the course of the day. For a professional judge, that’s probably nothing. For us? We needed a beer when we were done. I definitely suffered from palate fatigue.
I think judging is overrated. Would I do it again? Yes, although it’s not something I’ll want to make a career of. I know it sounds fun – tasting a bunch of wine in one day. It’s truly hard work though. You want to be fair across the board. Medals mean a lot to the marketing of a small winery.
Wine competitions are not like the Olympics. There is not just one gold, one silver, and one bronze per category. Medals are awarded as needed. If the scoring for a wine adds up to a silver, that wine receives a silver. If the score doesn’t add up to a medal, no medal is awarded. Wines are judged on an individual basis, and not against each other.
It’s hard to not compare the various wines in a flight and to judge each wine on its own merits. Even harder is to forget personal biases. For instance, I’m not a fan of either Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay, but I needed to forget that and judge each wine based on whether it was a good example of that varietal.
Judging is also about the swirling, sniffing, swishing, and
spitting. My process was to swirl in the glass and take a few long
sniffs to identify the bouquet and the aroma. The question? Does it
smell like that varietal should smell? What additional aromas were
From there, I took a decent sized drink and swished it around in my
mouth. I tipped my head forward and inhaled air, which helps bring out
more flavors. Then I spit. Sometimes I’d repeat the process.
We judged whites, blushes, then reds, followed by fruit wines,
champagne, and port. There were times when the barnyard aromas were so
intense that I had trouble tasting the wine. There were other times
when the wine was incredibly pleasant. I recall one flight of white
wines that was across the board bad. What people forget when thinking
about wine judging is that you have to take the bad along with the good.
We used a version of the AWS judging scale. While I’m still attached
to my happy faces for everyday tasting, the AWS scale is a usable,
practical 20-point scale. I’ve put the explanation for the 20-point scale at the end of this post.
Once the wines in a flight were scored, we broke our silence and
discussed. If our scores weren’t within a few points of each other,
we’d try the wine again and talk about it. The discussions were
generally easy, as we fell into a pattern of scoring similarly. The
whole experience made me feel better about my palate.
We also had the pleasure of meeting the winemaker for the state of
Kentucky, Tom Cottrell, who was helping with the wine festival
competition. Technically, he is Extension Specialist for Enology at the
University of Kentucky. His job is to help
winemakers in Kentucky grow the right types of grape for our soil, and
cultivate the right kinds of wines. Kentucky is still
learning, and there is a small problem several winemakers are having
with brettanomyces (brett). The subject of brett could be a whole other
blog post, as seen here.
A great definition is available from Mr. Wizard:
Brettanomyces is a particularly nasty yeast that is often the bane of
the collective existence of many winemakers. Its foul-smelling
byproducts have often been called “barnyardy” or “mouse pee-like” on
the sensory scale and it can often be detected in very minute
quantities. As to eradicating the microorganism that caused your wine
to go down the path of delinquency: As Dr. Roger Boulton, winemaking
professor at University of California, Davis puts it, “You’d better
just burn the whole winery down.”
So maybe it’s not that bad. What the good doctor was referring to is
the fact that Brettanomyces are very persistent little buggers. They
thrive in wines and they can even survive in emptied barrels, feasting
off of the sugars in the wood and any lovely leftovers, hiding in the
cracks that your barrel-cleaning system missed. They’re usually
transmitted from winery to winery via shared barrels or purchased bulk
Tom is helping these winemakers with correcting the problem. He’s one of those guys I’m going to have to contact for an interview.
There’s a lot of information in his brain, and I would love to talk to
him some more.
That said, there are a lot of great Kentucky wines out there. In fact,
there is at least one gold medal winner, and several silver and bronzes
- and that’s just what the judges tasted. You can view the results of the wine competition here. See you at the festival!
AWS JUDGING SCALE
3 - Excellent - Brilliant with outstanding characteristic color.
2 - Good – Clear with characteristic color.
1 - Poor – Slight haze and/or slight off color.
0 - Objectionable – Cloudy and/or off color.
AROMA AND BOUQUET
6 - Extraordinary – Unmistakable characteristic aroma of grape-variety or wine-
type. Outstanding and complex bouquet. Exceptional balance
of aroma and bouquet.
5 – Excellent – Characteristic aroma. Complex bouquet. Well balanced.
4 – Good – Characteristic aroma. Distinguishable bouquet.
3 – Acceptable – Slight aroma and bouquet. Pleasant.
2 – Deficient – No perceptible aroma or bouquet or with slight off odors.
1 – Poor – Off odors.
0 – Objectionable – Objectionable or offensive odors.
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