Reflections on Wine Champions 2021

Despite the logistical challenges of putting on this mammoth series of blind tastings in 2021, this year’s Wine Champions were a great success. Matthew Horsley takes us behind the scenes.

Champs Hero

21 years ago, Sebastian Payne MW founded the first ever Wine Champions tastings. The purpose was two-fold – one to narrow down our broad range of wines and offer what we, as buyers, felt were the cream of the crop for drinking now. The other, he happily regales, was purely a selfish one – he wanted to check on what the other buyers were up to!

Fast forward to 2021 and Wine Champions is not only one of our most popular offers, but also one of our most loved amongst members, with more of you dipping your toes into the pool of Champions than any other offer featured throughout the year. No other merchant undertakes such a rigorous examination of their range on an annual basis, and it’s the only selection done at The Wine Society which requires the approval of multiple palates, not just the one that bought it! So, whether you’re new to wine or a seasoned pro, you can’t go too far wrong when selecting from our Wine Champions offer.

As the organiser of Wine Champions, my breakdown of our most popular offer of the year is as follows.

So how does Wine Champions actually work?

Simply put, it’s a blind tasting of circa 1,000 wines from across our range, tasted over a period of three weeks by our team of experienced buyers. The best are put into an offer and showcased for our membership.

Each day during this three-week-period we taste a different style/theme, such as: European Bordeaux blends, chardonnay, pinot noir, Mediterranean reds etc. Buyers put forward wines from their respective regions, I collate them all and put them into a sensible tasting order (typically by price and then style). In the run-up to each tasting I’ll remove neck-foils and put each bottle into a blind-tasting bag so as to truly hide its identity before numbering each bottle. That’s over 1,000 in a three-week process… On the day, buyers are given a tasting sheet which shows them how many wines are being tasted and breaks them down into categories/price bands to give the wines context. For example: ‘Wines 1 – 5 are chardonnay between £7.95 - £9.95’, or ‘Wines 10 –15 are southern hemisphere Bordeaux blends between £20 - £25’.

Wine Champs

Buyers then taste through each wine, noting down their impressions before giving each wine a score – 0 = Not a champion, 1 = Possible Champion, 2 = Champion. At the end of each session (typically two hours for 60-80 wines), we meet, and each read out our scores in turn. Once all scores are in, any wine that secures 70% or more of available votes is crowned a ‘Wine Champion’, with any scoring between 50-70% re-tasted as a group. It’s during this re-tasting session where we all discuss the positives and negatives of each wine, fight our corner for wines we think should be a Champion, and convince otherwise for those we don’t feel are up to scratch. When all is said and done, we have our Wine Champions from that tasting and, at the end of the three-week process, we have the contents for our offer.

No agenda, no quotas…

One of the most interesting things about the Wine Champions offer is that there is no agenda or quota to fill. No shopping list, as such. No targets or quantities of certain styles of wine to include. If it wins, it wins. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. No exceptions – not even follow-on vintages! In the 2019 offer we didn’t have a single New Zealand Marlborough sauvignon blanc which, for an offer that went out in the summer, is wine-retail suicide. In the 2020 offer we had six – arguably equally suicidal!

It also gives us a chance to assess the range and current trends in wine styles around the world – ‘are we missing an oaky chardonnay under £10? Do we need more red Bordeaux between £10 - £15? What are the best Rioja/Chianti/Bordeaux vintages to drink now? What is the current trend in pinot noir production in the southern hemisphere? Are there any wines in our range that may not truly be up to scratch?’ All of this information helps us provide a better range of wines to members for the coming 12 months, and beyond. It’s a crucial part of our buying calendar and provides a far greater service than being purely just an offer.

So what are the stories from 2021?

From the traditional regions it’s hard to ignore the monumental success of Bordeaux this year. A number of outstanding vintages back-to-back means that there’s incredible wines that are drinking beautifully now at very reasonable prices – so good, in fact, that one mixed case of Bordeaux winners just wasn’t enough! Another major story has been the success of English sparkling wine, with no less than six bottles emerging victorious from blind-bags back in March. We also saw not one but three Greek winners this year!

In the southern hemisphere, South Africa and Australia both shone across all price points and all styles, both offering outstanding value in the sub-£15 categories as well as with their more premium offerings – a special shout-out in particular to the wealth of wonderful chardonnay from down under, and a win for South Africa’s first black female winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela.

And finally, it was a bumper crop for rosé this year, in particular from the Iberian Peninsula with five winners across a number of different styles.

Wine Champs
A big thank you to Catherine Housden and Gil Riggans from the Tasting and Events team for opening and pouring over 700 wines and keeping us all safe!

What changes were put in place for 2021?

Running the Wine Champions tastings is always a huge task, but the 2021 tastings were challenging for very different reasons! Thankfully our 2020 tastings took place before the first lockdown, which meant these were the first truly affected by Covid-19. The first thing to do was to work out how to allow for the tastings to go ahead as smoothly and, most importantly, safely as possible! This involved changing the room from our tasting room to our much larger Members’ Room to allow for proper social distancing, fewer wines to minimise time/contact (we still tasted over 700 this year), restricting the number of buyers in attendance to five at each tasting (we’re always insistent on a minimum of five buyers to maintain a ‘quorum’ of tasters), tasters to be seated at their own tables behind a Perspex ‘shield’, have their own set of tasting glasses that they take home and wash each evening, have helpers (special ‘thank you’ to Gil and Catherine from the Tastings and Events team) to open and pour the wines for us (masked up, like the wines, of course), use of special personal spittoons with a super absorbent pad inside to minimise risk, regular temperature checks and hand sanitisation, the list goes on… Thankfully, we managed to go through the entire three-week process without an issue.

Ironically, it seemed the buyers quickly preferred this more civilised manner of tasting and are keen to continue it next year! Albeit without all the Covid-19 safety requirements… we hope.

2021 and Beyond

Despite its intrinsic difficulties and stress-induced breakdowns, Wine Champions is a true embodiment of The Wine Society’s ethos and our constant strive to offer members the best possible wines at the best possible prices. It really is all about integrity above all else and is something we’re incredibly proud of as a business. We’re extremely excited about the release of our 2021 winners and we hope you get behind them – they really are the best of the best for drinking now.

And who knows what stories might unfurl in 2022…

Explore our 2021 Wine Champions

Matthew Horsley

Society Buyer

Matthew Horsley

Matthew joined the Buying Department, from our Tastings and Events team  in December 2017 and took over England, Greece and Hungary in 2020.

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