One of my personal favorite events of the year, involving one of my preferred pastimes, took place last week. The 22nd edition of the Japan Wine Challenge gathers hundreds of wines from around the world to be judged by a number of international trusted palates.
This marked my fourth rendezvous as part of the judges and sole representative of the American continent this year.
This year’s competition’s chair was Master of Wine John Salvi. John, an English native with Italian roots and now residing in Bordeaux is a true legend. He passed the Master of Wine exam in 1970 on his fourth attempt. His trajectory has taken him throughout Asia, the United States and lastly France.
Safe to say that John holds a record having judged wine competitions in nearly 40 countries throughout the years. John is the president of the Wine and Spirit Association of Great Britain and he is also a winemaker in China and a wine writer.
Co-chair Katsuyuki Tanaka is arguably one of Japan’s most respected wine critics and educators.
John and Tanaka San were joined by vice chairs Lynn Sheriff, a South African-born Master of Wine, the current chairman for the Institute of Masters of Wine, Adrian Garforth and Master of Wine and prolific writer, producer and critic Andrew Caillard, who resides in Australia.
The challenge is structured with a number of international lead judges that head each panel, and Japanese judges complement the groups in a brilliant way to represent the several markets.
I had the pleasure of heading a panel along with Britishman Chris Martin, director of education for The Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and Liz Weadon from New Zealand.
Entries came from all over the world with wines from such remote and unexpected places as Kenya and Thailand and everywhere in between.
On my panel, we had the pleasure of assessing a number of wines from Mexico. The quality was remarkable with an accent on Chardonnay from Coahuila and reds from Valle de Guadalupe. A surprisingly delicious flight of red sparkling wines with plenty of meat on the bones.
A flight that took us from Emilia Romagna’s Lambrusco to Sparkling Shiraz with fruit, structure and bloody qualities. A sprinkle of traditional Rioja Tempranillo and California sparkling wines outdid themselves.
The first day, my panel consisted of Motoko Suzuki WSET, based in Tokyo and Dijon University-trained winemaker for Suntory’s Tomi No Oka in Yamanashi.
We tasted just over 100 wines that showed great quality and a number of high medal-worthy examples.
The second day was driven by a dose of Chardonnay from all over the world from Sicily to Miyazaki to Mendocino, 16 wines that showcased the chameleonic attributes of this varietal. My panel partners were California and Japan wine educators Yuki Saito, Kumi Ueno and Taaki Kosaka, who both work for wine importers in Tokyo.
Well into the competition, the third day is quite a treat. This is the trophy tasting, more than 100 wines that have been awarded with either gold or platinum gold from the several panels, basically the creme de la creme of the entries. In theory, it is like going to a Ferrari and Lamborghini auto show and have to pick the favorite. Of course, there are several styles and categories but basically, at this point, they are all well-made pieces of art.
The winners, which will be announced soon, were breathtaking wines that captured the essence of terroir typicity, varietal correctness and winemaking technique.
As with the other competitions that I’ve been honored to join over the years there are two major takeaways in my experience. One of them watching the trends and quality of wine regions like Kenyan and Japanese wine this year. The second is the ever learning from fellow judges and the wines themselves.