Teaching Wine Aesthetics

With the R4000-a-berth Wine Judging Academy, previously known as the Tasting Academy, casting off in Cape Town this weekend, some parallels to Don Quixote tilting at windmills are evident. Founded last year by Michael Fridjhon, visiting professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business, this year’s Academy “involves” that prestigious institution. The lofty aim is to try “to teach an aesthetic based on drinkability, refinement, complexity, integrity and persistence” rather than reward “massive wines” with high alcohols, big extract and forests of new wood – like the one that won last week’s Chenin Challenge, perhaps, where Professor Fridjhon was chairman of judges.
ta1 Teaching Wine Aesthetics
Writing in the Weekender last weekend, the Professor makes the point “it is my (admittedly entirely subjective) view that the problem with an aesthetic based on the principle of “might is right” is that there will always be someone who can make a wine bigger, thus logically laying claim to a higher ranking. More to the point, these massive wines, while undoubtedly impressive (and likely to stand out in a line-up of 50-100 wines) are not, and generally never become, really drinkable.”

The Challenge victor is undoubtedly massive: huge price (R230), new barrels for 17 months, 14.5% alcohol, 3.8 g/l residual sugar. With grapes sourced from four different appellations and all that new oak, it is hardly a terroir wine praised by the Professor, relying “on the inter-relatedness of intricacy, purity and balance.”

And it didn’t even need all that power to stand out in a line-up of the 122 competition entries as it was presumably one of the 19 seeded players that got a free pass into the second round of tasting (the winemaker having won the Challenge twice before), along with 15 other less fashionable brands that got there the hard way. A process similar to fishing for exotic Koi in an ornamental pool.

While teaching winemaking faults is flagged as an important component of the course, one would have thought such technical matters are best left to experts and laboratories as any wine writer threatened with legal action for calling a wine Bretty, will readily attest. The real challenge is how to teach an aesthetic, but from the judging performance at the Chenin Challenge, it is unlikely this Academy can do the job.

In last week’s tourney, five judges ranked six finalists and assuming that the “correct answer” is the majority opinion, the judges can be quantitatively rated against this “truth” using a standard Spearman correlation coefficient for non-parametric distributions. The results for the judges are plotted below.
cc1 Teaching Wine Aesthetics
The best performing judge is CvZ, probably not coincidentally the only woman on the panel. She is also a Master of Wine which begs the question how a Cape Wine Master would have performed. Certainly Johannesburg’s first lady of wine, Juliet Cullinan, is of the opinion that the dozens of CWMs around are the best “qualified” judges and UCT/WINE magazine stepping on the toes of the Cape Wine Academy is sure to evoke a response, especially now the CWA is being run along commercial lines.

CE and JP are next in line and the three would probably attain a certificate of competency if a statistician was dishing them out – in fact JP did, he graduated from the Tasting Academy last year.

But the interesting judge is CW, probably not coincidentally the only winemaker on the panel, whose scores are uncorrelated with the “truth.” But then as CW said at the time, he didn’t like the buttery, Chardonnay style of the winner and there’s thus little point sending him to a Judging Academy for re-education.