“So it’s either Syrah or super ripe Cabernet Franc or Tempranillo…” In other words, my Russian team mate Vlad and I had absolutely no idea of the grape from which the wine in our hands had been produced. Choosing the correct answer mattered: this was the last wine we had to identify out of the four our opponents had chosen for us, and we were trailing badly in this bout of what in Russia is known as ‘Wine Wrestling’. Without much confidence we opted for the Tempranillo.
It wasn’t just ourselves we risked letting down. We were being watched by a small audience who tasted along with us and bet on one or other team, using pieces of cork as tokens. Backing the most successful team could win the spectators free wine or meals in Adri, Chicken or Kitchen, three of Moscow’s top restaurants.
Informal blind tasting competitions like these, in which two teams challenge each other with sets of classic, but anonymised wines, are gaining in popularity in Moscow, but nothing like as quickly as the more structured events that are currently being held in China. Marie Chen is organiser of the National Blind Wine Tasting Competition which now involves no fewer than 51 cities. In some of these, she admits, only 30 or 40 people take part, but in Shanghai, Beijing and Goanjjao hundreds of keen enthusiasts pay a modest 100 RMB to sign up in hope of getting to the final in which they might win a trip to a wine region. This year, she estimates, around 8,000 eager amateurs and professionals will compete to win a trip to an overseas wine region. If you include local sponsors and organisers, the total number of people involved, she says, could exceed 14,000.
The competition is currently run on a slim budget, with day-to-day running costs and Maria’s salary being covered by four wine distributors, including Ruby Red – who also provide Chen with office space – but it’s growing quickly. Part of her task involves sourcing wines to use in the tastings. She can’t rely on choosing these from her paymasters. “Some of the competitors study the distributors’ lists really closely and taste all of their wines, so they are very good at recognising them.”
Another challenge is to keep the competition fresh. Inevitably, as in any competitive event, there is a hardcore of regular participants who return every year; however, for the moment, there are plenty of new cities and recently-enthused people wanting to play.
At first sight, people interested in blind wine tasting are as relevant to the world of regular wine drinkers as marathon runners might be to people whose idea of exercise is to take a stroll around the park. But most of the strollers know someone who’s run a marathon or half marathon. And if or when they ever want a bit of advice on the best trainers to buy in which to run a kilometre or two, it’s the runners whose opinion they’ll trust.
Marie Chen’s community of 14,000 compares pretty well with the readership of quite a few consumer wine publications that survive on advertising by the wine industry. But I’d argue that in some ways it’s a more valuable group. These aren’t people who may idly flick through the pages of a publication, pausing to read about the producers, styles or regions they like or find interesting. The would-be blind tasting champions have to learn about a huge range of wines – and they are not just reading about them.
All of which makes sponsorship of this kind of event look rather attractive, as some older members of the UK wine trade would confirm. Nearly 40 years ago, a British wine distributor called Grants of St James’s helped to pioneer an annual tasting competition between Oxford and Cambridge Universities – and a memorable joust in which a UK team beat the French in Paris.
It is impossible to say how much Louis Jadot, then one of Grants’ agencies benefited from these events, but it is still a leading premium French wine brand in the UK. And that might be because of the young tasting team members who went on to join the UK wine trade. Charles Metcalfe, with whom I launched the International Wine Challenge, and top author and critic Oz Clarke, for example, were both members of that victorious team in Paris. Who knows how many Russian and Chinese opinion formers are being formed out of today’s contests? I’d certainly put some money on the team that beat Vlad and me in Moscow.