Preparing your Wine for Competition

The Saanich Sommeliers is a member club of BCAWA. The British Columbia Amateur Winemakers Association was created to act as an umbrella organization to bring the wine making clubs in BC together. They help to coordinate wine club competitions, provide guidance, host and fund seminars, provide communications (mainly in the form of the website), and organize a provincial wine competition each year. 

One of the duties of the BCAWA executive is to maintain the BCAWA Competition Handbook which is a valuable resource for organizing wine competition. It contains a step by step guide on how to setup a wine competition including budgets, duties and even the descriptions and characteristics of the various wine classes within a wine completion which is one of the things I will talk about tonight. A copy of the current class descriptions are on our website but you should really go to the website to find the most current one as they do get updated every few years. It is located under the heading of Provincial Competition/Competition Handbook.

2) Class Descriptions
There are currently 22 separate classes of wine that you can enter bottles into and this includes 4 white wine classes and 7 red wine classes. The classes besides red and white include aperitif, sherry, rose, dessert, after dinner (port), sparkling, social (off dry wines), country (fruit), cider, and a provincial club crush class.

3) Selecting wines for competition
Once you decide to enter a completion you should first check the website to see what competitions are coming up and then click on the Announcement and Regulations under the competition. This contains entry details along with the specific classes that that club will be supporting. Not all clubs will support the entire BCAWA classes and they may even have one or two special classes that are limited to only club members. From the list of offered classes you can decide which wines in your inventory might be suitable. At this point you may also see some additional classes that you do not currently have the specific blends that are called for, which brings us to our main point of discussion.

4) Preparing wines for Competition
The first thing that you should do is, at the very least, open the bottle of wine and smell it before entering it. You are looking for off aromas, bubbles or foaming which is to be expected in a sparkling wine but not a dry wine, or even cloudiness in the bottle. Any of these conditions is a clear indication of a fault in wines. If you suspect that you have a faulty wine at this point you have options. You can ask another winemaker or even better, a wine judge to identify the fault and help you fix it or you can also enter the faulty wine in a competition and have the judges provide feedback but this option will only give you minimum feedback compared to a good winemaker or a judge that helps you through the repair process.

Most of us start off by making single varietal wines. By that I mean we purchase a quantity of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and then we make wine out of them. The next year we may make Merlot, and the year after that we may make a Syrah. Assuming that you have these 3 wines in your cellar you could enter only 3 bottles into the 7 red classes, but with a bit of blending you could enter many more and at the same time create a learning experience for future winemaking.

5) Blending wines
The blending of wines can be done during fermentation, after fermentation but before bottling, or even after bottling. For this talk we will concentrate on the after bottling method. Generally speaking a blended wine is usually better that the single varietals from which it was created. This is mainly due to the added complexity of a blended wine. When trying to understand complexity, just think of something like a stew. It has a large number of ingredients with different flavour profiles that combine to produce something that tastes better than any of those ingredients on their own. Complexity is a major factor that influences the final score or taste of a wine.

For the purposes of this discussion let’s assume that you have in your cellar, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah that I mentioned before. With these 3 100% varietals you could enter the 100% Merlot into class E1 Bordeaux, the 100% Syrah could be entered into class E5 Rhone, and the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon could be entered into the class E7 Cabernet Sauvignon. Now if you read the class descriptions it will soon become apparent that with a bit of blending you could enter many more wines in the red categories and this will also provide a platform for learning how separate varietals can create some amazing blends.

By creating a blend of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon you could enter at least one more wine into class E1 Bordeaux. If you are going to do multiple blends please make them significantly different. Say 70/30 Cab/Merlot and then vice versa. In the Rhone class you could do 2 blends of 85% Syrah/15% Merlot and 85%Syrah/15% Cabernet Sauvignon while still staying within the guidelines for that class by maintaining at least 85% Syrah. You could go with less than 15% of the blend but not more. In class E6 the blend could be created by using all 3 of the varietals or less than 85% of Syrah and either of the other 2 varietals. So by blending those 3 wines we have now gone from 3 varietal wines in 3 classes to over 7 wines in 4 classes and as an added bonus you get to see first hand how blending influences the overall taste of wines.

Blended wines should be left to sit for at least 30 days prior to entering them in a competition to remove any effect of bottle shock.
You will find that not all blends work, but on the flip side you will find just how much better the blends can be. Never experiment and blend in a 5 gallon carboy. Always do it in glasses and then replicate the blend in quantity after you have decided on a suitable blend. The quantity of the blend you produce could be a single bottle up to a whole barrel. Do not be afraid to experiment with different percentage of blends that fall within the class description guidelines. These guidelines are loosely based on commercial blending techniques so they generally produce safe or good tasting blends. That said, some of the “outside of the box” blends are also quite good. Keep notes on what you do for blends and how they taste. You can refer back to these notes for winemaking at a later date.

I made a 100% Syrah a few years back and after fermentation and barrel aging I found it a bit on the heavy side which was fine for some meals but overall I just found it a bit heavy. So, before bottling I decided to try some blending on 5 gallons out of the 25 gallons that I made. At that time I had some white Viognier in the cellar and I know that some Rhone wine producers would add in small amounts of white viognier. I initially setup 4 glasses. One glass was the 100% baseline Syrah, the second had 95% syrah and 5% viognier, the 3rd had 90% syrah and 10% viognier and the 4th had 85% syrah and 15% viognier. Both myself and Mary tasted the blends, (you always want a second opinion when doing blend), and we both found that the 5% was better than the baseline and the 10% viognier blend was a bit too much, and the 15% blend was way too much. So, back to the drawing board we went with a new set of blends between 5% and 10% viognier. We settled on a 7% viognier blend and were quite surprized at how much difference just 2% made in the final taste. We have entered both the 100% Syrah and the 93% Syrah/7% Viognier blend into competitions and the blend always beat the 100% Syrah. The blend has won Gold, best of class, and best wine overall in a National competition and the 100% Syrah typically gets a Silver medal.

6) Judging results
When you enter wines in a competition you will get comments back from the judges so you can see how your blends stack up to the single varietals. That said you are the one that needs to drink your wines and in this case it is really your palate that matters most in the blends that you craft.

7) Summary
In summary, I hope that this talk has motivated some of you to get down to your wine cellars and start experimenting with some blends. Go to the Saanich Sommeliers website, down load the latest BCAWA Class descriptions and get some blends together for our upcoming competition in January. Remember that you want those blends bottled at least 30 days prior to the competition.

8) Further information
The BCAWA descriptions for wine classifications  are available HERE.

Contributed by Rick Homer

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