Despite the countless half- finished bottles of wine that lined the walls, the atmosphere in the plush function room of Tokyo’s Sheraton Hotel was decidedly tense rather than tipsy. Japanese and Westerners were sitting around tables deep in concentration, thoughtfully holding a glass up to the light before swilling the liquid around their mouths. Half an hour later and the frowns give way to smiles as winners were finally agreed upon: Welcome to the 11th Japan Wine Challenge (JWC).
For three days in early July, tasters made their way through a whopping 100 to 110 wines a day to find the best of the 1,650 entries. Once the tension had eased, it was nice to see the camaraderie that had built up between the foreign and native judges over the course of the competition, as they wandered a little unsteadily over — even if you spit, the body still absorbs some alcohol — to have their group photo taken.
“The real benefit is for the consumer,” said Terry Copeland, executive director of the JWC. “Using the results helps them to get an objective view of what are the better wines available in the market.”
Indeed, if you are a bargain hunter at heart, then take note of who won the category of Best Value Wine. This year’s winner, Porta Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2007, goes for the remarkable price of around ¥650, so it’s a good idea to grab some bottles before stocks sell out.
The wine challenge has a huge impact on sales in Japan.
“A champagne trophy winner a couple of years ago sold their 12-month allocation for the Japanese market in seven weeks,” said Copeland.
It’s also a good arena for wines that have not yet found an importer to break into the Japanese market. “Last year we had a champagne called Rolle Collet, they won trophy for top champagne, and now they have an importer as a result.”
Copeland outlined the history of the challenge for me: “The chairman of the International Wine Challenge London was giving a presentation to a group in France with Ron Brown, who runs the JWC now. They met and talked about joining forces and doing a wine challenge in Japan. That partnership broke up in 2001, and Ron Brown took the whole thing over. Steven Spurrier came on board at that point as chairman, and we’ve gone from strength to strength since then.”
Having Steven Spurrier on board was a major coup. Spurrier is well known in wine circles for having organized the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976 [see side bar] and is renowned worldwide for his unbiased palate. I asked Spurrier about which countries’ wines the Japanese market favors.
“I think Australia is slipping a bit in Japan, and Chile is coming up fast,” he said. “France is still dominant, Italy is second, and California really hasn’t made an impact.”
Despite having celebrated judges from foreign countries, part of JWC’s raison d’etre is to foster expertise among Japanese judges.
“This year we had 10 international judges and 25 Japanese judges,” said Copeland. “We started out with 50 percent foreign judges and 50 percent Japanese, and we’ve been training Japanese judges over the past 11 years in association with the masters of wine in London, so the standard of judging has increased manifold. Now, quite rightly, they are the majority voice on the table.”
One of those judges, Yuka Kodo, is a sommelier for the Kojyu restaurant in Ginza. “When I joined this competition the first time, I couldn’t speak English at all,” said Kodo. “I was so scared of these wonderful judges from Western countries. Three years ago, Lyn Sherriff (co-chairman of JWC) suggested that I study English and wine in England, so I stayed there a year and a half and joined seminars and wine tastings organized by her and the vice chairman, John Avery.”
Kudo’s English and tasting skills improved, and she’s really enthusiastic about the effect the JWC has had on the Japanese wine world.
“Thanks to the JWC, many Japanese judges are getting better tasting skills, and their language skills are improving.”