The International Wine Challenge comes to India

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“I hope that with the help of publications like Sommelier India and hotels like the Hyatt, the India Wine challenge will become a widely used reference source for Indian professionals and consumers” says Robert Joseph in a wide ranging Sommelier India interview discussing the first India Wine Challenge. Read the interview to also learn about his disappointment with the small number of Indian entries and the hope that more participate in the years to come.
The winners of the India Wine Challenge will be announced during IFE India 2007 which is being held a at Pragati Maidan Exhibition Grounds in the heart of New Delhi from 06 – 08 December 2007.


1. Tell us a little bit about your history with wine challenges. Why did you start the International Wine Challenge?
Way back in 1984, wine drinking was well established at a certain level of UK society but most ordinary consumers still found wine a complicated and frightening subject. If they drank it at all, the wine they’d have drunk would have been basic red from France, Italy or Spain, or semi-sweet white from Germany. Wine had arrived in supermarkets but the quality was very varied. As editor of the then newly launched Wine Magazine, I wanted to look at wine in a way that made it accessible – and that focused on quality and value rather than historic prestige and modern marketing.
That was the background to the first Challenge. But that event was actually a small tasting to see how English wines performed against examples from other countries. Calling that little 50-wine competition the International Wine Challenge was a bit over the top, I admit, but the range of wines and tasters was international and we gained enough publicity for the event to become annual and to grow to its current size of 9,000 wines, making it the biggest event of its kind in the world.
2. The India Wine Challenge. Where did the idea come from? What interests you in India?
Since 1997, I have been taking a particular interest in what one might call the “emerging” wine markets. I’ve run Wine Challenges in China, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Russia… In all of these places I have found a hunger for a truly independent system to assess the quality of wines that are already in the market, and of wines that want to find a place there. The question is not so much why India now? As why not earlier?
3. Do you think the Indian market is ready for a wine challenge? Some people fear that a wine competition may hurt rather than encourage our nascent wine industry.
The idea that a wine competition might hurt the nascent industry interests and surprises me. Let’s shift the question to other areas of Indian life. I’m not aware of Indian pharmaceutical or software companies wanting to grow up in isolation. And I find it hard to imagine Indian sportsmen ducking the opportunity to compete on an international stage. Competition is, by definition, healthy. When South Africa was cut off from the world during the apartheid era, its wine industry – and its athletics training – stagnated. When the barriers came down, the South Africans were surprised to see how badly their wines did in international competitions and how badly their athletes did in the Olympics.
Two Indian wineries are already selling their wines overseas. To achieve this, they have had to convince overseas buyers that they are of an international standard. Other Indian wineries who don’t want to compete against those global-standard producers are simply slowing their own development. Bear in mind that increasingly sophisticated Indian wine drinkers run their own mini Wine Challenges every time they choose a bottle. Are they going to buy one from overseas or from India? Indian restaurants are increasingly full of good imports.
There is an impression – gained from France, I suspect – that it takes decades, if not generations for a winery to get to the point of making good wine. A brief look at Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Americas (where wine competitions flourish, incidentally) reveals how many well-planned, well-financed wineries manage to get it right with their very first or second vintage.
My own experience of Indian wine suggests that most producers – including ones with expensive equipment and overseas consultants – are underperforming very significantly. The best way to prove me wrong is for those wineries to enter a blind competition against each other.
It is indicative that China’s “nascent” industry has welcomed the chance to take part in this kind of competition. And that Chinese wines are already beginning to appear in the US and UK markets
4. How many wine makers are participating in the wine challenge? How many wines have been submitted? Of these, what percentage are Indian wines?
We are still finalising entries, but I think we will have over 350 wines – a very satisfying number, but with what so far seems to be a disappointingly small number of Indian entries…
5. In your view, what is the prime reason why Indian producers hesitate to participate in the India Wine Challenge? Is it because there aren’t enough Indian judges or do they not trust the process?
We have increased the number of Indian judges for the Delhi tasting, in case this is an issue. Indian wine producers are evidently not used to taking part in competitions. It is up to us to give them the confidence to do so – and the understanding that even if you fail to win in this kind of event, especially when you fail to win – the experience should be a valuable one for your business. I’ve been running wine competitions for 25 years and place huge importance on the trust they and I have earned and maintain across the globe.
6. What is the actual format for the blind tastings? Is it being done by region or vintage? How many rounds are there?
The wines are tasted by style (usually grape variety) and region, allowing tasters to know the vintage. So, the Indian Chenin Blancs, for example, are tasted against Indian Chenin Blancs. Subsequently, there is a second round in which the top wines in each style are tasted against each other on an international basis to select the trophy winners… Thus an Indian wine could win a trophy as the best wine from India and, if it beat wines from other countries, an overall trophy. This is in effect, what Grover achieved with its success in the international blind tasting for Decanter magazine.
7. What makes the Indian section of the event different than the London tastings? Why have both? Who are the judges in India?
Ideally we would not hold this competition in both London and India. We decided to do so because of the ludicrous import duty rates that would have been levied on the wines that are not currently on offer in India if we had held all the tastings in Delhi. If anyone can come up with a solution, I’d jump at the chance to hold all of the tastings in India.
The two tastings will be held along the same lines with the same three Indian judges, Rolnnie Lobo, Subhash Arora and Ahbay Kewadkar all taking part in both, along with myself as chairman.
8. How do you see the Wine Challenge benefiting producers, importers and consumers? Will consumers pay attention to this?
I hope that with the help of publications like Sommelier India and hotels like the Hyatt, the India Wine challenge will become a widely used reference source for Indian professionals and consumers when they come to choose wine. In other markets, the presence of stickers on bottles has made a real difference to the popularity of the winning wines and I would be disappointed and surprised if this were not also the case in India.
For more coverage of the India Wine Challenge please read the following:
The India Wine Challenge. Are you participating?
The India Wine Challenge: Supplying the wine
Sommelier India was asked to participate in the panel for the judging of the competition but unfortunately we were unable to due to prior commitments. However, Sommelier India is a media partner of the IFE-India Show who are organizing the India Wine Challenge and we wish it every success.

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