On Saturday morning, with my back cooking from the unusually warm November sunshine, I sat in a nondescript room in a conference hall with nine others waiting for the first pour. In front of me rest ten small empty wine glasses in an convex arc laid upside down upon white linen; one at a time during the next several hours (with replacements at the ready) wine was poured, slurped, sipped, tasted, evaluated and scored.
We slogged through the fruit wines, one at a time, and some were very good. Others were not so good. With each evaluation, I carefully tasted and made comments to the winemaker in hopes of providing a fair assessment of their wine – hopefully something one could use to improve a bit (at least that was my intent).
The group sitting opposite of ours was responsible for judging the wine (grape wine) and mead, while ours critically scored three dozen fruit (or country) wines. Tastings began with light and dry and eventually ascended or descended into a syrupy mêlée of 10% residual sugary wines.
For some wine judges inexperienced in judging fruit wines this can be a turn-off, chore or simply beneath them. In fact, I noticed at least two judges scurry away from my table once learning it was the fruit wine table. Of course who could blame them with the reputation of fruit wine as an overly sweetened nasty concoction crafted from grandma’s dandelions, elderberries, and God-knows what else? What are Elderberries, anyhow?
Common problems: 1) Sediment in bottle, haze or cloudy plumes in bottle, 2) evidence of oxygen ingress (e.g., browning and orange-hued wines; acetaldehyde (sherry aroma); and way too much headspace between cork and wine) – probably the single most problematic issue and one so easy to remedy, 3) lack of fruit flavors.
Ultimately our group faced-off against the wine group to pick the best of the best. Theirs was a California wine-kit red wine, and mead, and ours an Elderberry wine. We tasted their wines and they tasted ours and we were all convinced “our” picks were best!
And in that warm, sunny room, on an unusually warm November day, we decided that we had already picked the best of the best – And the truth is that one cannot compare an Elderberry wine to a bold California wine, not to mention the Mead!
Brad Johnson is a contributing writer for Make Mine Wine Magazine, an artisan winemaker, and proud member of the Eastern Iowa Wine Club. He Tweets as "Iowine".