Last July, wine experts from across the country gathered in Columbia, Missouri, to judge the 2016 Missouri Wine Competition. Nine judges blind-tasted 308 Missouri wines from all parts of the state to find the best wines in several categories.

Twenty-three wineries walked away with gold medals, with 99 silver and 114 bronze medals also awarded. But only seven received top honors with Best of Class awards in seven different categories, as well as the prestigious Governor’s Cup and C.V. Riley awards.

We’re diving into each category to learn the stories behind these award-winning vintages and the winemakers who brought them to life. –Hilary Hedges

But first, let’s get to know our local varietals...

Missouri wines are made mostly of French-American hybrids – crosses between European Vitis vinifera grapevines and native American grapevines. Outside of the East Coast and the Midwest, grapes such as Chardonel and Traminette are rarely used for wine production, and therefore don’t have the same name recognition as popular Vitis vinifera varieties such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Midwest, such hybrid grapes are being made into quality wines thanks to dedicated winemakers, so it’s time to get to know these grapes. –Natalie Gallagher

Judges' Perspective

On the surface, being a judge at a wine competition sounds like one of the best gigs you could find: Who wouldn’t want to drink through a few dozen of the best vintages in their region and then set about ranking them?

If that were all that went into a wine competition, there would be far less prestige attached to the resulting awards. Over the course of two days, the nine judges for the Missouri Wine Competition will do a blind tasting of more than 300 wines, which are grouped into flights – usually around 10 different wines – based on the grape. (The judges assign each of these a value: gold, silver, bronze or no award. The “gold” wines are pulled immediately – the judges will taste through these again, plucking the Best of Class from the bunch. From that group, they’ll select a single wine to win the Governor’s Cup. A single Norton wine is also selected from the Best of Class group to win the C.V. Riley award, named for the first-ever state-appointed etymologist and one of the forefathers of Missouri wine.

Choosing the best wines is no simple matter of selecting favorites. Each wine is broken down first by its own merits – color, aroma, bouquet, taste, aftertaste and overall quality – and judges additionally look for texture, acidity, tannins and other phenolic content. If it sounds like a lot to take into account, it is.

“You’re looking for a lot of different compounds – herbal and savory and vegetal and spice – and then texture, which tells you things about pH level and acidity,” says Doug Frost, master sommelier and master of wine – and perennial Missouri Wine Competition judge. “At the end of the day, you’re asking yourself: ‘Is this wine balanced and tasty, or is it out of balance and weird?’ Every grape is different and every wine is different, so you look for technical flaws first, and then it becomes an issue of style and how well that particular style is executed.”

A Chambourcin, for example, can be made in a less overt style – with delicacy and subtlety – or it can be made in a “tutti-frutti” style, Frost says. Either of those can be impressive if it’s a superlative expression of that particular style – it’s not that one style is inherently better than the other.

The differences are what make the discussion around the wines so interesting, as each judge has his or her own personal preference – and when it comes to deciding the Best in Class, the Governor’s Cup and C.V. Riley awards, says Frost, that’s when the conversation can get heated.

“Insults start flying quickly when you start choosing the overall best,” Frost laughs. “It’s a very personal part of the day, because you have your reasons for saying the one you prefer is the best one, and so does everyone else.”

Ultimately, the judging experience is most rewarding because of the opportunity to recognize the state’s best and brightest – and there happens to be quite a large pool. “I would put Missouri wines up against anything in the Midwest,” Frost says. –Natalie Gallagher

Editor’s Note: Feast publisher Catherine Neville has served as a judge at the Missouri Wine Competition for the past three years.

Competition Experience

The Missouri Wine and Grape Board hosts a number of large-scale events throughout the year, but arguably one of the most important is the Missouri Wine Competition. The rules of the competition and entry forms are sent out to the 130-something wineries in the state, and then the submissions must be sorted: all the paperwork put in order, all the wines cataloged and organized into flights for the judges. The name of the wine and the vineyard it comes from are erased the moment this happens, and the wine remains anonymous – save for its numerical designation, such as “Flight Three, Wine Seven” – until the competition is complete.

The judges begin their work bright and early at 9am on a Tuesday in July, but the work begins even earlier for the competition’s staff and volunteers. On average, there are 20 to 25 volunteers each year from all walks of life – and each has in common a love of wine. The group arrives on Monday, helping the Missouri Wine and Grape Board staff transport all the wine featured in the competition, getting it unloaded off the truck and sorted either onto tables or into coolers.

One of the most arduous tasks for competition staff and volunteers lies in the glassware, which must be cleaned throughout the event. There’s a glass-polishing team, a serving team and a cleaning team – although volunteers are able to rotate through the teams so everyone has an opportunity to see all aspects of the competition. All of the glassware is Riedel, and wineglasses are uniform for every wine. (Although the company does produce Norton and Vignoles wineglasses, they aren’t used at the competition.)

For the volunteers, the most exhilarating part of the competition is listening to the judges give their thoughts on the wines – and getting to try some of it themselves, which usually happens on Wednesday, after the competition has closed and several dozen open bottles remain, beckoning. There are never so many Missouri wines gathered in one room together, and the opportunity to taste some of the best the state has to offer, all at once, is rare, indeed.

“There are rows of tables, and they’re filled with wine after wine, all lined up, all produced locally,” says Christa Holtzclaw, marketing specialist for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. “It’s quite a sight to see – and to think about how much time and effort goes into every vintage, every bottle. There are a lot of stories and experiences in that one room.”

The Missouri Wine Competition allows locally made wines to be judged on their own and in their own class. Comparing a Missouri Chardonel with a California Chardonnay, for example, is rather unproductive; each wine has a different chemical makeup and is cultivated in a different type of climate and soil and produced in different styles. The Missouri Wine Competition allows local winemakers to test their work and products fairly – something that can only encourage more growth in the industry.

“It’s very nice for Missouri wines to have a competition of their own,” Holtzclaw says. “Missouri wineries, for the most part, don’t grow Vitis vinifera, so it’s great to have a competition that allows them to gauge how they’re doing on their own terms, among their peers. Our judges are trained sommeliers and industry experts, and every year, there are more awards.

“I think winemakers in Missouri face a lot of challenges, but they try new things and push the envelope. And that’s another reason why having this wine competition is so valuable – you’ve got the opportunity to see some truly amazing work pay off.” –Natalie Gallagher

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