Although no longer actively judging wine at wine competitions, I received a request from the Western Hills Wine Society to talk about wine judging. There’s a lot of mystery and awe about wine judging, and I know that wine show results have a strong influence on the buying habits of interested and enthusiastic wine consumers. I’ve tried to demystify this over the last 25 years by describing the processes involved. I make no secret of the fact that I consider wine judging competitions extremely useful and beneficial for both the wine industry and the wine consumer. However, understanding what goes on is important in being able to have the results mean something, especially to the consumer. It also helps the wine producer who enters the wines into judging scenarios realise how the results come about, and thus place due credence on them.
Wine Show Usefulness
There is a host of wine competitions nowadays, and within New Zealand, the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, considered the ‘National Wine Show’ remains the most important. However, judgings as the Royal Easter Wine Show and Romeo Bragato Wine Awards are also important due to their timing or focus. The largest judging is the N.Z. International Wine Show which like the Spiegelau I.W.C. includes imported wines. There’s also the smaller, regional or specific-style shows which serve a significant role, as well as the supermarket commercially sponsored New World Wine Awards and magazine tastings by the likes of ‘Cuisine’. But that’s not all, we haven’t even mentioned the overseas competitions! They serve to give consumers results which can help them in their buying decisions, but their multitude makes the results, which are not always consistent, rather confusing.
In an overall perspective, the results of judgings and tastings provide a strong degree of logistical efficiency. In the major shows, a very large number of wines are assessed at once, and that gives an opinion on many wines that can be released at one time. Most consumers realise that the show system is not comprehensive, as many wine producers, some of them regarded as among the best in the country, don’t enter. Also the reliability of results between different judgings is not as strong as many consumers would desire. The reality is that a wine’s track record over many shows is probably the best indicator of how god the wine is. The judges are human after all, and there is an element of subjectivity that plays a part in the result. The saying is that “its that bottle, judged by those people, at that time”. However the key factors in these shows is that wines are judged ‘blind’ and in their peer groups. That removes the bias of the label, thus enabling judges to recognise good wines from unknown labels as well as honestly apprising lesser wines from high profile producers. And this is done with the relativity to similar other wines, the value of comparison playing a vital role.
The Wine Judging Process
The judging process is a fascinating one where psychology and statistics must be understood. Judging is by panel consensus, and wine judges’ experiences, personalities and expressiveness, as well as authority and standing have a part to play on the results. Interactions of the judges within the panel yield the final results and the laws of averaging and how they are accounted for are important in the procedures employed. The blend of winemaker (technical) and consumer approaches is generally taken, and all of the judges must evaluate on the same scale of relativity. The 20-point scoring scale used to be the norm, but the 100-point scale is becoming increasingly popular.The physiology of tasting is also taken into account, and there are many measures taken to negate the judging of many wines in one session. Judges must work quickly, efficiently and holistically, as well as being aware of detail.
I have some personal views on the ever-changing scene at wine shows, having been interested and involved for over three decades. I must state that my respect for the work of judges continues to grow, and there are so many talented, experienced and articulate, thinking people involved, more so than ever before. It is noticeable that the quality goalposts are always being raised, which is positive for the industry and the consumer. Perceptions of quality are continually changing, and I point out the thiol or pungent passionfruit characters in Sauvignon Blanc, and the complex reductive sulphides in Chardonnays, as examples how perceptions and acceptance of them have moved. Winemaking issues, such as brettanomyces, have been identified and become recognised for what they are, and there’s no going back!
At present, there is a real focus on balance being a requisite for top quality. This, per se, is proper. But it may come at the expense of rewarding the quality aspect of potential. While balance, which provides accessibility, is an essential part of quality, this element can be at odds with the precursors of longevity, where wines improve and develop greater interest. Wines of potential can be harder to drink. Whites with higher acid feel and low pH, and reds with firm tannins, and wines with strong oaking, have these indicators of potential. As these wines are not properly in balance, they often don’t get to the top levels of awards. I’m sure this is why ‘second tier’ labels often win better awards than the higher aspiration ‘Reserve’ styled wines. Surely this is market-driven judging?
Tasting with the Western Hills Wine Society
The tasting I organised for the members of the Western Hills Wine Society was to look at four pairs of wines, each pairing from the same producer and same vintage, but one wine at a higher aspiration level than the other. Tasters were served these pairs ‘blind’ and they were to ‘judge’ which was the ‘better’ wine, and to deduce which wine was which in terms of aspiration – this latter descriptor another word for ‘quality’ or even ‘price’. This is in effect, trying to recognise what the wine producer is trying to do in making better wine.
Generally, most of the tasters could pick the ‘better’ wine, but they appreciated why they preferred one over the other, even though they may have liked what may have been the ‘cheaper’ wine. The positive finding is that interested consumers seem to be able recognise the wine producers approach to what constitutes quality, but also that as consumers, they backed and pleased their own palates, especially when pricing was taken into account. There is the scary interpretation that drinkers don’t really care what winemakers do….
I was asked to describe how I found the wines and tell how I rated them, from my viewpoint as I would, judging them. Here are my impressions of the wines in the order served:
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Saint Clair ‘Wairau Reserve’: Paler colour. Softer, harmonious, very integrated, strong thiol passionfruit aromas, great breadth and depth with layers of interest. Full and weighty on palate, waves of flavour, pasionfruity, very fine textures and ripe acidity, smooth flowing and mouthfilling. A statement wine. 18.5+/20
Saint Clair ‘Premium’: A little more colour development. Cooler spectrum gooseberry aromas, still fresh. Crisp, refreshing and zingy palate. Gooseberries, nettles with less thiols. A little bottle age bean notes. The acidity more a feature and with good length and linearity. Classical Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. 18.0-/20
Gisborne Chardonnay 2012
Spade Oak ‘Voysey’: Brilliant yellow colour, dark for 2012. Full, rich nose with a broad amalgam of ripe, savoury citrus and stonefruits, tropical fruits, MLF butter, oak, delivers everything but overworked? Soft, rich luscious, with mouthfilling flavours, open and accessible, MLF showing. Slightly funky, drinking now. Cleverly made and complex. 17.5+/20
Spade Oak ‘Vigneron’: Pale colour, youthful, Very refined, intense and tightly bound. White stonefruits, nutty, and flinty interest with spicy oak showng. Very concentrated citrus and stonefruit, crisp and intense, and real power, line and drive. Excellent acidity, and not over the top. Lovely oaking. Will develop well. 19.0-/20
Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011
Saddleback: Dark-hearted, vibrant ruby with purple hues. Fresh, upfront and vibrant fruitiness, dark red berry fruits, plums, a little whole berry fruit lift. Bright, juicy and sweet-fruited, more fruit-focussed with moderate tannin grip and crisp acidity for freshness. Some herb notes appear, and a little savoury secondary hint. 18.0+/20
Peregrine: Even ruby-red, purple hints. Soft, even, voluminous nose, very harmonious componentry with subtle savoury detail, whole cluster? Rich and layered palate, with plenty of tannin and texture in support. Drier, with complex undergrowth and substance. More complete. 18.5-/20
Hawke’s Bay Merlot-Based 2011
Craggy Range ‘Te Kahu’: Dark, deep, purple hued red, youthful. Very fine dark florals and dark berry fruits, plums and currants, some aromatic lift and finesse, good oaking. Blackcurrant and plums, a touch coolish, but bright, sweet and lively. Tightly concentrated and with very fine grained tannins, good cut, freshness and length. 18.5/20
Wild Rock ‘Gravel Pit Red’: Very full colour even, a little purple, not as bright. Full, broad and good volume, black berry fruits, earth and boysenberry mix. Fruit focussed nose. Full, soft, plush, the fruit a little dulled? Soft acid and mellow tannin line with a core. Good integration, some spice notes – Malbec showing. Drinking well. 18.0/20
The Western Hills Wine Society
The Western Hills Wine Society is one of the senior suburban wine clubs in Wellington, having celebrated their 30th anniversary recently. The club meets at the Maungaraki Community Centre on the first Wednesday of every month from February to December, with an annual wine option game conducted in November and a barbecue for December. A wine cellar is held, with around 100 bottles on the books at present. The club at present has a membership of around 24, and is welcoming new members.
The annual membership fee is $40.00 per person, and the attendance fee each meeting is $10.00 per person. Michael Kuus is the current president, and to join or for more information, contact him on Tel: 04 569-2273 (after hours), or on email: [email protected]