There are people that I meet that think being a wine judge is the best job in the world, the ones that automatically ask “how do I get that job?” Some out there think that tasting your way through a hundred or more wines in a day is some kind of booze induced hazy heaven, but those people need to be put straight, as my dentist, GP and long suffering family will attest, it isn’t all a bed of roses, or rosés as the case may be.
I recently judged at the Cairns Wine Show Awards, a competition that I love judging at, partly because I get to go home every night and not back to a hotel or sitting in a bar with the rest of the judges slowly pickling myself on gin and tonic. Mostly it’s because it’s a competition where the wines are tried in the tropics, not in some room in Melbourne where the weather is cooler and the humidity lower, both of which have a huge bearing on how a wine will taste. There’s been many times where I’ve read a review of a wine, written after a tasting in cooler climes, grabbed a few bottles and thought “strewth, there’s $25 I’m not getting back”. Wines are judged blind, poured from bottles that are brown bagged so that even the pouring stewards are not aware of who makes which wine, judging the wines in our climate, judging on quality and style, and finding some that are perfect for tropical drinking with the styles of food we eat up here is the overriding desire. Then, on Saturday, the doors are thrown open for the public tasting where we get to see the labels for the first time, it’s a great opportunity to try a wine label that you recognise but have never tried, along with all the medal winning wines.
The judging group is divided into four panels, alternating daily or possibly over the course of the day depending on the amount of wines to judge or if judges have a special strength in certain wines. Each panel is headed by a panel chair, most recently those chairs were Hamish Seabrook, Andrew Santarossa, Tony Hooper and Andrew Spinaze, all very talented wine makers.
Those chairs are then over seen by the Chair of Show, Andrew Corrigan, a Master of Wine (MW), who passed the rigorous exams of the London based Institute of Masters of Wine in 1997. Andrew is one of twenty four Masters of Wine in Australia, of which there are only about 350 in the world.
So what actually happens at a judging? Well firstly we are assembled by whatever group of overworked volunteers the Show has managed to talk into giving up their time. The judging panels have evolved over the years, once upon a time the panel would have been purely winemakers and only the male toilets would have needed unlocking, but a contemporary judging panel is now a lot more diverse in both gender and trade. Panels are now compromised of sommeliers, wine writers, winemakers, wine resellers and marketers or those involved in the business development of wineries, there’s also associate judges who are taking their first steps into the wine show judging arena, and are guided a bit in what to look for in both the good and bad wines, their opinions and comments are noted but their scores aren’t, unless it’s a gold medal score where the panel may want to go back and look at the wine.
It’s a fine balancing act though to get the panel right, too many sommeliers and you see the obscure varieties taking too many trophies, too many winemakers and they start to discuss the technical aspect of the wines, too many wine writers and nothing would happen as we are too pickled on gin and tonics.
The judges work their way through the entire class of wines and then head back to join the rest of the panel to tally their scores, the highest pointed wines are called back for a second review, with trophies in mind. In the second review wines lose their bottle numbers and come back in a random order alphabetised, this avoids any judge looking back at their prior scores, pushing the wine they liked previously, forcing them to judge afresh. The Chair of Show is called to review the final decision, agreeing or disagreeing with the medals. That system will continue over a period of days till all the wines are judged, and then restarts as the panels come together to judge the top white, top red and champion wine of show. All in all the recent Cairns show had over 900 wines to judge, with some seriously good drops found in there, which again makes that public tasting day so worthwhile.
For those that still think it would be great to swap jobs, it’s worth pointing out that no-one gets paid to be a judge. We do it because we love to further our own professional development in an industry that we love, learning from others as we go.
And for the morning tea, especially when they get that scone to cream ratio spot on…
Some of the winners, best found online or at independent bottleshops.
McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon 2014 – taking out four awards at Cairns, a couple of years in the bottle has given this exceptional value wine a bit of extra depth. It has some smoky notes to it, gentle herbs and buckets of juicy lime cordial and preserved lemon. Light chalky textural feel but a long finish. RRP $20
McGuigan Shortlist Chardonnay 2016 – the Shortlist Chardy is always a winner for McGuigan, taking a heap of awards over the years, both here and internationally. Strong oak on the nose but its subtle on the palate, great peach and fig notes balanced well by the fruit acid. RRP $25
Paddy Borthwick Pinot Noir 2015 – a kiwi pinot that will be just as good in our warmer winters as it will be in summer. Dark cherries, cloves and wild brambly/herby notes, the faintest touch of cedar, all helped along by the soft oak work and fine tannin structure. About $30
Patrick of Coonawarra Jessie Botrytis Riesling 2010 – if you don’t enjoy aged Rieslings you will not like this, the aromas and palate is framed by those intense aged notes. The fruit is luscious and sweet, with complex notes of apricot jam and orange marmalade, long honeyed and stone fruit finish. About $40.