Tuesday 24 September 2013

Fake judges exposed at NSW Wine Show. Blogger confesses.

Just some of the many wines arrayed for judging at the Citibank NSW Wine Awards
Today I penetrated the hallowed realms of the wine judge, masquerading for a moment, as an arbiter of life or death in the wine industry. Fortunately for the industry, I was discovered before I could do any damage, but not before I learned a few secrets of the trade.

At the forthcoming Citibank New South Wales Wine Awards, varieties from all 14 wine regions of NSW are represented. In 2012, 676 wines were entered and 311 medals awarded including 36 Gold, 75 Silver and 200 Bronze. This year I’m told, there are more exhibitors, but less wines. Either way, it’s a good sign for NSW wine.

My lesson in wine judging came at the hands of NSW Wine president, Tom Ward, and promotional head, Alex Retlief. We (yes, I was aided and abetted in this deception) were presented with a selection of six Semillon and six Shiraz bottles which we judged according to standard rules.

Now, you might say, ‘down the hatch’ is as good a test as any, but in this auspicious company, I had to make some effort at decorum. Next to me was Paul Gardner, the new sommelier at the revamped Park Hyatt Sydney, so I was getting plenty of sideways glances.

Fake: This man is an imposter
I bumbled through the six Semillons first, with scores wildly off target. I’m not a seasoned Semillon drinker, so I was a bit (okay, a lot) out of my depth.

With the Shiraz, however, I was much closer to the mark. I can trace my family line back to the first Barossa settlers, so I should have some inkling at this varietal.

For those who’ve never judged in formal sense, there are three things to take into account: 1) colour, 2) nose, and 3) palate. In other words, sight, smell and taste. Each is weighted 3, 7 and 10 for a total of 20 possible points. 18.5 will get you a gold, 17 a silver and 15.5 will scrape in for a bronze.

Interestingly, I found my scores much closer to Alex’s, while Tom’s varied wildly. In one case, a wine (unnamed, sorry) received 17.5 from Alex and I, while took a flogging from Tom at 13. Forget about me for a minute, how can two experienced palates come to such a variance*. Chairman of judges, and doyen of the wine industry, Huon Hooke, explains.

“Judging is actually a democratic process as there is no perfect way to assess a wine,” says Hooke who has been judging since 1987, “we quite often arrive at a situation where one person’s gold is another’s spitbucket. That’s when we bring more judges in and retaste. You can’t be a stubborn egotist, one judge has to back down, and those that can compromise and accept a majority viewpoint are the ones who get asked back.”

Tom (L) and Alex (R) joust with lush NSW Semillon in the judging room,
while Huon Hooke adjudicates. Who will back down?
I feel much better. The chairman of judges has reinforced the common person’s view (ie mine) that you either like a wine, or you don’t. There is no right or wrong. It’s common, I’m told, for oft-scorned supermarket labels to rate surprisingly highly against icon wines in blind testing. Especially by consumers, who are the ones, let’s remember, who fund the wine industry.

So, dear readers, do not feel put out if you disagree with your dinner guests about any particular wine, because I have it on good authority now, that even the best can have seriously split opinions.

For the sake of interest only, here is my judging of the Shiraz offered.

Five of our six top NSW shiraz as judged by an amateur and imposter

From left to right:
1. Lowe Block 8 2011 (Mudgee) 16; 2. Tulloch Pokolbin 2011 17.5; 3. Collector 2011 Reserve 14;

4. (bottle not shown*) 17.5; 5. Moppity 2012 Hilltops 15; 6. Carillon Feldspar 2010 18.5;

The awards are divided into 16 categories: Best Young Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Other single varietals, White Blends, Best Young Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Other single red varietals, and Red blends as well as the Mature Dry Red and Dry White trophies, Sparkling and Sweet wines. The New South Wales Wine of the Year is chosen from one of these categories. There is also an award for the Best Organic Wine of Show.

You can be a fake judge too. Or for real, if you like. Taste the top NSW wines for yourself.

* the wine in question actually contained fault. Brettanomyces (or just Brett ) is a wild or 'feral' yeast compound that can alter the bouquet and palate of a wine. In small quantities it can be favourable, but when it overcomes the natural flavours it can be overwhelming with a so-called 'barnyard' 'hospital' or 'band-aid' aroma.

- Roderick Eime www.traveloscopy.com


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