Today I had the rare opportunity to experience a few hours in the shoes of a wine show judge, including lunch and a tutored tasting featuring two classes from this years Sydney Royal Wine Show, all hosted by wine show old salt Nick Bulleid MW.
Whilst it’s not the first time I’ve done one of these quasi wine show exercises, this was the first time when an actual wine show was in progress (in the next room).
The day itself really started off on a high note in the kitchen. Who would know that show judges – at the Sydney Royal Wine Show at least – eat very well, gourmet very well, almost as if the organisers (the NSW agricultural society) are making up for the fact that none of the judges (or stewards for that matter) are paid for their 4 days of service. Today’s menu (which was considered typical) included duck pancakes with hoi sin, grilled calamari salad & a whole platter full of mini cakes, featuring some most excellent tiny chocolate eclairs.
To complement this cold spread was the essential ingredient for any wine event of note – lots of cheese. Cheese is the lubricant that oils the wine industry, with the calbire of an event often commensurate with the calibre of the cheeses on offer. The cheeses today easily passed muster.
Suprisingly, wine flows at lunch time too, with a range of gold medal winning wines from previous Sydney shows adorning each table. It may or may not surprise to know that most bottles get drained too, even those on the tables of the ‘working’ judges. I quite liked seeing that actually, almost as if the judges were drinking previous gold medal winners in an attempt to keep their eye in.
As for the wine show environment, it is much busier – and whiter – than I expected. Literally everybody wears white coats, everybody, and given the sheer volume of people floating around (30 judges, 50+ stewards and staff) it has a hospital like feel to it, almost as if someone should be pushing around trauma victims strapped to IV’s. The other unexpected element is how sterile it is, which is obviously to minimise distractions, but also perhaps brings out a more critical side in everybody. You can’t help but pick up wine faults in a room where the only other distraction is some other (silent) white clad judge and rows of unnamed wine samples.
For anyone unitiated to the way that the whole judging process works, the procedure goes something like this: A panel (there are 5 judging panels) of three judges and three associate judges assesses each entry and gives it a score out of 20. Only the actual judges scores count, with the final score for each wine then a score out of 60, with medals then distributed according to the theoretical average score – eg 54 points is an average of 18 points so the wine gets a silver. (More information about the judging format here)
What is the most fun part of this supposedly score driven process is that, unlike most foreign wine shows, the judging is as much about discussion as it is about points. Each judge scores the wine in silence, but at the end of each bracket the panel chairman asks the other two judges and the associates to call out their scores. What ensues then is gentle arguments, discussion, heated debate and plenty of friendly banter to decide what the wine will actually score, with judges often asked to justify high marks or to raise low ones if their is disagreement.
The theory is that with three independant judges hopefully some sort of final score can be agreed upon, with the judges thus encouraged to debate the merits of each wine to the fullest, with the associate judges essentially there to add reinforcement to the judgement. In that fashion, if a wine scores very highly with the associate judges but lowly with the judges, everyone might be encouraged to have a retaste, or if any questions remain, the Chairman of Judges is called upon to make the final decision.
Whilst it sounds like a recipe for flying glassware and shattered egos, this style of judgement by panel ends up promoting a real sense of comraderie amongst the judges, as inevitably consensus is reached and with anyone deemed to be intimidating or irrational simply not invited back next year, the mood is generally pretty respectful.
Our (bigger) panel functioned in a very similar manner, though the wines had already been scored by the judges earlier on in the day. We were given two classes to be ‘judged’, with our scores similarly read out after the end of each class, and compared to those of the actual judges. Interesting to note that ours weren’t that far off the judges either (most of the time).
First up for our panel then was Class 25 ‘Semillon, dry style’ and we looked at half the bracket, consisting of multiple 08 vintage Semillons, as well as older wines going back to 2004. Unsurprisingly, much of the 08’s looked awkward, with primary fruit on the wane and acid the only resounding character. Also unsurprisingly, many of the 08’s were obviously from the Hunter and showed all of the challenges of that rain soaked vintage – herbal characters and unripe fruit was a recurring and distracing theme.
As the bracket wore on, and the average bottle age crept up to 4 or 5 years, the wines suddenly kicked up a notch, with the group scores moving from low bronze or no medal average to silvers & golds. Personally and as a group, we found one wine – which may well be a top gold winner in the class and I suspect will end up as a serial trophy winner in the show – stood out as a wine of pure brilliance and quality. It was an 05 vintage, and it had Tyrrells written all over it (figuratively at least) with the only question for me remaining which single vineyard Tyrrells Sem it was (cough…Stevens..cough).
I actually found the Semillon class pretty easy to judge, but that probably reflects the fact that I know Hunter Semillon pretty well (and I historically judge whites better than reds).
The second class, sadly, had me feeling utterly inconsistent and off the pace, with the diversity proving to be quite a challenge.
Class 30 was its name, ‘Red varietal wines (not eligible for classes 28-29,32-34 and 36-40)’ to be precise. This was a bracket full of Grenache, Mourvedre, Durif and Petit Verdot, with the odd Barbera and Cab/Durif blend in there for good measure. The wines were so varied, with quality so uneven that I don’t think any firm gold medal winners arose. In fact, much of the comment was more directed towards wine faults & excessive oak or alcohol and whether they detracted from the wines themselves. Suffice to say, results were all over the place and my scores were sometimes well off those from the rest of the class.
Ultimately, the real benefit is not in scoring it’s sitting in a room with your peers attempting to work out what makes a great wine and what marks a dud. From that perspective, exercises like this are so very worthwhile and infinitely interesting.
I’ll be coming back for the eclairs alone.