Judging the New Zealand Wine of the Year Awards

PJ and the two Glover bros

For a long time the main wine competition in New Zealand was the Air New Zealand Wine Awards. After last year’s competition they decided to pull their sponsorship and focus on their own Fine Wines of New Zealand initiative. So New Zealand Wine Growers have filled this gap with a new competition: New Zealand Wine of the Year. While the structure and roll call of senior judges is similar to the old competition, things have been tweaked a bit by the chairs, Warren Gibson and Ben Glover, to help make the results more robust.

A short film of the judging:

I’m taking part as one of the two overseas judges, along with PJ Charteris. We’re in the middle of judging at the moment, with two days gone and two to come. Altogether, 1361 wines have been entered this year, which is good number. The judging is being held at Alexandra Park, which is home to The Auckland Trotting Club, where a form of horse racing called the trots is practiced. This is something we just don’t get in Europe, and it sounds very odd.

Judging in Australia and New Zealand is a bit different to the approach I’ve experienced elsewhere. The methodology stems from the show circuit – each region in Australia has traditionally had its own wine show, where initially the goal was to encourage quality when winemaking was a bit patchy in places. The old Australian shows were notoriously hierarchical, when senior judges – almost always older men – would rule the roost, walking up and down large flights of wines, sniffing and pulling forward the good wines and sending the bad ones to the back. Everyone would wear white coats, and your performance as a judge would be assessed by how well you fell into line with the senior judges.

The long flights remain, but fortunately these days the Antipodean shows have become more about getting teams to work well together to find the best wines. We judge in panels of five, with two associates (whose scores don’t technically count, but in reality they do have influence, even though this is supposed to be a training role). Everyone tastes and makes notes, and then when we’ve all finished we sit down, give our scores in, and then begin a discussion process. Where one of the seniors flags a gold, we’ll call those wines back, and then they are flighted in a random order so we don’t know what they are, and we judge them again. This removes the personal element: there’s no sense that this is ‘my’ gold, and I don’t get tempted to horse-trade with other judges and ‘their’ gold.

After we’ve finished deliberations, the chairs come over and have a look at our work, to make sure we haven’t golded a donkey of a wine.

Of course, no-one knows the identity of the wines on the tasting floor. So it will be exciting to see the results, which are released later this month.

 

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