So I judged at the Sydney International Wine Competition in late 2007, and aside from the beauty of the Blue Mountains, it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had at a tasting. Let me explain…
First there is the methodology. Each wine is tasted several times. After an initial culling process, each of the promoted wines is placed in a particular weight class (light medium, heavy) and then each wine is tasted again to set its position within its weight class (is it very light bodied, or only somewhat light-bodied?). Next, within their weight categories, the wines are first judged on their own, and then the wines are re-tasted alongside a particular food pairing. This reflects the organisers’ belief that wines are judged in an unnatural setting if they are tasted by themselves and not with food. While many of the world’s wines seem intended for consumption in the cocktail hour, wine’s traditional place is at the dining table and judging wine alongside food should be obvious. Instead, it’s virtually unknown in any other wine competition.
The Judging Panel
While the tasting methodology offers enough differentiation from other competitions to make it unique, there is another critical difference the Sydney International Wine Competition has to offer: the caliber of the judges is top notch. While there were only fourteen judges, each judge was an experienced and skilled professional with demonstrable expertise in the business of wine judging. And the fourteen judges represented seven different countries, so there was far less opportunity for the “regional palate” problem to influence the outcome. Depending on which stage of the elimination process to select the Award winners it represented, each flight involved a different group of judges; in the earliest stages there were only two judges on a flight. But for the Finals judging there were six or more judges assessing each wine in the Category.
As I write this, I still don’t know the results of all our efforts. But I am clear enough in my reactions to the wines I judged to draw a few conclusions.
Flawed wines were far less prevalent than in other shows I have judged. Within the groups of wines we tasted, as well as many from well-known New World wine regions, there were wines from Bordeaux and other traditional regions of France. In general, Bordeaux, though it likes to claim otherwise, has a problem with Brettanomyces. While I have heard numerous Bordelais winemakers claim that those band-aid, leather and animal notes represent terroir, I disagree. These aromas derive from barrels that are laden with Brettanomyces. Some New World wines share this problem. And some New World wines (often in California and Washington) exhibit high amounts of volatile acidity. It’s a problem that shows no sign of abatement in many such regions. Many South African wines suffer from issues with both Brettanomyces and volatile acidity. Yet the overwhelming proportion of wines (including wines from those countries) represented in this Competition showed clean winemaking. But it should also be strongly noted that the entire New World is struggling to control alcohol levels; some of the wines we tasted had alcohol levels that were bordering on the absurd.
The move towards cooler New World sites has not resulted in wines of better balance than those from the better known areas in general. Instead, we experienced an array of wines with green and bitter tannins. California has traditionally struggled with this issue. Its hot climate results in rapid ripening of the grapes, so the grapes become sweet and mature before the tannins can soften and ripen. In California, the tradeoff is that the best of these wines have tremendous richness, and the green and sandpapery tannins are offset by rich flavors. With some of the Australian Cabernets and Merlots I tasted, the tannins were green, but the sweet and jammy ripeness so typical of great Australian reds was missing.
Australian and New Zealand Chardonnays have become better balanced, cleaner and less oak dominant than their Californian counterparts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more interesting wines.
Finally, I would draw one more conclusion from my participation in the Sydney International Wine Competition: the methodology of the SIWC offers great benefits. I say this because:
- It is appropriate to taste and assess wine with food.
- It is appropriate to taste the same wine several times before reaching a final conclusion.
- It is appropriate for a wine judge to consider, “should I offer this wine greater merit when it demonstrates that it can skillfully handle a plate of delicious food?”
Postscript: so why was this a grueling tasting? Imagine tasting the same wines four times in four days. And imagine being in Australia but not really able to cut loose and see your friends and see new places and, well, I’m just whining now, aren’t I? I am a Master of Whine, after all.
One more note: while I wrote above that other competitions don’t include food, one of the competitions I help run, the Mid-American Wine Competition is doing that this year – it’s been in the works for a year. But I knew that judging at the Sydney Competition would assist me in my understanding of the process, so for that as well as many other reasons (cool judges, etc.), I’m glad I was there.