by Elissa Jordan
Thank you to my good friend Elissa Jordan, writer of the excellent blog, Winey Little Bitch for writing this insightful article about the nature of wine competitions in New Zealand while I focus on writing the book, editing Eat Mag and my day job.
There’s a sticker on it - that means it has to be good.
A friend of mine recently bought his first house and, as is the way, he invited people around to help warm the house. One guest presented our host with a bottle of wine. Neither the guest nor the host knew much about wine. They shrugged at each other and the guest who had brought the bottle said, there’s a sticker on it - it was a gold award sticker from the Air New Zealand Wine Awards - that means it has to be good. The both looked to me - Right?
Well yes, somebody thought so. But, whether or not you’ll enjoy the wine is another matter.
First, how did that sticker end up on the bottle? Wine shows are pretty mean feats of organisation and skill. Judges are arranged into panels of three. Each judge independently assesses the wine, but the final decision is a consensus agreed by the panel.
Wines are judged in flights - a term used to describe a selection of wines of a similar style or category that are sampled and compared together. In the initial round of judging, wines will be awarded gold, silver, bronze or no award. Those wines where a consensus isn’t readily made, the judges will take the opportunity to look at again.
Overseeing the competition is a Chief Judge and Associate Chief Judges who will re-taste and re-judge any medal wine to ensure there is consistency in the judging across the competition. In some competitions the Chief Judge and his team will even re-taste those that receive no award to ensure nothing gets missed.
So, if a wine carries a sticker from a wine competition then its value has been assessed and yes, a team of experienced tasters have agreed that on that day, in that glass, it is a good wine.
However, there are a couple of little hiccups that prevent this from being a straightforward response.
A time and a place:
Wines as judged give a picture of how a wine performed on a particular day. But wines in all their complicated wonder continue to change and evolve after bottling. So how they rate on one day may or may not relate to what you hold in your glass weeks, months or years later.
The great wine deception:
Great wines can be deceptively simple or austere in their youth. A young wine from a great producer can miss its mark. Wines also go through a period of bottle shock, a condition that occurs immediately after bottling where the flavours may be muted. This is only temporary and will last no more than a few weeks. However, if this is a condition of the wine on the day it’s being judged, these wines are going to be severely underrated.
Not to everyone’s taste:
Author and Master of Wine Tim Hanni groups consumers into four flavour-sensitive categories. These are likened to how the consumer would take their coffee. A ‘Tolerant’ would drink a bitter black coffee. As they add milk and sugar to their coffee, they move up the scale towards a ‘Sensitive’, ‘Hypersensitive’ or ‘Sweet’.
This way of classifying tasters is criticised for being simplistic, but where this is interesting is that most wine competition judges would be Tolerant or Sensitive tasters, while the average person buying wine is likely to be a Hypersensitive or Sweet taster.
Although the judges are looking for a consistent style that represents the preferences of the wider drinking public, they can’t completely put aside their years of experience and expertise.
Flip the argument on its head and there are plenty of great reasons to follow the recommendation the sticker represents.
So, is picking a wine because the bottle has a sticker on it a good strategy? I would argue yes. If you’re staring at your local wine wall and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices, you can comfortably select a wine that has been benchmarked against its peers and found to be of reliable quality. I would even extend this argument to cover a safer way of stepping outside your comfort zone - if you consistently reach for a mid-priced Sauv, a sticker from a wine competition might prompt you to try an Arneis or a Gruner Veltliner as a bit of something new. A medal gives the cautious bargain hunter some assurance of quality.
What’s not judged:
Not every wine can or should be entered into a wine competition because some are intended for long-term ageing and won’t perform well. Or because they wine maker is so small that they lack the volumes of wine required to leverage the marketing advantage of any award they may receive.
One of the areas where it would be nice to see more information and transparency is the understanding of what wines are entered into a competition and which are held out. I’ve seen praise for the successes of pinot noir from a region that is not known for pinot. It turns out that the more famous pinot regions had few to no wines entered and so the praise, although warranted, requires a wider context to be fully understood.