Judging the judges

The world is oversupplied with wine. Heavy discounting is now the rule rather than the exception. A discount of 10% is no longer very interesting. The price now needs to drop by 50% or more to catch the attention of wine buyers.

Heavily discounted wines are a minefield. It’s more important than ever to check the credentials of any wine that you plan to buy without tasting, particularly if it has been heavily discounted.

How do you do that? It’s easier than you might think. New Zealand has a very robust wine show system. I’ve now judged at wine competitions in nine countries and believe that New Zealand and Australia produce the best and most consistent medal results.

At local competitions wines are served blind after being grouped by class and vintage. When they taste a flight of Chardonnays, for example, the judges only know the grape variety and vintage (some shows don’t reveal vintage).

Judging panels normally have three judges and one or two associate judges. Associate judges are apprentice judges. Their scores don’t count although they do contribute to discussion if there is a conflict between scores.

It usually takes an hour or so to taste 20 wines with a daily workload of less than 150 wines. I recall tasting 400 wines a day for 10 days at a UK wine competition, a punishing pace.

The medal results of the major local wine competitions are available on the website www.wineshow.co.nz. I have judged in them all except the Bragato Wine Awards, which uses winemaker judges only and focuses on wines that have been made from grapes grown in a single vineyard. The main competitions are:

  • Air New Zealand Wine Awards: Run by the wine industry using a mix of local and overseas judges. This has the highest profile of all the wine shows.
  • Royal Easter Show Wine Awards: The longest-running New Zealand wine show established by the Agricultural and Pastoral Association to promote excellence in local produce. Well run show using local judges (I was chairman for 21 years). Results are displayed in high, medium and low price categories to help wine buyers sniff out a bargain.
  • New Zealand International Wine Shows: New Zealand wines are judged alongside wines from other countries. A truly international line-up with mostly local judges. Well publicised. I am chairman.
  • Hawke’s Bay Wine Awards: Mostly winemaker judges review the wines of Hawke’s Bay only. Regional shows have much to commend them – a narrow focus usually provides good and consistent results.
  • The Upper North Island Wine Challenge: Organised by the Wine Science department of the University of Auckland, with wine entries restricted to Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Clevedon, Auckland, Waiheke Island, Matakana and Northland. I am chairman.

Here is a rough guide to the value of the medals:

  • Gold medals: Top quality, only awarded to about 5% of wines on average.
  • Silver medals: Very good quality, about 15% of wines.
  • Bronze medals: Good quality, about 30%.

My website bobcampbell.nz is another source of wine ratings. I use points out of 100 but these can easily be converted to medal awards. When you find the wine you are looking for simply click on “buy this wine” and you’ll get a list of the cheapest outlets.

Reds to rave about

Cut-price Cabernet

Church Road 2009 Cuve Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawke’s Bay $27.95

Someone’s made a mistake. This is a $50 Cabernet Sauvignon value at nearly half that price. If you are really clever you might buy it at a discount. Glengarry offered it at $23.90 – now that’s a bargain! – view on bobcampbell.nz

A bargain blend

Te Awa 2009 Left Field Merlot Malbec, Hawke’s Bay $26

Another high quality red wine at a mysteriously low price. Dense, flavour-packed red that’s drinking beautifully right now. I spotted it at The Fine Wine Delivery Company for $22.99. Even better! – view on bobcampbell.nz

Mispriced Merlot

Abbey Cellars 2009 Rapture Merlot, Hawke’s Bay $22

I know that Merlot is not top of the hit parade, but only $22 for a wine of this quality is ludicrous. Lovely ripe plum, dark berry with fresh herbs and subtle oak – yum! – view on bobcampbell.nz


First published in Your Home and Garden Magazine – Sep 2011.

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