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Postcard From Australia - Judging Wine
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed September 29, 2003. For more information go to

I've just finished judging 168 wines today, and just as many are on tap tomorrow at the Sydney International Wine Competition ("Top 1OO"), which is under way this week at the posh Lilianfels resort in Australia's scenic Blue Mountains.

That's an awful lot of wine in a mighty short time, and it would be reasonable to wonder whether even skilled wine tasters can effectively judge so many wines at such a blistering pace.

Look at the numbers: In the first round of the week-long competition, a dozen judges will rate just over 2,000 wines. Each of six two-judge panels will ponder well over 300 samples in plain, unmarked glasses, subdivided into eight "flights" of 15 to 45 wines each - allowing no more than 2 to 3 minutes to consider each wine.

My tasting partner, senior wine maker Louisa Rose of Yalumba Winery, and I worked through flights of Gewurztraminers, Sauvignon Blance, Verdelhos and Chardonnays before lunch today, followed by a marathon afternoon session with three dozen Cabernet Sauvignon blends and nearly four dozen Shirazes, At this point I'm just about ready to cleanse my palate with a cold Australian beer.

I'm pleased to report, though, that in spite of the sheer numbers of entries and the efficient process that this requires, I'm comfortable that the results are valid as judges pare down the 2,000 entries to about 400 finalists, which later in the week will be further pared down to the "Top 1OO" winners in a unique process in which we'll rate the finalists on the basis of their compatibility with food.

Credit the experienced guidance of competition Director Warren Mason and Chief Judge Huon Hooke and their staff with keeping the process effective and making things work. Every wine is rated separately by two judges working in pairs but independently; Hooke, a leading Sydney wine journalist, reviews all findings and retastes the wines in any cases where the panelists did not agree.

As a further check, six-judge panels will consider the finalists again later in the week when they are served with dishes designed to complement them. By the time the winning 100 wines are selected to bear the Sydney competition's blue-and-gold medals, they will have been considered repeatedly by independent teams of experienced wine tasters, both in isolation and with food. A wine that has passed all these tests and survived a series of cuts from 2,000 down to just 100 has earned its distinction.

"In Australia," said Mason in briefing the judges today, "We've made great advances with our wine and with our food. "The next step is to help educate the consumer about the use of wine at the table to his greater satisfaction. This competition is aimed at helping the consumer choose wines to complement food, and to know the style of wine in the bottle before he pulls the cork."

Later in the year, winners will be announced on the Sydney International Wine Competition's Website, along with excerpts of judges' comments and details about the wine and food matches.

This year's Sydney competition judges come from five countries, include wine makers and journalists, and collectively represent nearly 30 years of judging experience at this competition alone. The judges are, from Austalia, Steve Flamsteed (winemaker, cheesemaker and chef), Peter Forrestal (wine author and editor), Kym Milne (Master of Wine, consultant and "flying winemaker") and Louisa Rose (senior winemaker at Yalumba); from New Zealand, Peter Cowley (winemaker at Te Mata), Ivan Donaldson (winemaker at Pegasus Bay), Paul White (wine writer and musician); from South Africa, Sue Van Wyk (wine show convener and wine writer); from Canada, Edward Finstein; and from the United States, wine writers Gerald Boyd and Charles Olken, plus your humble scribe.

I've been taking notes as I traveled through California's Santa Barbara wine country, New Zealand's Waiheke Island and Sydney on my way out to the competition, with more to come. Watch for more tasting notes and photos soon.


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