Food & Wine
Follow the line of wine glasses on numbered squares towards the plate of Carrs water crackers and stop just before the bottles of swanky fizz. One glass is out of line and out of kilter. Inside is a dry Twinings English breakfast tea bag.
"It's a little technique I find very useful," says New World Wine Awards judge John Hancock, founder of Hawke's Bay's Trinity Hill winery. "In between glasses I'll sniff that. It takes you back to a particular point."
I've had strict instructions not to wear perfume, lest it interfere with the judges' ability to pick each wine's aroma. But it's hard to imagine a waft of fragrance making any difference. Entering the Westpac Stadium awards venue is like parking up next to a hungover scarfie and being engulfed by the slightly sour alcoholic ooze.
Hence Hancock's tea bag. Others seal off olfactory distractions by pressing their entire nose into the glass.
There's no knowing whether the smell is from the tasting tables - one for each of the 13 judges - or from the judge-no-go backroom, where the wine is poured.
Here there are 3100 bottles from around the world - Marlborough sauvignon blanc; Gimblett Gravels reds; Italian montepulciano; Aussie shirazes; even a few French labels. Each has an assigned number, which is all the judges see. So they are truly tasting blind.
The New World Wine Awards, now in their 10th year, are the Corolla of wine awards. Not for them single-vineyard elitism, at $90 a bottle. This is targeted at average supermarket wine drinkers. Wines must sell for less than $25, and there must be at least 500 cases available.
This year 1008 wines from 162 vineyards are vying for medals. That's around $62,000 worth of wine. Then there's the 1500 $15 spiegelau tasting glasses - pity the dishwasher.
It's a masterpiece of logistics - the 16 pallets of equipment take two days to set up, and 16 stewards pour, ferry and place.
But it's the judges who make or break the competition.
An Aussie import, Hancock arrived in 1979 when the country boasted 35 wineries. There are now 698. Wine no longer comes in casks, and Central Otago pinot noir and Marlborough sauvignon blanc have become export successes. Wine shows, too, have morphed from A&P show add-ons.
Here, the judges work in threes, individually scoring each wine out of 20, before deliberating together. They judge colour and clarity before sniffing, swilling and spitting into the unpretentious yellow bucket spittoon to assess flavour and aroma. There's a technique to efficient spitting - swallow just a little from every glass, and a day's tasting of 150 wines can be hard on the head.
Deliberation requires negotiation, judge Sarah-Kate Dineen says. Having given up her dream of studying medicine, she took up winemaking and worked in Australia's Hunter Valley and the south of France, before returning to her parent's Wanaka winery Maude Wines.
She has just assessed 14 rieslings, and the panel has singled out four potential gold medal winners, which they retaste together, agreeing on a final score out of 60. An average score of 18.5/20 wins gold.
"We don't always agree and that's a good thing," Dineen says. "Stylistically, wine is still a preference. You have to leave your ego at the door."
And yes, Hancock insists, you really can taste that freshly mown grass, lemon curd or black doris plum.
"We often get people saying to us, ‘Do you put those things in the wine?' Well, of course, we don't. It's just a way of trying to explain to people what things taste like. It might sound wanky, but it's trying to keep it as simple as possible."
Despite the growing number of Kiwis drinking wine, it has been a rough few years for the wine industry, with the arrival of the much warned-of glut and bargain-basement prices.
Take this year's large class of under $25 pinot noirs. "Whether that is sustainable or not is another question," Hancock says.
Tasting the pinot noir, Hancock is so far unimpressed. "They lack suppleness and softness - that licking velvet curtains," he tells a passing colleague.
New Zealand's high-quality boutique reputation - and associated price tag - also seemed in serious jeopardy, particularly in Britain, where prices dropped from £6 or more a bottle to three bottles for £10.
Hancock gets $20 less per case for one of his wines today than when he began exporting to Britain in 1997.
Fellow judge Jeff Clarke - chief winemaker for Montana for 17 years who now works for Marlborough producer Ara - says the boom-and bust-cycle is typical of any agricultural commodity.
However, Clarke believes the worst is over for New Zealand vintners, helped by a small 2012 harvest (269,000 tonnes, compared with 328,000 tonnes in 2011), which will create a slight shortage and push wine prices up.
For wine drinkers, that means $12-$15 quality wine could be coming to an end. The bright spot on the horizon? The 2012 vintage is looking stellar, with late harvest meaning a long "hang time" and intense full-flavoured wine.
Of the 1008 wines entered, 56 won gold, 130 won silver and 412 won bronze medals. The overall winners, announced on Monday, were: Mud House Pinot Noir 2010, Wild Rock Pania Chardonnay 2010 and Brancott Estate Sparkling Rose.
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