AWAC - all hail the mighty wine judge

30 November, 2017 - Emily Hay

I would have dearly loved for this to be a story of a wine media cadet who, completely inexperienced in the ways of wine show judging, walked into a room filled with International Master of Wine students and blitzed the Advanced Wine Assessment Course… Alas, it’s more a story of awe and deep respect for the Australian Wine Show circuit.

Make no mistake folks, this wine show judging caper sure seems glamorous, with access to a vast number of incredible wines, the dinners and the accolades… but it is tough.

Around 80% of today’s wine show judges have completed training through the Advanced Wine Assessment Course (AWAC) facilitated by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) throughout its 25 year history. This course (of which I completed a condensed 1 day version) is 4 days of palate fatiguing tasting, training and assessment through 320 wines. It is designed to provide a rigorous and advanced experience of evaluating wine under Australian Wine Show conditions. With an educational focus it focuses on developing participants’ ability to recognise flavours, faults, taints and quality with - and this is the big one - a consistent approach at an elite level. To succeed here and make it as a wine show judge you have to show exceptional skill.

Consistency was definitely the focus during the 1 day course, with blind samples reappearing at random through the bracket. How does wine #1 compare to wine #6 Emily? They’re the same wine, did you score them differently? This simple technique served to highlight the biggest hurdle (for me) when judging wine in show conditions - contrast or the halo effect. How the preceding wines effect your perception of the next. The best tasters can manage to block all of that out, concentrating simply on what’s in the glass in front of them, looking at only its individual qualities, pulling apart the wine in their minds - the colour, nose, palate, structure, complexity, varietal character and finally overall quality. Now try this with up to 4 brackets of 40+ wines per day, for 3-4 days. Of course, you have to be able to back up your scores with clarity, be willing to fight for the wines you believe in during the panel discussions. Just to add a little further pressure at the tasting bench!

It’s definitely a honed skill, one that takes years of technical training and tasting to achieve (not a single, albeit intense day… huh.) I am, simply in awe.

The tech-loving nerd in me loves the scientific approach the AWRI take with wine assessment - breaking down flavours, faults and taints in wine into their chemical components - even assessing the thresholds for detection and anosmia rates. Anosmia refers to the inability to detect a scent, incidentally I discovered I am in the 20% of the population who is somewhat anosmic to Rotundone, a compound that gives a pepper/spicy scent to wine which the AWRI identified as part of a research project several years ago.

The technology and resources the AWRI have dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in winemaking through technology is incredible! By no means do they advocate a kind of false manufacture of wine, rather they focus on identifying ways in which to help nature achieve the very best results, as well as overcome faults, taints and the effects of adverse weather events, even assisting Napa Valley winemakers with issues of smoke taint this year.

With the AWRI leading the charge in the technical improvements in winemaking and exceptionally well-trained show judges inspiring winemakers to step up their game the Australian wine scene is looking very bright indeed.

My official results are yet to come in, but I am under no illusions here. While I can certainly distinguish quality in wine there will be a long time yet before you see my name appear in any judging panels. For now, I’ll stick with getting behind the scenes to discover the stories of this amazing industry, with a tasting or two along the way (all the better to train my palate, right?) I’ll leave the judging and awarding of medals to the experts… for now.