Words: Paul Dowling

Wine show judging is a mysterious affair. Behind closed doors, seasoned professionals sip, sniff and spit their way through hundreds of wines, their taste buds holding the power to change the life of a small producer and underscore the reputation of a big one. Valley Magazine Editor PAUL DOWLING gained a glimpse of this intense, pressurised world when he shadowed wine judge Michael Kane at the 2021 Langton's Clare Valley Wine Show.

It’s just gone eight on a chilly Clare morning and Michael Kane is one of several caffeine-fuelled wine judges huddled around a wooden table next to the historic town hall.

A few of his colleagues have found enough energy to have a kick and a catch with the Sherrin in the adjacent courtyard.

But, having already spent two days judging wine - and two nights celebrating it at long and loud dinner tables - and knowing there’s more of the same to come for another two days, there’s no doubt this group is feeling the pinch.

“They are long days - and they are long nights,” says Kane, respected senior winemaker at Clare’s revered Knappstein Wines but a relative newcomer to the wild world of wine judging.

“But we all know what we’re signing up for and there’s a lot of pressure on us to get it right.”

And so, with the help of strong coffee and a kick of the football, the cobwebs are blown away and the group switches focus to the qualities and quirks of hundreds of wines which must be tasted and ranked as they compete for prestigious awards at the 2021 Langton's Clare Valley Wine Show.

Inside the vast town hall and under the direction of judging chair Nick Ryan, the judges take their places at a dozen tables already adorned with wine-filled glasses.

As the men and women from all corners of the South Australian wine world earnestly settle into their work, the cavernous silence in the huge hall is fractured by the clink of glasses, the squelch of wine in mouths, the clearing of throats and the splashing of wine spat adroitly and nonchalantly into buckets.

Judged first today is the important Wine of Provenance, awarded to the Clare wine which best shows its class and consistency over three, separate vintages.

“What you want to see here is graceful evolution in the wine,” Kane says. “It should be easy and effortless.”

Terms like minty, dusty, fruit-forward and jubee are scrawled on the judging form as Kane works through a slew of red wines, pulling forward the better wines on the table, pushing back the poor ones.

“There are always going to be some wines with faults,” he said. “And when you notice them, you have to call them out.

“And you need to generate some good discussion. It’s not good enough just saying you like it or you don’t, you have to justify why.

“No-one is perfect, that’s why there are so many judges. Prepare to be wrong but also prepare to stand by a wine, then it might progress.”

Wines are awarded points out of 100. More than 95 earns a gold medal, 90-94 gets silver, 85-89 wins bronze and there is no medal for a wine that scores 84 or less. Gold medal wines are then judged blindly again to determine the trophy winner in a category.

The judges start at 9am and finish at 3.30pm each day. There’s a lot of discussion in between trying the wines but they can expect to be tasting wine solidly for six to eight hours across the wine show week. Very little wine is swallowed.

“That would make for a very long day,” Kane laughs. “I save that for the knock off beer and the dinners. The bins are here for a reason.

“But palate fatigue is a real thing. So, you have to break it all down. The process, for me at least, is if you have 30 wines in front of you, break it down into smaller sets, don’t let the task get too large and get on top of you.

“To get through it all you just have to follow your processes, keep focussed, be fair to the wine in the glass and block everything else out of your mind.

“It’s hard work. A lot of hard work and concentration. If you need to step out to get some fresh air or a drink of water then do so, just to reset.”

Kane – a veteran wine man whose job has taken him around Australia, to France, the United States and New Zealand - has been around plenty of these shows before but this is the first time he has judged. He is known as an “associate judge” at this event, where his opinions are valued but the final decisions are left to the more experienced.

“For me, doing this is about personal development,” he said. “And contributing back to the community, immersing yourself in these wines and gaining a better understanding of sub-regional characters.

“As a winemaker, coming out and doing some judging really helps in honing your skills for back in your day job.”

Another swig, another spit, another note, and eventually the red wine makes way for white. After a palate cleanse of cheese and biscuits, you sense the excitement switch up a notch. Because Clare Valley riesling, from spritely current releases to 16-year-old treasures, has entered the room.

While the judges were somewhat underwhelmed by the red wines of provenance there’s no such disappointment with the various riesling vintages on offer.

Now, terms like oyster shell, slatey, lime skin, mandarin and texture are the dominant descriptors, as educated palates are thrilled by world class riesling. Eventually, the rambunctious Ryan bellows some instructions to simplify the process.

“Ok, so here’s the most efficient way,” he says, addressing the room. “Let’s go to each entry and put your hand up if it’s in your top three.”

Incredibly, there’s an overwhelming consensus with each judge raising their hand for entry numbers two, five and seven. The wines are separated and brought to the front of the table for further analysis.

Michael is asked to share his thoughts.

“Number two (check) is the stand out for me,” he tells the room. “I think it’s the most refined, it has the most purity, it has that spring water freshness, floral lift, soft acid, generous but dry, all the way through each vintage.

Senior judge Glenn Barry from Tonic wines speaks up at this point and wholeheartedly agrees: “It seems to me like an easy and obvious choice,” he says.

And the rest of the room is on board. The next day the Clos Clare Riesling, with its vintages of 2010, 2012 and 2021, was announced as the winner of the Brother John May Trophy for best Wine of Provenance.

The Wine of Provenance has been judged but for these seasoned judges the day is only half over. There’s a short break for lunch and then it’s time to taste more wine in more categories, all the time confronting the pressure of an entire wine region just daring you to get it wrong.

And then, when the sun goes down, it’s time to go out for dinner again.

Article originally published in the Valleys Magazine, Autumn 2022