Drinking on the job

New World Wine Awards chairman of judges Jim Harre. Photo: The New Zealand Herald
New World Wine Awards chairman of judges Jim Harre. Photo: The New Zealand Herald
Wine judge Jim Harre spills on the good and bad parts of drinking for a job. Melissa Nightingale reports.

When wine judge Jim Harre goes to a dinner party and tastes a really good wine, he has to fight the urge to spit it out.

It is a difficult instinct to shake off when you spit out 6000 to 7000 wines a year.

''When I spit wine out, I'm working,'' Harre said during a short break from judging wines at the New World Wine Awards in Wellington.

The chairman of judges, Harre spent three days tasting wines, at a rate of 120 wines per day. He will start with a table of wines and spend about 30 seconds on each, before coming back to spend more time on the ones he liked the best.

''If you go too slow you start to second-guess. Too fast, you miss things,'' he said.

''You're relying on first impressions and then following that up.''

As a judge, Harre is careful to make sure he is giving every wine the chance it deserves to impress him.

He avoids strong foods such as garlic, chilli and curries, some of which can ''deaden the taste buds''. He regularly rinses out his mouth with soda water to refresh his palate while going through a ''flight'' of wines.

Wine judges talk about ''hitting the wall'' on the job, which is when all the wines start to taste the same.

Harre's trick is to identify a wine that he particularly likes early on, and come back to it occasionally to make sure it still tastes just as good. If it were to taste just like all the other wines he's been sipping, he knows it's time for a break.

It's a role judges take seriously, because, as Harre says, what might simply be a table of 40 wines for them, is something much more for wine-makers.

The New World Wine Awards aims to pick out the best wines selling for $25 and under, and awards gold medal stickers to those that make the cut.

By the time a wine makes it to gold medal stage, it will have been tasted about 35 times.

This means if someone wanting to try a new wine picks one with the gold medal, they'll know it's been thoroughly tested for quality.

''People don't actually have to worry about the quality of the wine they drink. You've seen the process it goes through, it's incredibly robust,'' Harre said.

''They're not going to end up with a dud wine.''

While it might sound like a dream job - and for Harre, it is - it does have its challenges.

Harre cannot brush his teeth over the days he is judging wines, and has to resort to toothpaste on a finger if he wants to freshen up.

''The big disadvantage of wine judging is it's really hard on your teeth.''

Judges chew on a special type of gum which hardens the enamel on their teeth. The acidity of the wine softens the enamel and it can take about eight hours to reharden on its own, during which time they cannot use a toothbrush without causing damage.

But it's worth it for Harre and the 16 other independent judges at the awards this year.

The lineup includes wine experts, wine-makers and even wine scientists - all with extensive judging experience.

This year's panel included two highly-regarded international wine experts: Ying Hsien Tan, Master of Wine, wine educator and owner of Taberna Wine Academy in Singapore, and Dr Rowald Hepp, wine-maker and managing director of Germany's Schloss Vollrads, one of the oldest wine estates in the world.

This year is only the second time in the competition's 16-year history that pinot noir entries have surpassed sauvignon blanc.

It's also a big year for the Rose class, with a third more entries than in 2017.

Rose can be matched with different foods, and can be made from a number of different grapes.

Meanwhile sauvignon blanc growth has ''flattened'', as has pinot gris.

''The repertoire of wines that New Zealanders are open to is a bit wider than it was, say, five years ago.''

This year's best wines will be announced in a couple of months.

By the numbers

  • 1409 wines from 179 wineries are entered in the awards this year 67% of the wines entered are from New Zealand winemakers, with 433 of them originating from the Marlborough region
  • Of the international wine entries, the majority (326) are from Australia. The balance (135) are wines from France, Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Portugal and the United States
  • Rose had the most significant increase in entries, up 33% to 109.
  • Nearly 8000 glasses are used throughout the competition Stewards carrying wines to and from the judging room end up walking about 15km each day of the competition
  • Each gold medal wine will be tasted about 35 times.

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