I recently judged at two distinctly different wine shows, the Royal Queensland Wine Show and the Yamanashi Concours, in Yamanashi prefecture, Japan. While judges at both scored wines out of 20 points and dressed in stark white lab coats, the approach to the wines on show was, perhaps, a reflection of an Australian wine culture steeped in analysis and the technocratic jargon inherent to such a culture, juxtaposed against a warm and friendly group of Japanese mavericks for whom making wine is more of a hobby in a land traditionally dominated by traditional alcoholic beverages including Nihon-shu, or as it is commonly known, sake.
In Australia I tasted around 130 wines each day, over the course of five-days, as a member of a three or four-person panel. Panel members were interchanged each day. In Japan I tasted about the same number of wines per day, although the panel members remained the same over two-days and oddly (at least I found it very odd), tasted from the same glasses while moving along the long tables lined with glasses and numbered, disguised bottles. The Japanese used ISO tasting glasses which are good to accentuate faults in wine and little more, while the Australians used larger Riedels. In Australia, the best wines of each category, be it Semillon or Chardonnay, for example, were presented at the very end for all judges to taste and determine a ‘Wine of Show’ across reds, whites and local Queensland wine. In Japan there was no such final stage.
Australian judges spoke of length, purity of fruit and clarity. In one sorry case, a scented Chardonnay was rejected after advancing to the final stage due to turbidity. ‘It still tastes bloody good,’ noted one fellow judge. At that point I gazed across the room and wondered whether consumers, for whom after all, such shows theoretically serve, care about a wine that is a little cloudy if it is tastes as good as that particular reject. To their credit, however, many of the younger judges spoke of ‘drinkability’ which is a fashionable term in lieu of, I presume, a growing emphasis in Australia on promoting wines etched with regionality, many of which are coming from cooler climates.
In contrast, the tolerance for vegetal flavors, volatility and terse astringency was generally high among Japanese judges, weened on a diet of marginally ripe wine styles. In Japan grape ripeness is an issue due to what is largely a less than propitious climate for grape growing. Many growers harvest early to avoid the humidity and rot that comes with it. Such an approach frequently demands a bolstering of sugar, or grape concentrate, to mitigate under-ripe or ‘green’ flavors, as well as ropey tannins.
Subsequently I found that light ruby tinged Cabernets for example, were seldom frowned on while few judges cared too much about even high levels of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that detracts from a wine’s balance due to a drying and aromatic sensation akin to licking horse’s hair. In Japan there was a great deal of discourse and ceremony but little disagreement and certainly, unlike in Australia, little heated debate. Concensus, the tenet of Japanese uniformity, was generally reached easily.
Interestingly also, certain Japanese reds were dead-ringers for the old-school of medicinal South African wine. This point deserves further examination perhaps due to the litany of theories on this topic.
Nevertheless, there were many promising wines and for me, the Merlot class was the finest. Perhaps this is due to the sturdy nature of Merlot and its earlier ripening window, placed somewhere between the monsoonal rains of late May and early June, and the phalanx of stinging humidity, at its worse from mid-August. Unfortunately I did not get to judge the Koshu
class. Next year, I hope!