On average, how many wines do you taste per day? 70 to 80, increasing to six days a week at the height of activity between January and March, otherwise each day I don’t have another commitment taking me away from the tasting room at Coldstream Hills.
Have you noticed any trends among the wines this year? The quality of the 2015 vintage in South Australia and Victoria. Both the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale have an increasing number of wineries with lower than traditional alcohol levels in the red wines, led by shiraz and grenache. Fresher and more vibrant wines are the result, and I hope that we’ll see a strengthening of that trend in future vintages. The standout varietal is chardonnay. Whether reduction in oak levels and earlier picking is driven by winemaker conviction or public demand is a good question. I incline to the view that it has been driven by winemakers, but has resonated with many consumers who had turned their back on oaky, buttercup yellow, fat chardonnays. Reinforcement of the new style comes from Jancis Robinson (the most important wine writer in countries with English as their first language) and the often hard-to-please Andrew Jefford, both of whom have been unstinting in their praise, equating them with Burgundy’s best.
What’s your process for tasting the thousands of wines submitted for the annual Companion? I start tasting at 7am with all the wines already on the table, set up by the irreplaceable Beth Anthony, including soda water, hard cheese and green olives on their stones. She will have done this the previous day as I come towards the conclusion of that day’s tasting. The white wines are set up along one side of the table, red wines on the other side. There is sufficient room for 24 wines in each line. The wines are arranged in a predetermined order from light-bodied/unwooded through to full-bodied. Notwithstanding this, I move around the table from red to white and back again on the basis that white wines strip out the accumulation of tannins from the red wines, and the red wines strip out the acid build up from white wines. Traditionally, there was a rough 50/50 split between white and red, but these days it is 75/25 red to white (or even less whites). Coming to the precise mechanics of creating a tasting note, I carefully look at the colour of the wine (particularly if it’s red) first up, then I assess the bouquet, and then I taste the wine for the first time. I next repeat that exercise, writing the note as I do so. Then, if I am satisfied I understand the wine, I’ll have one final taste and immediately thereafter give the points for it. Tasting is all about concentration, and the mind gets tired before the palate or the nose.
What’s the best part of reviewing for the Companion? The diversity of wines you taste and discovering a few new producers. I’ve been a wine writer for many years, so it’s a joy when I come across a winery I haven’t tried before. One example was the wines of tripe.Iscariot, made by a young guy in Margaret River. Those were a delight.
And what’s the worst? Washing glasses, cleaning rubbish, the courier turning up 10 times a day and it all feeling a bit like Groundhog Day. When I submitted that last tasting note, I spent the day cleaning and I've never enjoyed cleaning so much in my life.
Tell us about your approach to tasting all those wines. I tasted around 1700 wines all up, but it felt like 3000. Paula, James Halliday’s assistant, allocates the wines alphabetically, dividing the wines from each letter among the reviewers, so it’s random – we don’t own particular regions or producers. There’s a six-week period that's incredibly intense and unlike judging at a wine show, there are no stewards to wash glassware and get rid of boxes – a glass washer is on my wish list for Christmas this year! Riedel was very generous in donating glassware and that made a huge difference, because it meant that I could line-up those 24 glasses and go. It’s rigorous and it's certainly not for the faint of heart. I didn't really change from the black tracksuit pants and t-shirt that was my outfit because it didn't matter if I spilled anything on me. I’d start by checking what I’d written the day previous and then get into the tasting. I committed to tasting about 100 wines a day, but some days my body just wouldn’t let me and because I wanted to do the wines justice, on those days I’d pull back. Some wines were intriguing as well, so I’d want to return to them to see how they were developing. Overall, the quality was really high, which makes it easy but also hard. When they’re great they soar, but when you taste so many, a wealth of good ones can slow down the process.
What’s the most challenging part of being a reviewer? Firstly, coming up with new adjectives to essentially express the same thing, while avoiding – at least ostensibly – repetition. Secondly, maintaining one's fitness and sustaining the level of gravitas and poise required of a father in front of one's family... despite fatigue and often, admittedly, excess.
Do you take note of the great bottles so that you can return to them? Notes are inherent to the process, so yes. But I tend to push the better bottles aside to return to them after the drudgery.
How do you get through all those wines? I wake, have breakfast, cycle for 20 kilometres, do light weights for 30, stretch and go to the tasting room by 10am. I try to taste 50 to 80 wines daily, although given the creative semantics required and fatigue that sets in, the figure is closer to the former rather than the latter. I endeavour to do this six days a week, but the wines arrive in dribs and drabs at times, meaning that I can clear my storage area out so that the next day there may be a deluge of deliveries!
How does tasting for the Companion differ from other reviewing gigs? Because I look after sparkling wines and there are only 500-600 Australian ones I have it relatively easy during the Companion tasting period. That said, there are so many more variables in the production of sparkling wine than for still wine that you need the extra time to properly consider them. I approach the task with some stylistic segmentation, tasting all the prosecco and then all the méthode traditionnelle wines for example, but I also try to taste the full portfolio of each producer in one go to get a feel for house style and any changes in philosophy from year to year. I'll taste a particularly good wine again later in the day, and perhaps the following day too, so I might only get through 20 in a day. The schedule when judging wine shows, on the other hand, is far stricter and fatiguing.
Do you feel much pressure to 'get it right'? I take my role very seriously, though the fact we all have different palates means I can only ever hope to get it right some of the time! I collect as much technical detail on individual wines as possible and try to re-taste them through the year alongside around 2000 Champagnes. You need to be sensitive to the changes taking place as sparkling wine ferments in bottle. I gather so much more information on the sparkling sector than there is space in the Companion that last year I was prompted to launch my Australian Sparkling Wine Report.
Should sparkling fans be excited about the entries in this year's Companion? Absolutely. Australian sparkling has entered a new era, with Tasmanian cuvée winning some of our most significant wine shows in the past two years. This is the first time in our history that sparkling wines are being recognised as equal, and even superior to, our greatest still wines. A lot of effort and knowledge has gone into improving production in places like northern Tasmania and cool-climate Victoria and that shows through in higher scores. The quality coming through in sparkling reds – a style that isn't even made in Europe – is something else to get very excited about.
You took a break from the Companion tasting table this edition but will return next year - does the job require a certain amount of physical and mental preparation? Tasting wine for a living sounds like one of the world’s best jobs. And it’s true that, almost every day, you come across some new wine that rocks your world a bit, and stuns you with its beauty. Pinch-yourself territory. For that reason, it’s a job I wouldn’t give away for quids. It is indeed as good as it sounds. But even so, it would surprise people just how physical this job is, how exhausting. It takes fierce concentration across a great many hours, every day, across months. It wears you down. The work itself and the logistics of it is draining, made worse by the constant wear of alcohol, tannin and acid on your body. You basically have alcohol-laced liquid in your mouth for 10+ hours per day, seven days a week, for two to three months each year. I taste each wine many times, taking things slow, so that I can form the clearest picture possible to describe it. As the final tasting deadline approaches, you tend to get closer and closer to the foetal position.
What do books like this mean to you on a personal level? I’m a wine critic and have been for nearly 20 years now, but I am also a wine lover. I receive many, many thousands of free sample wine bottles each year, far more than I could ever drink, yet still I buy more than my fair share of wine. A top score or exciting review of a wine in the Halliday Wine Companion has me pulling out the credit card as fast as anyone.
How do you feel when someone says they selected a wine based on your notes? I feel a great weight of responsibility, as I review each wine, over the fact that someone may go out and splash a good deal of their hard-earned on the back of one of my reviews. When people tell me that they bought wine based on my review I think: I am as confident as I can possibly be that the wine is good.
Next article: Campbell Mattinson details a day in the life of a Halliday Wine Companion reviewer