Is Colour all it’s cracked up to be?

One of the unique aspects of this job is that over the course of a year you get to try an immense array of wines from week to week and your tastebuds are constantly tested because they’re never allowed a dull moment.  Many of the wines I taste each week are samples which arrive on my doorstep and others I buy from supermarkets, wine shops or online retailers.  But one of my favourite ways of getting my head around how wines from different regions, vintages and indeed different countries are developing is by volunteering to judge at wine competitions.

Despite a commonly held conviction that wine judging just means a couple of days off work, swilling wine, chuffing cheese and crackers and munching through mountains of complimentary muffins – it’s actually exhausting work, physically and mentally, but I love it.  Where else can you analyse a colossal collection of wine in a confined space over a couple of days with a crowd of experts who can answer any query that comes their way with a simple sniff, slurp and spit?

Last week I was lucky enough to land a judging spot at the New Zealand International Wine Show, which since its formation in 2005 (and now attracting over 2000 wines) is firmly established as the largest wine competition held in New Zealand each year. Truly ‘International’ in nature, wines from any country and made from any variety can be entered.  I love being surprised when the results come out and I look back at my scores and see notes that I’ve written which say things like “…a fantastic example of fine French champagne” when the winning wine turned out to be a locally produced sparkling.  Or “…this is Coonawarra cabernet at the top of its game” when the wine actually came from the Gimblett Gravels.

With all the myriad of differences in aroma and flavour from grape to grape, style to style, one thing you’d imagine would remain relatively constant is colour.  Wrong again.  You can’t judge a book by its cover and the same goes for wine.  So unless your chardonnay is brown and your merlot looks like mud, pretty much anything goes these days.

Take pinot noir for example.  With most red wines the darker the colour, the more intensely flavoured the wine will be, yet with pinot some of the great examples from its home in Burgundy are light, earthy and magenta-coloured, yet they taste incredibly concentrated.  By the same token, recently I tried a seriously inky, dark purple pinot from our neck of the woods which smelled and tasted like light, fluffy strawberries and cream.  That’s pinot for you, mysterious and completely unpredictable based on appearances.  The photo I’ve provided shows two glasses of pinot, both apparently from New Zealand, both from the same vintage and the same region – yet they look worlds apart.  They both tasted delicious though.

The sparkling rosé wines were another conundrum – looking down the line there were wines that were watery white, others ultra-dark crimson, pale ballet-shoe hued or the colour of onion skin.  The dessert style wines were a little easier to understand because depending on whether they’re late harvest examples or a botrytis bottle they’ll range from very pale to deep yellow gold respectively.  Yet one look at the line-up and you’ll see a pink one and two that looked like old golden syrup and all three tasted like rose caramels mixed with marmalade.  Curious and curiouser.  Yet the quality of the entire class was by far the best I’ve ever come across in all my years of judging, with 8 gold medals being awarded and I can’t wait to find out who made those.

I asked a couple of fellow judges if they’d ever judged wines in black glasses, so that colour wasn’t a factor in their decision-making.  Philip Bothwell, Fine Wine and Spirit Development Manager at Pernod Ricard NZ had “although it’s almost too hard on the wines” he said.  “It’s very difficult to get anything at all from other aspects of the wine because you’re denied that visual stimulus”.  I decided to do a little experiment of my own and poured a splash of sauvignon blanc into a dark blue coffee mug and another sample into a standard wine tasting glass to see if ‘visual stimulus’ was a factor in determining quality.  The coffee mug sample just looked like water and I did actually have to dig deep to actually ‘want’ to taste it.  Once in the mouth it was pleasant enough but I was bored quickly.  The sample in the wine glass looked vibrant and glossy.  It smelled of passionfruit and lime and was succulent and juicy.  Was I influenced visually?  Definitely.  Do I care?  Definitely not. 

Green Man Organic Tequila Beer 500ml $9 (5.6%)

I’m not usually a huge fan of ‘flavour infused’ beers but this example really spun my wheels.  Cloudy with a pale, foamy head and a clean, distinctive aroma of lime and tequila which adds a element of gringo to an already crisp, flavoursome lager.  Definitely the right beer for a plateful of chimichunga’s or a heaping bowl of chilli con carne.  Available at switched on supermarkets and liquor outlets, or order online at



Green Man Tequila Beer
Green Man Organic Tequila Beer

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2009 $32

Super-gorgeous tangelo and toast aromas merge with ripe stonefruit and tangy, tropical flavours.  Rich and elegantly textured, the wine just keeps on giving with a deliciously enduring finish.  Lovely stuff, more please!



Gibbston Reserve Chardonnay
Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2009

Brown Brothers Shiraz 2009 $18

A classic, super-drinkable shiraz from Australia’s oldest family-owned winery.  Stewed plum, pepper and roast beef aromas lead to a ripe, spicy mouthfeel which makes it very easy to drink.  Regularly discounted to $13 – $15 in supermarkets, it represents fantastic value for money and definitely won’t disappoint.  Widely available


Brown Brothers Shiraz
Brown Brothers Shiraz 2009

Ti Point Two Merlot Cabernet Franc 2010 $22 

Matakana winemaker Tracy Haslam has created a really tasty wine with bright berryfruit, smoke and pepper notes on the nose followed by lovely plush, fruit-forward tannins and a ripe, robust finish.  A definite crowd-pleaser and absolutely lovely with steak and kidney pie.


Ti Point merlot cabernet franc
Ti Point Merlot Cabernet Franc 2010

Jim Beam Red Stag Cherry Bourbon $39 750ml 

If you’re expecting dry Bourbon then move along because this is more a liqueur than anything – and it’s delicious.  Heavenly fruit-wood smoke, cherry ripe chocolate and mealy, charred whiskey aromatics pave the way to a silky, warming, toffee-ish texture in the mouth and a spicy bourbonesque finish.  There are loads of various Red Stag cocktail recipes around but I prefer it neat with a slab of strong, aged cheddar.  Available from select liquor stores or visit


Red Stag Bourbon
Red Stag Cherry Bourbon