How I Taste Wine

At a tasting I presented a while ago, there were lots of envious looks when the host told his guests why the event had to be staged in mid-winter. ‘Michael says he is going to spend the next couple of months tasting wine . . .’

In each year’s New Zealand Wines: Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide, many of the reviews flow from an intense period of tasting during August, September and early October. This ensures New Zealand Wines is as up-to-date as possible. These tastings in late winter and early spring attract a multitude of wines from the new season, together with older wines still in the pipeline but scheduled for release over the coming year.

Every day, the wines are tasted in two periods, generally between 11 a.m. and midday, and later from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Six to 10 wines are tasted at a time, grouped by variety or style. A typical tasting might be eight Pinot Gris or Syrah.

But the tastings for New Zealand Wines take place year-round. Winestate’s annual regional tastings of wines from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Otago, Nelson/Canterbury and the Upper North Island. Other samples are sent for review in my weekly column in the New Zealand Listener. Many other wines are tasted when their producers visit Auckland, or I visit them in the regions.

When writing New Zealand Wines, I often find I’ve tasted a particular wine several times – frequently ‘blind’ (label hidden), but sometimes with its label revealed; occasionally with food, but more often by itself. And the wine itself is changing over time. Every time you taste it, you get to know it better.

Wine lovers often see the task of tasting 3000-plus wines each year as Herculean. But if you taste about 10 wines daily – easy for a professional taster – the numbers add up swiftly.

I like to score wines on a star-rating system that includes the use of half stars. Three, four and five stars (equivalent to bronze, silver and gold medals) are useful, but these bands of quality can be broad. Wine judges often talk about a ‘high bronze’ or ‘low silver’ wine. Half stars offer a taster the chance to be more precise.

Value should be the key factor in your buying decisions. Who doesn’t love a wine that over-delivers, in terms of value? That can mean a four-star Pinot Gris under $20, or a five-star Pinot Noir under $40.

New Zealand Wines: Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide celebrates the great wines of New Zealand but it is also keen to highlight the best buys.