Though some of the world's best wines shine when paired with food, rare is the wine competition that takes the food-friendliness of its entrants into account.
I've recently been judging at a New Zealand wine show which does just that, the inaugural Canterbury Wine Awards.
"As wines are typically consumed with food it makes sense to evaluate them in this manner," explains Gill Walsh of Wines of Canterbury, the regional association behind the competition. "It's also a point of difference from other wine shows."
From Spotswood near the Waiau River in the north to the Hakataramea Valley in the south, wines from across the region were entered into classes based on food categories, such as cheese, lamb and salmon, with their suitability as a match with dishes within these groups a key element of the judging criteria.
With around a dozen major wine competitions in existence in New Zealand, and hundreds across the world, it's good to see this latest addition adopting a different approach. It joins just a handful of serious food-focused wine shows.
The longest-running is the Sydney International Wine Competition, which has been judging its finalists alongside appropriate food since its inception in 1982. "The whole aim is help consumers select wines thoughtfully, intelligently, for their dining table," notes competition director Warren Mason.
"That's not only good for consumers, it's also very good for winemakers inasmuch as it steers consumers towards more considered purchases, instead of, blindly, unknowingly, towards the cheapest, blandest 'specials'," he maintains.
Last year, What Food, What Wine? was launched in Britain to find the best wines to match with popular dishes. Its aim is to help wine drinkers experiment with confidence when it comes to finding wines to go with their food, according to its organisers, and it's encouraging to see that initial success means it has been expanded this year to include What Food, What Wine? India and What Food, What Wine? Christmas.
Considering food compatibility as well as a wine's intrinsic quality, added an interesting extra dimension to the judging. For example, firm tannins were more forgiving in a wine when paired with a juicy piece of rare steak. It also meant the wine show ponies - the big, bold styles that can do well at other shows - were not the obvious winners here.
Wines that work well with food tend to be those which are have more elegant fruit profiles, subtle flavours, savoury elements, moderate alcohol levels and perhaps most importantly, a fresh acidity that lifts the flavours of a dish in the same way a squeeze of lemon does. Instead in dominating dishes with its flavours, these create a synergy with the food, enhancing the enjoyment of both.
Given that Canterbury's cooler climate tends to result in wines with higher natural acidity and more restrained flavour profiles, it seems highly relevant that this approach has been adopted by its local wine show. It's also one I'd welcome being embraced by more wine competitions, both here and abroad.
Some of the trophy-winning wines from the Canterbury Wine Awards, paired with dishes suggested by chef and competition judge Simon Sheehan.
BEST IN SHOW
Greystone Waipara Valley Gewurztraminer 2011 $29.95
Food match: Triple-cream brie and a walnut gouda with manuka honey-marinated figs. This pretty gewurztraminer with its hint of sweetness and silky palate threaded with notes of musky spice and rose petal wowed the judges was the best wine overall in the competition. (From Glengarry, Ponsonby Liquor, Caro's Wines.)
QUAFF WITH CANAPES
Waipara Hills Waipara Valley Riesling 2011 $29.90
Food match: Jasmine-smoked snapper with apple and celeriac puree and micro-rocket. With its crisp acidity and wide range of styles, riesling is one of the most food-friendly varieties. The winner was this beautifully balanced fresh off-dry example with notes of honey, lime and ginger. (Call 0800699463 for nearest stockist.)
SUPREME WITH SALMON
Muddy Water Waipara Chardonnay 2009 $32.95
Food match: Pan-roasted fillet of salmon with roasted jerusalem artichokes, pea tendrils, lemongrass and kaffir lime nage and deep-fried beetroot. A textural chardonnay with ripe but elegant white peach fruit, layered with notes of mineral, nut, butter, subtle toasty oak and a savoury undertone. (From Caro's and Advintage.)