NWWA – Meet the Judges: James Rowan

James Rowan has been the senior winemaker at West Brook Winery in Auckland for the past 15 years, making wine from Matakana, Auckland, Waiheke Island, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Marlborough. He has been a senior wine judge at numerous New Zealand competitions including the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, New Zealand Wine of Year Awards, Gisborne Regional Wine Awards, the Romeo Bragato Wine Awards, New Zealand International Wine Show and the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards. James is also a senior cider judge. Over the years, James has also shared his passion and knowledge for wine with various New Zealand magazines and trade publications.

How old were you when you had your first wine ‘moment’?

“Given my age…the legal age for drinking was 20 then…BUT my father and I used to drink Jacobs Creek ‘Claret’ together…usually around the bbq when he was cooking…the social and food thing has always been a big thing with me…great conversations!...the other was when I was in Marlborough in 1996 when my flatmate and I shared a bottle of White Burgundy I’d bought on a trip down to Christchurch…a Chartron et Trebuchet ‘Puligny Montrachet’…it was the strangest chardonnay I’d ever tasted, so different to what I’d had in the past…so complex and different…the next day we were laying out posts in the vineyard we were developing and I had a moment when I belched…and could taste the wine again…a strange yet ‘WINE MOMENT’ moment…to be certain!”

What does your own wine cellar look like and what is your most recent addition?

“There’s probably about 40 dozen…there’s a fair library stock of wines we’ve made over time for Westbrook and clients so it’s always fascinating to open them when winemaking friends come over and we get involved in ‘complex discussions’…but I do purchase and drink broadly…there’s been a good run on some European vintages recently…other than the 2020 rosés and whites we’ve been bottling there’s been an influx of 2016/2017 Rhone reds/whites (mostly Chateauneuf du Papes) as well some Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) and some STUNNING German Rieslings….for some reason the vintage harvest (or the end of it) seems to deplete these resources!”

In the last 12 months, which grape have you drunk the most of?

“Riesling, Riesling, and more Riesling, Chardonnay and Syrah.”

In the last 12 months, what’s the most exciting region you’ve discovered or re-discovered?

“It’s been a re-visit for me (as if every glass isn’t?)…Vouvray from the Loire Valley in France…Chenin Blanc…I adore the aromatics and acidity…which also ties in with my new found adoration of Albarino (a generally Spanish variety but some GORGEOUS NZ examples)…we’re planting some at Westbrook… it’s going to be like the Riesling of the North Island…we’ve made some for a client over the last three vintages…and I ADORE Riesling!”

What has been your most memorable wine and food moment?

“There are two…one can never go past olives and a dry fino sherry…on that point, one could never go past a Gin & Tonic and grilled octopus…the other was in Florence and I said to the sommelier that I was a NZ winemaker and wanted a fruity style of Pinot Gris…he came back with this STUNNING bottle of Friuli…and we shared it with a saffron risotto…I can still taste and smell and remember that night…and that was 14 odd years ago!”

Wine styles continue to fluctuate. Where do you think the wine-style pendulum is swinging?

“I’ve got a couple of sayings…one is: wine, like life, is about texture…the other is: wine is like fashion…what we see on the catwalks of clothing fashion, has to be woven in to our everyday wardrobes as highlight pieces. Winemakers will always play…but not everything works for the time (or the wine). What a winemaker or sommelier likes may be TOTALLY incongruous with what the final consumer finds attractive (like clothing fashion)…so the pendulum swing isn’t necessarily about extremes but about moments in time…I personally like fruit, freshness, vitality and conviction…we have a lot of middle ground wines available to us that are ‘OK’…it’s all about balance and I believe that the consumer wants a wine that is balanced not extreme…the pendulum doesn’t just swing left to right it’s an ever moving helix…so I think that as long as winemakers keep on making wine and grape growers keep on growing grapes, there will be a vast floral arrangement out there that will appeal to some and all of us.”

What do you enjoy most about judging at the NWWA?

“Most of all is the camaraderie, the people involved in this show are amazing friends, mentors and reprobates! I adore the accessibility of these top wines. I purchase them myself and am very proud of what we’ve awarded. Good, decent and exemplary, a bit like some of the judges!”