Canberra show needs its benchmarks

Once again judges at the recent Canberra Regional Wine Show praised the strength of Canberra’s shiraz and riesling. What the commentary didn’t reveal though is the statistical dominance of shiraz from the neighbouring Hilltops region.

Hilltops fielded just nine of the forty-seven wines in the two shiraz classes but won seven medals – an extraordinary 78 per cent strike rate. Even more extraordinary, it won three of the six gold medals – one for every three wines exhibited. And for the second year a Hilltops wine took out the honours as top wine of the show. This year Eden Road Wines The Long Road Hilltops Shiraz 2008 shared the honour with Helm Canberra District Premium Riesling 2008; last year the award went to Chalkers Crossing Hilltops Shiraz 2005.

But the strength of a few wines from Hilltops doesn’t deny the beauty of some Canberra shirazes. Winning three gold and three silver medals from thirty entries – a ten per cent strike rate for each – is impressive. What’s not so impressive is the short tail of six bronze medals, meaning a total medal strike rate of just forty percent. In other words the judges rated the majority of Canberra shirazes as pretty ordinary wines.

That should be a wake-up call for the district. It’s the sort of result expected in emerging regions, where there’s a chasm between the best and the worst and the quality of the average wine is poor. However, the numbers might’ve look better had a number of key makers exhibited in the important 2008 vintage class. Many that might have entered, could not for the simple reason that their wines were either not bottled or just bottled and not yet ready for showing.

Where were entries from leading makers Clonakilla, Mount Majura, Collector, Brindabella Hills and Ravensworth? How do you benchmark a region’s wines without the benchmarks? And what’s the real value of a medal when the champs, especially Clonakilla, don’t run?
Judges don’t get to see the region’s true depth and diversity; other exhibitors miss out on full benchmarking; and the marketing opportunities presented by the show results become more limited.

The Limestone Coast and Hunter wine shows, for example, benefit greatly because local icons Wynns and Tyrrell participate. If, for example, you’re a Hunter semillon, shiraz or chardonnay maker, winning a medal in company with Tyrrells sends a strong message about your quality. Good on Bruce Tyrrell. It takes confidence and guts to put prestigious wines on the line year after year. He doesn’t need to.

In Canberra, our dominant riesling maker, Ken Helm, exhibits every year. His success in the local show and at other events make Helm riesling the local benchmark. Other makers benefit from being judged alongside Ken’s Classic Dry and Premium Rieslings.

Though it’s our dominant class, shiraz could be even richer if we had the local benchmarks in the show. Clonakilla’s shiraz viognier is now seen as a world-class wine; and its cellar mates, the O’Riada Canberra District Shiraz and Hilltops Shiraz are beautiful wines. But they’re not in the show.

It’d be wonderful for the district if one day Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk – an ardent wine show judge and recipient of industry largesse through the Len Evans Tutorial – entered these graceful wines in our show. As well, the National Capital Agricultural Society, organiser of the show,  might consider moving the judging  back by a few months. This would allow makers to finish their previous-vintage shirazes for inclusion in the taste offs.

In this year’s show the three top scoring shiraz gold medallists, all from Hilltops, were Eden Road Wines The Long Road Shiraz 2008, Grove Estate The Cellar Block Shiraz Viognier 2008 and Chalkers Crossing Shiraz 2006. The other three gold medallist, all from Canberra, were Lambert Shiraz 2008, Tallagandra Hill Shiraz Viognier 2008 and Lerida Estate Lake George Shiraz Viognier 2007.

In the riesling classes, Canberra wines dominated, with gold medals for Gallagher 2009, Capital Wines ‘The Whip’ 2009, Helm Premium 2008, Wallaroo 2008 and Brindabella Hills 2002. Centennial Vineyards from the Southern Highland also earned gold for its Woodside Riesling 2008.

High, cool Tumbarumba made a clean sweep in the two chardonnay classes, earning gold medals for Barwang 2008, Eden Road The Long Road 2008 and Barwang 842 2006, as well as several silver medals.

Cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir fared poorly overall. Pinot classes produced no gold medallists, just a couple silvers for Eden Road Tumbarumba 2008 and Mount Majura 2004. And Tallagandra Hill earned a gold medal for its Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc 2008 as did Barwang for a 1998 Hilltops cabernet sauvignon.

And if you look hard enough, you’ll always find inexplicable anomalies in any show results. Mount Majura’s delicious Tempranillo Shiraz Graciano 2008 failed to rate a medal in the Canberra Regional show but won gold in the Winewise Small Vignerons Awards just a few weeks earlier. And Capital Wines ‘The Whip’ Riesling 2009 won gold in the Canberra show but nothing in the Winewise event.

The result overall make a good shopping list. But these striking inconsistencies tell us to take any judgement with a grain of salt. You can see the full show results at www.rncas.org.au

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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