How Winewise beat National Wine Show to the punch

Over the last few decades the boasting theme of Australian wine show organisers changed fundamentally. “My show’s bigger than yours” gave way to “mine’s better than yours”. Canberra’s National Show, held each November, boasted longest and strongest across those decades. It billed itself as the grand final – the last major show of the year, with entries to many classes restricted to medal winners from other shows.

Then a few years back various wine industry players began criticising the national. Its tough entry standards, designed to filter out all but the best wines, had become too restrictive, they said. In particular, minimum quantity requirements, and a reluctance to recognise the growing importance of regional wine shows, left large swathes of small makers out of contention.

Over time, the absence of so many top players across all classes sapped the show’s credibility – especially its “grand final” claim.

But the show organisers listened to the criticism and in 2010 introduced a raft of changes. By then, however, they’d been usurped by Canberra’s Winewise magazine.  Building on the credibility of the long-established Winewise Small Vignerons Awards, Winewise conducted its own grand in February 2010.

Proprietor Lester Jesberg, prompted in part by the National Wine Show’s shortcomings, had plans for the first Winewise Championship well under way by October 2009 – a year ahead of the National’s changes. As we drove from Melbourne airport to judge at the 2009 Macedon Regional Wine Show, Jesberg provided details.

His idea was to hold a ‘best of the best’ competition, inviting gold medallists from Australia’s national and regional wine shows – a position not all that far from the National’s revised stance.

Then, recognising that many of our best producers don’t enter wine shows, Winewise extended the invitation to wines that had succeeded in its own regular masked tastings – conducted to wine show standards.

At www.winewise.com.au, Jesberg comments on this year’s championship, “While the National Show has now revised its eligibility criteria to recognize the Winewise Small Vigneron Awards and selected Regional Shows, many smaller producers still find the criteria hard to meet and confine their wines to the regional shows, thus missing out on valuable benchmarking across the national spectrum. This competition brings all the wines together for the benefit of both winemakers and consumers.”

The list of medallion winners (the best wine from each category) is truly impressive. It includes wines from Australia’s largest and smallest producers and, with only a few outriders, the varieties match known regional specialties.

The outriders were a merlot from Mudgee (Charnwood Estate 2009), a Barossa tempranillo (Running with Bulls 2009) and a Goulburn River mourvedre (Terra Felix E’vette’s Block 2009). But these results are nevertheless credible, and simply confirm that masked tastings strip away our prejudices.

While the full list of results won’t be revealed until April, a sneak preview shows that it’s peppered with wonderful wines. However, like the National’s catalogue, big gaps remain despite efforts to rope in all the champs. So many wonderful wines are simply not there.

Len Sorbello of Winewise admits, “not all invitees entered their wines”. That could be for a number of reasons, but most likely because many of our very best small producers see no benefit in entering wine shows.

The best of these are their own fiercest critics. They constantly benchmark their own wines against the best from around the world and remain forever restless. They’re harsh and honest in their own appraisals and always see room to improve their wines through fine-tuning in the vineyard and winery.

These makers need neither the marketing benefit of awards nor the benchmarking provided by judges. They’ll never enter shows no matter how nicely they’re asked. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

It simply means that grand final wine shows or championships, by whatever name, can’t really be called the ‘best of the best’. ‘Best of the best wines entered in shows’ would be more accurate. And that will always include plenty of top names.

That doesn’t diminish the value of the National or Winewise Championship or any other well-run show or competition. They remain a major force for good. They highlight outstanding wines to consumers, relegate poor quality products and promote discussion among winemakers. And many makers attend exhibitor tastings, looking long and hard at winning wines for clues about how to improve their own products.

And the honours list from the 2011 Winewise Championship, judged in February, offers some magnificent drinking. The full list of results will be published in the April edition of Winewise.

The 2011 medallion winners

Chardonnay: 2009 Penfolds Reserve Bin 09A Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills)

Riesling: 2005 St Hallett Eden Valley Riesling (Eden Valley)

Sauvignon blanc: 2010 Wicks Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Adelaide Hills)

Semillon: 2006 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon (Hunter Valley)

Pinot gris: 2010 Nepenthe Altitude Pinot Gris (Adelaide Hills)

Viognier: 2009 Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier (Eden Valley)

Other dry white: 2006 Tahbilk Marsanne (Goulburn Valley)

Sweet white: 2009 Yalumba FSW8B Botrytis Viognier (Wrattonbully)

Sparkling wine: 2000 Freycinet Radenti Sparkling (Tasmania)

Pinot noir: 2008 Paringa Estate, Estate Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula)

Cabernet sauvignon: 2008 Fuddling Cup Cabernet Sauvignon (Geographe WA)

Bordeaux blend: 2009 Catching Thieves Cabernet Merlot (Margaret River)

Merlot: 2009 Charnwood Estate Merlot (Mudgee)

Classic red blend: 2008 Lindemans Limestone Ridge (Coonawarra)

Shiraz: 2009 Shaw and Smith Shiraz (Adelaide Hills)

Tempranillo: 2009 Running With Bulls Tempranillo (Barossa Valley)

Other red blend: 2009 Gilligan Shiraz Grenache/Mourvèdre (McLaren Vale)

Other red varietal: 2009 Terra Felix E’vette’s Block Mourvedre (Goulburn Valley)

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011

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