National wine show delivers its verdict

Australia’s capital city wine shows date from the early nineteenth century when local agricultural societies included wine among the many agricultural products judged by experts. Today these “royal” agricultural society events compete like mad to be the biggest, the best, or in some way different from each other – a healthy competitiveness that sees the quality, style and status of each slowly evolving.

Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia bills itself as “Australia’s premier wine show” and grand final. The grand final claim rests partly on its timing (early November) and partly on entry qualifications. Wines need medals from recognised wine shows to enter the premium, premium gold and single vineyard classes.

Inconveniently for Canberra, Hobart and Sydney host their events after the so-called grand final – in mid November and early February respectively. On this basis, as the final show before the new vintage wines arrive, Sydney might rightly claim grand final status.

Royal Melbourne claims to be “the benchmark for Australian wine and at the forefront of wine style evolution and winemaking trends”.

Rather less boastfully, and with an air of commercial reality, perhaps instilled by sponsor Macquarie Group, Sydney Royal, dating from 1822, seeks for winners “recognition and a valuable opportunity to shine the spotlight on their wines”.

Royal Adelaide, representing the wine state, seems content to be “one of the pre-eminent wine shows in Australia”. Royal Queensland shares this sentiment as “one of the oldest, most prestigious shows”, while noting special status as the first major post-vintage event of the year (but, by being so close to vintage, limiting access to the new wines).

Royal Hobart, “one of the most significant events on the Australian wine industry calendar”, pulls away from its peers with a nod to its specialty red variety, pinot noir, noting “the award for pinot noir wine is the most prestigious in the show”.

Alone of the capital city shows, Perth Royal makes no claims whatever regarding its status (as far as I could find on its website) – and simply lists this year’s results.

Where shows once equated entry numbers to status (“mine’s bigger than yours”), the National (judged at EPIC in November), many years ago moved in the opposite direction, restricting entries in an attempt to raise the standard of entrants.

As a result, this year’s four judging panels enjoyed the fairly leisurely task of judging 1,444 wines over three days. A revitalised Melbourne, by comparison, attracted 3,298 entries this year. Canberra’s work rate of around 120 wines a day per panel, sits well inside the industry’s recommended maximum of 150. This is good, of course, because it minimises palate fatigue and allows time for judges to evaluate wines properly.

And what did the judges find among the entries that organisers claim, “include only the best of the best Australian wines”?

Among the trophy winners we find several wines that, based on long-term observation, clearly rank among the best of their styles in Australia: House of Arras 2004 Brut Elite, made by sparkling master Ed Carr; Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Reserve Pinot Noir 201; Tyrrell’s HVD Semillon 2005; Leasingham Classic Clare Sparkling Shiraz 2005; and Morris Old Premium Rare Liqueur Muscat.

Then we have a layer of outstanding trophy winners that’ve been in the spotlight before and are now pushing assertively into the elite ranks: Audrey Wilkinson Winemakers Selection Hunter Semillon 2011, Vasse Felix Margaret River Heytesbury Chardonnay 2010, Brown Brothers Milawa Patricia Noble Riesling 2009, Xanadu Wine Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 and De Bortoli PHI Pinot Noir 2010.

After that we see the democracy of a wine show at work, rewarding wines that may be little known to many drinkers (or not perceived to be in the top ranks), but in a masked tasting trump other better known labels: Domaine Chandon Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2010, McWilliams Wines Eden Valley Riesling 2009, Xanadu Wines Next of Kin Shiraz 2010, Amelia Park Cabernet Merlot 2010, Juniper Estate Tempranillo 2010, Coolangatta Estate Semillon 2006, Clairault Margaret River Estate Chardonnay 2010, Houghtons Wisdom Chardonnay 2009 and Madeleines Wines Nangkita Shiraz 2009.

The show organisers must be pleased with the solid representation of small makers in this line up.

Trophy lists often throw up anomalies, too. This year, for example, I can’t help wondering how Rosemount Estate District Shiraz 2010 topped the premium shiraz classes. It’s a delightful, juicy style to enjoy now, certainly deserving its gold medal. But, to me, it lacks the deep, savoury vein of a really top-notch shiraz.

But controversy and differences of opinion always have been and always will be part wine judging. What we can say for sure, though, is that the medal winners from the show are above average wines. Whether or not you and I will like some of the award winners, though, remains a matter of personal taste. It’s worth downloading the catalogue of results from www.rncas.org.au as lists all of the wines and their scores.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 30 November 2011 in The Canberra Times

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