all they are worth. And because marketers began feeding show results to drinkers as definitive quality statements, organisers responded by altering shows in varying degrees in recognition of a growing responsibility to consumers.
Consumer-orientated changes introduced by wine shows range from judging wines within price points (Adelaide) to conducting winery audits to ensure that what the drinker drinks is what the judges judged (Canberra).
Even so, Canberra’s chairman of judges, Ian McKenzie, believes the fundamental purpose of wine shows is not to enlighten the consumer but to “improve the breed”. Wine shows, he points out, are still run by agricultural societies as part and parcel of wider agricultural exhibitions.
Ian sees this year’s National Show (“… the grand final of the Australian wine show system… ”) as one of the strongest in quality across the board — the percentage of gold medals awarded being higher than ever and with a notable lift in competition from New Zealand in the riesling and chardonnay classes.
He sees over-oaking of whites as mostly a thing of the past, attributing the increase in wine maker skill, in part, to the prohibitive cost of oak.
The only weakness he noted was a tendency for wine makers to over-react to strong demand for traditional full-bodied reds by simply making wines “too extractive” — wine maker jargon for reds made apparently fuller by extracting extra tannins from grape skins, a procedure that adds grip, not flavour.
For wine makers, ‘improving the breed’ comes not just in heeding the judge’s decisions, but in attending the exhibitors’ tasting following the show. Here, in a furious four-hour session, they compare their own wines with those of rival makers, especially the medal winners. Final judgments, though, tend to be independent of what the catalogue of results said.
Consumers ought to take the same skeptical view as exhibitors. For the fact is there are sufficient anomalies in any list of wine show awards, Canberra included, to say no medal’s worth should be taken at face value.
Take, for example, the large-volume sparkling class for vintage and non-vintage sparkling wines. The judges, led by Domaine Chandon’s Dr Tony Jordan in this instance, really should be made to stand in the corner. Either that or we accept Minchinbury, Carrington, Great Western, and Seaview at $4-$7 as better wines than Salinger 1991 ($30).
And why a gold for Mildara Jamieson’s Run 1992 in one class and nothing in another? Or what does Orlando wine maker Robin Day make of a silver medal for Jacobs Creek Chardonnay 1993 and nothing, in the same class, for the twice-as-good, twice-as-expensive St Hilary? That’s not to mention numerous other excellent wines overlooked.
Glaring errors like these do nothing to improve the breed or inform consumers.
On the other hand, if we look through the list of trophy winners, it’s difficult to quibble. At the most, we might have a few different preferences. Note, too, the industry giant is stirring. Southcorp, accounting for about one third of Australia’s wine production, picked up half of the trophies — and I find it hard to argue against any of them.
To do in two hours what three panels of judges did in one week being not possible, I explored fairly whimsically through the exhibitors’ tasting to spot the interesting ones.
In the current vintage riesling class, so often the source of good value, Aussie wines showed their predictable colours. But it was the New Zealanders offering a delightful new range of aromas and flavours. From now on include Marlborough Rieslings on your shopping list.
If you thought Pinot Noir was the domain of small makers, pop in to cellar door sales at Seppelts Great Western winery and grab a few bottles of Drumborg/Tumbarumba Pinot Noir 1992 ($19). This is a fantastic wine, made by Ian McKenzie, using the best fruit from Seppelt’s Drumborg (southern Victoria) and Tumbarumba (Snowy Mountains, NSW) vineyards. Ian rates the not-yet-released 1993 its equal and the 1994 as even better.
Pam Dunsford’s Chapel Hill McLaren Vale Coonawarra Cabernet 1992 stood out for sheer lush fruit flavour; and the Schrapel family’s Bethany Shiraz 1992 shows the Barossa’s red specialty in all its rich glory.
Amongst sparkling wines, Salinger 1990 finally got what it deserved — a trophy for being the best. But for a glimpse of future flavours in Australian sparkling, take a sniff and sip of Dominique Portet’s Tasmanian Taltarni Clover Hill 1991. Superb stuff, finally getting to the heart of what intensity of flavour, combined with delicacy is all about.