Canberra regional wine show 2008 — a judge’s perspective

This year’s regional wine show tells us more strongly than ever that Canberra’s reputation and future rests heavily on the two varieties that shine here — riesling and shiraz. Other styles play a niche role – or perhaps, in some cases, none at all in the long run – with the important caveat that we ought to continue experimenting with sangiovese, tempranillo, graciano and other emerging varieties.

Summing up our judging of 254 wines from 46 exhibitors Brian Croser said that our rieslings are ‘world class, as Ken Helm will be glad to tell you’ and our shiraz is ‘up there with the very best of Australia and the globe’.

He said that chardonnay is ‘not our forte, but OK’, that pinot noir ‘should be grown elsewhere’, that ‘merlot struggles’ and that cabernet sauvignon has a place here – the best are excellent though ‘the balance are ordinary’.

Putting this in a global context, Croser said that Australia suffered a hangover from the twenty-year commodity wine boom and that our regions now needed to take the lead. Fine wines, he said, had been suppressed for too long.

He dismissed the ‘myth’, put about by big companies, that Australia had too many cool climate vineyards. And with Australia viewed as ‘the McDonalds of the wine world, it was essential to develop our fine wines – especially in the face of big changes now being forced upon us.

A combination of shifting markets, water shortage, government policy and climate change will force a new fine wine industry to ‘emerge from under the commodity business’. ‘We are being forced to go inland and upland and to the cool coastal valleys… this will be the trend for fifty years and beyond’.

In this context we will have no choice but to promote the varietal strengths of our regions. And with its highly continental climate and hard granitic soils Canberra’s strong suit would be riesling and shiraz – a fact demonstrated by show results.

A look at the ‘medal matrix’ shows the relative performance of the major varieties in this year’s show. The high medal strike rate of riesling (54 percent) and shiraz (49 per cent) points to their superior average quality.

But the figures also reveal more sustained highlights for the two varieties with about a quarter of their medals being gold – compared to 11 per cent for sauvignon blanc and blends, eight per cent for chardonnay, nil for pinot noir and 15 per cent for cabernet and blends. These, of course, are the basis for Brian Croser’s opinions.

Beneath the dry figures, though, is a feast of lovely wines from across the regions covered by the show. And the excitement goes well beyond the trophy and gold medal winners.

The trophy winners

  • Best riesling and best white of show – Helm Classic Dry Murrumbateman 2008
  • Best chardonnay -– Barwang Reserve Tumbarumba 2006 (not yet released)
  • Best sauvignon blanc – Cuttaway Hill Estate Southern Highlands 2008
  • Best shiraz, best red and best wine of show – Chalkers Crossing Hilltops 2005
  • Best cabernet – Binbilla Wines Special Steps Hilltops 2006
  • Best sparkling wine – Hungerford Hill Dalliance Tumbarumba Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2004

Riesling top performers
Beautiful field from the 2008 vintage, including the gold medal winning Helm Classic Dry, Helm Premium and Jeir Creek – all from Murrumbateman – and the silver medallists, Z4 Wines Zoe Murrumbateman Riesling and Mount Majura Vineyard, the latter winning a gold as well for its 2003 vintage.

Shiraz top performers
Gold medallists from the 2007 vintage: Barwang Hilltops, Dionysus Murrumbateman and Nick O’Leary Murrumbateman 2007. Gold medallists from the older class: Chalkers Crossing 2005, Barwang Hilltops 2006 and Long Rail Gully Murrumbateman 2006; and silver medallists: Long Rail Gully Murrumbateman 2005; Four Winds Alinga Murrumbateman; Borombola Hiraji’s Spell (probably Gundagai) 2006; Shaw Vineyard Estate Murrumbateman 2006; Chalkers Crossing Hilltops 2006; Brindabella Hills Hall 2006; Nick O’Leary Murrumbateman 2006.

Cabernet Sauvignon top performers
Silver medallist Grove Estate The Partners Hilltops 2007. Amongst the older wines, gold medallists Binbilla Special Steps Hilltops 2006 and Pankhurst Hall 2006 and silver medallists Barwang Hilltops 2006 and Shaw Vineyard Estate Murrumbateman Cabernet Merlot 2006.

Bubbly highlights
Tumbarumba showed its suitability for this style for the second year in row with the gold and trophy going to Hungerford Hill Dalliance Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2004. Centennial Vineyards from the Southern Highlands earned silver with a delicious, if acidic, pinot chardonnay blend.

A small class of sweeties showed a touch of class with three of four wines winning medals. Gold medallist Enos Family Murrumbateman Late Harvest Semillon came in luscious few points ahead of silver medallists Lark Hill Bungendore Auslese Riesling 2006 and Lerida Estate Lake George Botrytis Pinot Gris 2007.

Who can enter the Canberra Regional Wine Show?
The show caters for wines from the Canberra, Gundagai, Hilltops, Tumbarumba, Shoalhaven Coast and Southern Highlands regions. The wines can be made outside of these areas – and many are – but at least 85 per cent of the grapes used in any wine must originate from one or more of those regions.

The regions are defined and protected globally under Australian law. You can read all about these and view maps of Australia’s ‘zones’ and ‘regions’ under ‘geographic indications’ on the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation website at

How are the wines judged?
To compare like with like, we judge wines in homogenous classes. For example this year, ‘Class 1’ was for 2008 vintage rieslings, ‘Class 2’ was for 2008 sauvignon blancs and ‘Class 16’ was for shirazes from the 2006 and earlier vintages. While we judge the major grape varieties in discrete groups, it’s not practicable, say, for emerging styles where there may only be one or two entries for each. So there are a couple of ‘other varieties’ classes plus small, mixed groupings for bubblies, rosés, stickies and museum wines (2003 vintage and older).

There are three judges and two associate judges, each with a partitioned-off tasting table. We see only glasses on numbered squares, never bottles. And we don’t discuss the wines while we’re judging and giving each wine a score out of 20. After finishing a class, we sit around a table, tally our scores and compare notes, mainly on the best or contentious wines. Any wine with a gold-medal score from any of the judges comes back for a second look by the group.

We aggregate the scores of the three judges (but not of the associates), with adjustments, in some cases, following the discussion and re-tasting – meaning a score out of 20 for every wine. Any with 46.5 or more win a medal: 46.5 earns bronze, 51 earns silver and 55.5 strikes gold. If there are two or more gold medal winners in a class, the judges usually decide on a ‘top’ gold to advance to the trophy taste-offs.

At the trophy taste offs, where there can be only one winner in each category, we shift to a simple order of preference ranking. For example, in the taste-off for the wine-of-the-show we unanimously ranked a shiraz first among the trophy winners from the riesling, shiraz, cabernet, chardonnay and sparkling classes.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008