Hilltops shiraz wins Jimmy Watson trophy — but more reform needed

The Jimmy Watson trophy is to wine drinkers what the Melbourne Cup is to once a year punters. We’ve all heard of it. There’s a buzz each year as the Melbourne show unveils the latest winner. And for the winner, especially if it’s a little known winery, victory can be a fast track to glory.

This year the coveted crystal and silver jug came to the Eden Road Winery, Canberra, for its Hilltops Shiraz 2008. The wine had previously won trophies as best shiraz and best red at the 2009 Canberra Regional show and shared the champion-wine trophy with Ken Helm’s Premium Riesling 2009 (which also won gold in Melbourne).

The bad news is that the juicy, drink-now red sold out shortly after the trophy announcement a few weeks back. And the good news is that the 2009 vintage – now maturing in Eden Road’s cellar in the old Kamberra Winery – will remain at a modest $16.50 a bottle when it’s released next year. I tasted components of it today alongside the Jimmy winner and have little doubt that it’ll be at least as good, and in the same supple, easy-drinking mould. Winemaker Nick Spencers views the 2009s as ‘a big step up from the 2008s’.

Nick says the majority of grapes used in the trophy winner came from Jason Brown’s Moppity Park vineyard – the second oldest in the Hilltops region (established 1973) – with components from Grove Estate and other vineyards.

And he sees a fundamental difference between Hilltops and Canberra shiraz – the former showing bright, berry fruit, with an open, easy drinking character; the latter making fragrant but taut wines needing time to mature.

The Hilltops fruit, he says, doesn’t demand oak maturation the way cabernet or fuller bodied shiraz does. Indeed, Nick matured the majority of the winning blend in steel tanks and the balance in older oak barrels.

Apart from cutting the oak bill (and the price of the finished wine) maturation in tank lends an agreeable gamey note to the wine – a characteristic readily observed while comparing tank and barrel samples of the as yet unblended 2009 vintage.

Eden Road Hilltops Shiraz 2008, says Steve Webber, chair of the Melbourne show, is only the second winner in the trophy’s 37-history to have been bottled and in the market at the time of judging. Until recently the line up was the domain of raw young reds not due for blending, let alone bottling, for many months away. The break out box explains why this was so – and why it made the Jimmy Watson not only Australia’s best-known wine award but also its most reviled by critics, including me.

Stephen Shelmerdine, Chair of the wine show committee of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (RASV), tells me that bottled exhibits now account for 75–80 per cent of all entries. The change, he says, result from a run of earlier vintages, wines spending less time in oak and shifting the judging from July to October.

And there’s been tremendous pressure, too, to bring the trophy in line with standards adopted by Australia’s other wine shows: no awards for unfinished wine.

Stephen explained that making changes requires the agreement of RASV, as show organise, and the Watson family, as custodians of the Jimmy Watson Trophy trust deed.

He says that after widespread consultation with the industry, from 2010 the trophy will be open to both one and two year old reds – meaning an even higher proportion of bottled wine in the judging line up.

But he admits there’s continuing pressure to exclude unfinished wine – an option still being considered by the RASV and the Watson family.

But even if we assume that what wins the trophy is what we finally drink, what makes the trophy so noteworthy?

I can’t fathom it. It’s not inherently superior to other judgements. It’s not a line-up of the best of the best – just a gang of one-year-old reds from all over the country. The trophy’s success seems to be based more on an emotional appeal, perhaps derived from its long history and steady promotion over four decades. Interestingly, the background story is seldom told now that the trophy has a life of its own.

I remain a Jimmy Watson sceptic on three grounds. The first, now receding as we see more finished products in the race; the second that no single award means a great deal – look for wines with a string of successes in different shows; and thirdly that just because the judges at one show like a wine doesn’t mean that you or will.

Take, for example last year’s winner, Flametree Cabernet Merlot 2007 – I couldn’t get through even a single glass of; down the sink it went.
This year’s winner is another story. It’s delicious, but sadly no longer available. Full marks, though, to the Eden Road team for not letting the victory go to its head. We can all look forward to trying the 2009 next year at the same realistic price.

The Jimmy Watson trophy over the years
In 1962 Jimmy Watson, wine merchant, died. At his funeral, a hat passed amongst Watson’s loyal followers, raising funds to sponsor an annual ‘Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy’ for the best one-year-old red wine at the Melbourne Wine Show.

There are those who still remember Jimmy with fondness – none more so than his son Alan as he presides, with his son, over the Jimmy Watson Wine Bar founded by his father all those years ago.

But somewhere along the way, the trophy took on a life of its own – a farcical, commercial life far removed from the world Jimmy Watson inhabited during his lifetime.

Alan Watson remembers his father as a wine pioneer – a man who cheerfully weathered the sneers of some fellow Australians for nothing more than encouraging the consumption of table wine with food. In those days wine was just plonk.

Bill Chambers, maker of superb Rutherglen fortifieds and long-term chair of judges at the Melbourne wine show, once told me that he recalled Watson’s Wine bar in the late 1950s. There were bottles everywhere as a leather-apronned Jimmy, a great showman, worked with two rubber tubes to bottle a hogshead of red before lunch – an enviable feat in Chamber’s view, and one Jimmy Watson was proud of.

In those days Bill Chambers worked up in the Clare Valley with the Stanley Wine Company. He remembers Melbourne Wine Merchant, Doug Seabrook, buying hogsheads of raw young Clare Valley reds, many of which he sold to Watson. By all accounts it was these vigorous young reds, and not only those from Clare, that interested him most of all.

In an interview some years back, Alan Watson told me that his father’s business was not originally a watering hole as it is today, but a bottle shop where the owner selected and bottled everything himself. But Watson’s great enthusiasm attracted a ring of disciples who soon began bringing food to the shop and adopting a liberal interpretation of licensing laws that permitted patrons to taste wine before purchasing.

The clientele, enthralled by Watson, showman and extrovert, came from all walks of life. But with Melbourne University just up the road from Watson’s Lygon Street premises, academics and students swelled his ranks of followers. Eagerly they swallowed his message.

Dad tried to move the trade into another era,” reminisced Alan Watson. “He wanted wine to be seen as an everyday occurrence, something to be consumed with meals.” He also urged patience, encouraging customers to cellar the immature, purple, one-year-old reds that were the bulk of his trade.

Jimmy Watson was an educator of old and young alike according to Bill Chambers. “Students, professors, everyone brought their tucker down the road before heading up to Watson’s to drink wine. But he was a showman and I can’t remember him drinking much himself.”

Watson’s senior disciples, mostly academics and businessmen, gravitated to an upstairs room, eventually dubbed ‘The House of Lords’ by him. It was these most ardent and articulate followers who passed the hat at Jimmy Watson’s funeral, thus perpetuating his name in the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy to be awarded to the robust, year-old reds he so loved.

For the next ten years the Jimmy Watson Trophy – now a household word amongst wine drinkers – remained unknown to wine consumers and of only minor interest to wine companies.

Bill Chambers judged in Melbourne from the early 1960’s. He recalls little fuss over the Watson Trophy until the Berri Co-operative won it in 1973. Then, recalls Chambers, after an heroic celebration, winemaker Brian Barry boarded the plane carrying the Murray River’s first major trophy.

Perhaps we can link the trophy’s rise to fame more with Wolf Blass’s hat trick. He won it in 1974, 1975 and 1976 for his 1973, 1974 and 1975 vintages of ‘Dry Red Claret’. He renamed the wine Wolf Blass Black Label and used the Jimmy as its launching pad. He even proclaimed the triple victory on the neck label of his sparkling wine at the time.

Increasingly since then, to win the trophy is to harvest a windfall. For the hype surrounding each year’s winner virtually guarantees the wine’s commercial success.

While no amount of hosing down seems to quell trade or public clamouring for the winner, the fact is that for most of the trophy’s history, the winning wine has not been the finished product.

This has been the source of sustained and intense criticism, principally from those concerned with the integrity of show results. Awarding medals and trophies to unfinished wine simply magnifies the chance of fraud.

Even the most meticulously honest winery blending a “representative” show sample across a range of barrels can’t say with certainty that what the judges tasted and what goes into bottle are the same wine.

While recent changes made by the show organisers and the Watson family, deserve praise, the reform must go all the way and close the trophy judging to unfinished wine.

We can sympathise with the Watson family’s emotional connection to the raw young reds Jimmy loved to bottle. But the interests of wine drinkers and the integrity of the show system must ultimately rise above those sentiments.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009