Winewise awards — a view from the judge’s bench

A recent database published by Winetitles, Adelaide, lists 2320 Australian vignerons, mostly small and sprinkled across southern Australia. As a judge at the recent Winewise Small Vignerons Awards, I was struck by the diversity of styles and high quality now offered by these small makers.

Indeed we judged at such a leisurely pace (for a wine show) that I had time to make detailed notes of the 236 wines assessed by my panel over the two and a half days of the event. It’s therefore only a snapshot as four other panels assessed another 1,200 wines. You can read the honour roll of medal and trophy winners at, so what I offer here is my own list of wines that’ll put a smile on your face. There’s a general correlation with the aggregate results. But a great joy of wine is that even judges disagree about what tastes best.

We found plenty to love in rieslings from across the continent. McLean’s Farmgate 2008 Eden Valley (owner Bob McLean, winemaker Colin Forbes) pleased for its fresh limey flavours and taut delicate structure ¬– a contrast to the fatter and softer but still delicious Neagles Rock Clare Valley 2008.

A run of lovely 2008s from much cooler areas showed the finer, more delicate and sometimes steely acidic face of the variety. Favourites were: Allinda Yarra Valley, Wild Dog Gippsland, Goaty Hill Tamar Tasmania, Greystone Waipara New Zealand and Bream Creek South Eastern Tasmania.

From the Canberra district Nick O’Leary 2008, Helm Classic 2008 and especially Helm Premium 2008 showed real finesse, alongside the understated Zarapeth Porongorup 2008 and delicate, musky Granite Hills Macedon Ranges 2008.

And in a line-up from various vintages and regions these wines appealed: Morningside Tasmania 2007, Koonara Sofiel’s Gift Adelaide Hills 2007, Setanta Speckled Hen Adelaide Hills 2007, Patrick T Wrattonbully 2006, Delatite Mansfield 2006, Tertini Southern Highlands 2005 and Pokolbin Estate Hunter 2004.

After tasting such fresh, bright, complex chardonnays I wonder why the popular fascination with sauvignon blanc, a vastly inferior variety to my taste. Geoff Weaver Lenswood 2008 and Protero Gumeracha 2007, from the Adelaide Hills, and Bream Creek from Tasmania showed various shades of cool-grown chardonnay – the Bream Creek, in particular real flavour intensity with delicacy.

Balgownie’s Yarra Valley 2006 was the sole but rich and complex star of a run of so-so central Victorian chardonnays – how a Yarra got in there I don’t know, but it saved the day!

Chardonnay showed its adaptability in several really delicious wines from a mixed-region class covering warm and cool climates. Canberra’s Mount Majura 2008 topped my list with its fine, balanced understated style. But Spring Ridge Cowra 2006 appealed too for its deep fruit and complex, leesy flavours. Three wines from Mulyan Vineyards Cowra showed great textural and flavour qualities – Mulyan Bushranger Bounty 2007, Cowra 2006 and Block 7 2006. Lerida Estate Canberra 2007 showed well, too, offering grapefruit-like varietal flavour fleshed out by very good oak treatment.

The variety’s distinctive apricot-like flavour and sometimes-oily texture can be too much. But in a field of 27 wines our unanimous favourite was Heafod Glen Swan Valley 2008, an incredibly zesty, complex, fine example of the variety. Not far behind was Canberra’s Ravensworth 2008, offering pure ginger and spice varietal flavour and the rich texture of barrel fermentation and maturation. I also liked the silky smooth, slightly fatter Barossa Valley version of Ishtar 2008.

Semillon sauvignon blanc blends
We trawled through 30 wines and finally found a little excitement in Otway Estate Western Victoria 2008, Bellbrae Estate Geelong 2008 and Wine by Brad Margaret River 2008. This blend has been swept along in the sauvignon blanc craze and can be complex and satisfying – but alas, mediocrity dominates.

Hunter shiraz
This 2007 vintage class proved to be the highlight of the judging for me. It was a good vintage. Combine that with mature vines, mature winemaking skills and a regional tendency towards gentle, restrained styles and you get glass after glass of pure pleasure.

My favourites in more-or-less order of preference were: Di Iuliis Limited Release, Capercaille Ghillie Shiraz, Thomas Wines DJV Shiraz, Wandin Valley Estate Bridie’s Reserve Shiraz, Pokolbin Estate Shiraz Viognier, Ernest Hill William Henry, David Hook Old Vines.

A bracket of older Hunter shiraz also yielded several gentle, lovable gems: Capercaille Ghillie 2005, Saddlers Creek Single Vineyard 2005, Pokolbin Estate Reserve 2003, Ridgeview Wines 2006, Mistletoe Reserve 2006 and Ridgeview Wines Generations Reserve 2006.

Other shiraz
A mixed class threw up one delightful surprise – the peppery, spicy and supple, fine boned Golden Grove Estate 2008 from Queensland’s Granite belt.

The central Victoria shiraz class suggested that shiraz isn’t a universal champ in the region. There were several lean, unripe wines and several very faulty ones. However, three Bendigo wines – Sheer Drop 2004 (magnificent), Balgownie Estate 2006 and Balgownie Black Label Bendigo-Grampians2008  – and one Grampians wine, Hyde Park The Pinnacle 2007, saved the area’s reputation.

Cabernet sauvignon
Our panel tasted only 15 of the many cabernets exhibited but there was only one that really took my fancy – the supple, elegant Lost Lake Barrel Selection Single Vineyard 2007 from Pemberton, Western Australia.

Rhone blends – grenache, shiraz, mourvedre (aka Mataro)
This was another delicious line-up of a style that our warm areas do very, very well. We have the winemaking tradition, mature vines and a small army of enthusiastic young winemakers focusing on every detail – especially on fruit selection from great old vineyards.

Two contrasting wines that won my palate were the deep, dense, firm, beautifully grippy Murray Street Vineyards The Barossa Shiraz Mataro Grenache 2007 and the fragrant, supple spicy B3 Barossa Valley Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2007. The style differences were easy to detect and attribute to a dominance of mataro in the firmer wine and grenache in the lighter style. Bloody delicious.

I also loved the spicy, elegant, peppery Ishtar Barossa Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2006, Halifax Ad Lib McLaren Vale Grenache Shiraz Cabernet 2006 and Hentley Farm Dirty Bliss Grenache Shiraz.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009