Canberra regional wine show gets the big picture but falters on detail

What can we learn from the honours list from the local wine show? Perhaps that wine shows tend to capture the big picture well but falter, at times, on the detail; that shiraz, riesling and chardonnay perform best; that pinot noir, cabernet and sauvignon blanc, with occasional exceptions, fare less well, or even poorly; that we have distinct regional specialties; and that some niche varieties show great potential.

In an impressive blaze of glory, around two-thirds of the entries made from shiraz, riesling or chardonnay won gold, silver or bronze medals. And what a tight race those varieties fought for number one spot.

For all the talk we’ve heard about shiraz and riesling, chardonnay topped the rankings by a nose. Twenty one of the of the thirty one chardonnays entered won medals – five of them gold – for an aggregate strike-rate of 68 per cent and gold strike-rate of 16 per cent.

That’s a big enough sample to be significant. And when we look at the gold and silver medal winners, we see further confirmation of high, cool Tumbarumba’s class with this variety. It won three of the five gold medals and one of the two silvers. The three gold medallists all appeared under McWilliams Barwang label; the silver medallist was Cassegrain Fromenteau 2008.

However, Tumbarumba shared the glory with Centennial Vineyards Old Block Southern Highlands Chardonnay 2008 and Mount Majura Canberra District Chardonnay 2005. Centennial vineyards fared very well in the show overall; and the Mount Majura wine demonstrated that shy, restrained wines sometimes need time to reveal their best. The shy, restrained 2009 won silver – but we’ll back it for gold three of four years down the track, just like the 2005.

Shiraz, with an aggregate medal strike rate of 65 per cent from 49 wines, once again generated more excitement than any other variety, even if chardonnay snuck ahead marginally on medal strike rate.

We’ve adjusted the official shiraz figures slightly by shifting Centennial Vineyards Bong Bong Australian Red from the “other reds” class to the shiraz classes. It topped the “other reds” group, just nudging out Mount Majura’s magnificent Tempranillo Shiraz Graciano 2009. But the web site describes it as being “mostly shiraz with a splash of tempranillo”. That’s good enough for us, for the purposes of studying varietal form, to call it shiraz.

With Centennial’s wine thrown in, 49 shirazes won six gold, seven silver and 18 bronze medals.

Canberra District showed strongly, winning three and a half of the seven golds. Our winning wines were Lark Hill Shiraz Viognier 2009 (made at Lark Hill using fruit from Ravensworth Vineyard, Murrumbateman), Lerida Estate Lake George Shiraz Viognier 2008 and Ravensworth Murrumbateman Shiraz Viognier 2008. And we can claim half of the gold medal for Eden Road’s 2009 blend from Canberra and Hilltops.

That gives Hilltops half a gold medal plus one each for Moppity Vineyards 2009 and Clonakilla 2009. And the seventh shiraz gold, of course, belongs to Centennial’s shiraz-tempranillo blend, the wine we’ve pulled in from the “other reds” category.

Results in the shiraz class raise serious questions, though, about variations in awards from wine show to wine show – and how show awards stack up against critical acclaim from other sources.

In the Canberra show, it’s fair to say the judges showed a leaning to the bigger, fruiter, broader shiraz styles (in the cool climate context). More refined wines, like Nick O’Leary 2009 and Clonakilla O’Riada 2009, for example, scraped in with bronze medals. Yet O’Leary’s beautiful wine won a gold medal and trophy at the recent Winewise Small Vignerons Awards; and you can bet your last bottle of 1971 Grange, critics will fall over themselves praising the sensational 2009 O’Riada.

In fact, I’ll bet a bottle of Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier now that chair of judges, Ben Edwards, co-author with James Halliday of the Australian Wine Companion, ranks O’Riada ahead of this year’s trophy winner, Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2009, in the next edition. That is, he’ll rate the bronze medallist higher than the gold medallist in other circumstances.

Why do I say that so confidently? And is this just some smart arse claiming a better palate than the show judges? The answer to both questions lies in the different ways critics appraise wine.

In a show we see no labels, just glasses on numbered squares, and we know nothing more than the variety, vintage and, in the case of the Canberra show, that the wines must come from one of the regions accepted by the show. Not surprisingly, with 24 strapping 2009 vintage shirazes lined up and only about two minutes average tasting time per wine, the more delicate styles like O’Leary and O’Riada may simply have been overshadowed by bolder or more fruitier wines. Indeed, judges call this well-known phenomenon “shadowing”.

The same judges sipping the same wines, or just a few of the same wines, at a more leisurely pace – perhaps over a few hours, or even revisited frequently over a few days, may easily rank the wines in different order. Certainly the fine-boned styles won’t remain in the shade. In fact, I’m backing them to prevail. We’ll see.

It’s also worth noting the absence, for various reasons, of several of the Canberra District’s best shirazes – firstly, our premiere wine, Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, then another long-term performer, Capital Wines Kyeema Vineyard Shiraz and it’s vineyard mate, Collector Reserve Shiraz, and finally Mount Majura Shiraz. Moving the show back a few months may see some of these wines entered in the show. Mount Majura 2009, for example, hadn’t been bottled at the time of judging.

Murrumbateman made a clean sweep of the gold medals in the riesling classes. The winners were Helm Classic Dry 2010, Helm Premium 2009, Clonakilla 2010 and Gallagher 2010.

While cabernet performed poorly overall, winning just eight medals from 38 exhibits, Pankhust 2009 won the sole gold medal for the variety and drew this high praise from the judges, “the top wine showed the benefit of judicious oak use and was a truly medium-bodied cooler climate style done well.

Twenty-five pinot noirs scraped just three bronze medals; and nineteen sauvignon blancs and blends fared slightly better with one silver and three bronzes from 19 wines.

The judges found some excitement among the “other red” classes, awarding gold medals to Mount Majura’s previously mentioned Tempranillo Shiraz Graciano 2009, Centennial Vineyards Bong Bong Australian Red 2009 (a shiraz-tempranillo blend, mentioned above) and Southern Highlands Wines Merlot 2007. The also awarded silver medals to Mount Majura Tempranillo 2009 and Ravensworth Murrumbateman Sangiovese 2009.

Sparkling wines failed to impress the judges, scraping in only three bronze medals from 14 entries – white, pink and red. But 14 stickies yielded two gold medals – one each for Tertini Southern Highland Reserve Noble Riesling 2008 and Centennial Vineyards Southern Highlands Late Harvest Chardonnay 2009.

And, finishing on a high note, the “other white” classes glittered. Coolangatta Estate, Nowra, won gold medals for their 2006 semillon (confirming a long-established reputation for the variety) and 2010 savagnin – the savoury, dry variety previously misidentified in Australia as Spain’s albarino. And Canberra’s Eden Road Winery won gold for its The Long Road RHE 2009 – a single-vineyard, Canberra District viognier.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010