National Wine Show of Australia hopes to fill the gaps

Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia recently announced major changes to this year’s event. The Royal National Capital Agricultural Society’s wine show committee, chaired by David Metcalf, hopes to open the competition to a wider range of exhibitors, especially high quality small producers from Australia’s many wine regions.

The event, held in Canberra each November, bills itself as the grand final of the Australian wine show circuit. But in recent years the show had fallen far short of this aspiration with notable gaps in the tasting line up.

The show’s failure to attract entries from many of Australia’s top regional producers hadn’t gone unnoticed. Feedback about its shortcomings had come from the judges, the major sponsor, Vintage Cellars (with 1st Choice and Liquorland, owned by Wesfarmers), from this column and other sources.

By the end of last year the show organisers were listening and preparing for change. On 9 December 2009 I received this email from then chair, Brian Graetz, “As the newly appointed Chair of the National Wine Show, I was very interested in your recent comments about the gaps in our ranks. This issue has interested me for some time and I’m now looking forward to the challenge of being able to do something about it.

Over past years we have become a little precious about qualifying shows largely, as I understand it, in response to an industry preference for recognising true regional shows at the expense of other shows (e.g. Cowra) and competitions. However, as you say, there is no structured show system at present and I doubt that it would work, as issues such as timing and stock availability intrude and exhibitors are not necessarily enamoured of entering multiple shows in a structured system. Moreover, my own recent comparative analysis of show results (wines exhibited at more than one show) provides no statistical justification for an overly-restrictive approach.

My view is that we should be aiming to see the best wines from whatever legitimate source, within reasonable and manageable limits; being overly exclusive is not an advantage. As one step in this direction, we will be reducing volume requirements in premium classes next year”. Graetz’s email then discussed increasing the number of wine shows feeding into the national.

In mid May 2010 the RNCAS announced details of the changes, effective for the 2010 judging in November. By reducing volume requirements in premium classes, accepting medal-winning wines from five additional wine shows and introducing classes for single-vineyard wines, the RNCAS hopes to widen the show’s catchment.

As well, the show will no longer accept entries from New Zealand. David Metcalf says the show judges, led by current chair of judges, Tom Carson, pushed for this change. Metcalf added the New Zealand entries numbered only about seventy, so there’d be little practical affect on the show and the focus would now be totally on Australian wine.

Reduction of the quantity requirements could attract more entries from small makers. Under the old rules a maker might qualify for the national by winning a medal in another approved show, but be ruled out for not having enough wine. For example, last year Ken Helm’s Premium Riesling 2009 qualified by winning the top gold medal in its class at the Royal Melbourne Show. But he’d made only 375 dozen, where the national demanded a minimum of 500 dozen. This year the quantity falls to 250 dozen. Helm applauds the change and says he’ll now enter the national when he meets its other requirements.

From 2010 the national will accept gold and silver medal winners from five additional events – the Canberra, Margaret River and Yarra Valley regional shows, the Winewise Small Vignerons Awards and the Alternative Varieties Wine Show. As well, the list of approved events now includes all of the capital city shows, and these regional and state competitions: Adelaide Hills, Barossa, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Limestone Coast, Hunter Valley, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Metcalf believes the show can easily absorb more entries. By restricting entries in recent years, the numbers had dropped to about 1,300 wines in 2009. But he says four panels, each judging 150 wines a day, should cope well with about 1800 entries in the three days preceding trophy judging.

While these changes should plug some of the gaps in the show, the committee has further challenges. You can’t, for example, take a comprehensive look at Australian pinot noir and chardonnay without including wines from Mornington Peninsula and Macedon. Similarly, showings of riesling and shiraz ought to include wines from Great Southern, Western Australia.

Wines from these regions might make their way to the national through the Victorian and Western Australian Shows, but their paths aren’t as clear-cut as wines from regions with their own shows. This suggests that Metcalf and his committee should look closely at the gaps in the years ahead and find ways to plug them. He says this is on the cards.

And in a nod to regional specialisation, the show this year launches a series of new single-vineyard classes. Exhibitors need just one dozen wines to qualify. Metcalf says there’ll be classes for riesling, semillon, chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, other whites and other reds. The top-scoring gold medallist from each class will go to a taste-off for the new best single-vineyard wine trophy.

Since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we’ll have to wait until November to see how effective the changes are.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010