Winewise championship — Australia’s grand final wine show

Depending on how you view wine shows, Canberra region is either blessed or burdened with a disproportionate number of nationally significant events. These include the National Wine Show of Australia, Winewise Small Vignerons Awards, Winewise Championship, Canberra International Riesling Challenge and Canberra Regional Wine Show.

The national show, billed as the grand final of Australia’s capital city shows, limits entries in many classes to medal winners from other shows it recognises.

Taking this concept a step further, our homegrown Winewise Championship, sets a gold-medal entry standard. Event organiser, Lester Jesberg, says only gold medallists in non-commercial classes of decent wine shows may enter. Acceptable events include Australia’s capital-city and leading regional shows as well as the international riesling challenge, Winewise Small Vignerons awards and wines awarded gold-medal scores in the show-style tastings Winewise conducts throughout the year.

On establishing the championship in 2010, Jesberg commented, “While the National Show has now revised its eligibility criteria to recognize the Winewise Small Vigneron Awards and selected regional shows, many smaller producers still find the criteria hard to meet and confine their wines to the regional shows, thus missing out on valuable benchmarking across the national spectrum. This competition brings all the wines together for the benefit of both winemakers and consumers.”

This year’s event – judged, appropriately, in the Black Opal room, overlooking Canberra racecourse – brought together about 300 wines from producers of all sizes. Three days of tasting by Lester Jesberg and Deb Pearce of Winewise and a shifting panel of senior show judges, myself included, produced an exciting range of category winners from small, medium and large producers.

Tasmania alone of the wine producing states missed out on a gong (the Canberra district also missed out). And Queensland’s Granite Belt earned a rare moment of glory on the national stage. Symphony Hill Reserve Granite Belt Petit Verdot 2009 topped the “other red variety” category in a close taste-off against Rosemount Nursery Mataro 2011.

And in a rare achievement at a racecourse, a conventional form guide, albeit a regional-varietal one would’ve predicted almost all of the winners.

The best chardonnay came from Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula; the best riesling from the Clare Valley; the best sauvignon from the Adelaide Hills; the best sauvignon blanc semillon from Margaret River; best viognier from the Eden Valley; best sweet riesling from the Eden Valley; best cabernet sauvignon from Coonawarra; best cabernet merlot blend from Margaret River; best classic Australian red blend from Coonawarra; best grenache blend from McLaren Vale (it was either there or the Barossa); best pinot noir from the Adelaide Hills; and best fortified wine from Rutherglen.

A form guide might not have picked the successful wineries. But that’s the beauty of masked judging: remove the biases and all that counts is what’s in the glass.

However, some of the exceptions to conventional regional-varietal wisdom point to gaps in the ranks. For example, Centennial Vineyards Blanc de Blancs NV, wonderful wine that it is, isn’t Australia’s best sparkling wine; not by a long shot.  A perennial problem in Australian wine shows is the dearth of really top sparklers winning the top awards.

And when it comes to emerging varieties like lagrein and tempranillo, we’re a long way short of knowing which regions perform best. The results, therefore, might be a pointer to the future, though it’s too early to say yet.

But to me the biggest surprise of the show came with the success of a Bathurst shiraz.  After a number of shiraz heats, Winburndale Bathurst Solitary Shiraz 2009 competed in the final against wines from Coonawarra, the Barossa Valley, Swan Valley and Adelaide Hills.

I judged the shirazes, voting in the heats and the final for a plush and velvety wine that turned out to be Shaw and Smith Adelaide Hills 2009. However, the other judges disagreed, and the Winburndale shiraz (my second choice), edged into first place, on 34 points, ahead of Brands Laira Coonawarra Tall Ship Shiraz 2010, on 32.

This was a tight and high quality competition, so there can be no caveats about the virtues of Winburndale. The lovely wine says Australia’s versatile signature red has yet another home, and another expression, in the high country of the Great Dividing Range.

Shiraz is Canberra district’s flagship wine, but Eden Road 2011 was the only one entered. It looked light and simple in its group – a decent wine, but showing the shortcomings of the cold, wet 2011 vintage. We would hope to see more Canberra shiraz and higher rankings with future entries from warmer, less challenging vintages.

Three Canberra district rieslings from the 2012 vintage were entered – Clonakilla, Ravensworth and Four Winds. Clonakilla topped its group, but came second to Leo Buring Clare Valley Riesling 2012 in the taste-off of 2012 rieslings. The Buring wine went on to win the riesling medallion. This was no surprise given the exceptional quality of Clare and Eden Valley rieslings in 2012.

Unlike other shows where any number of wines can win bronze, silver or gold medal wines, the Winewise Championship awards only one wine in each category (results below). Each category winner receives a gold-plated medallion struck by the Australian Mint.

The wines are assessed in small groups – a maximum of seven. The judges know only the class definition – for example, “Shiraz group 1 vintages 2006–2009” and all they see is the glasses lined up in front of them on grids, marked A, B, C and so on.

Without any discussion, the judges rate each of the wines on a ballot paper – 9 points for the favourite, 6 for the second favourite, then 4, 3, 2, 1 and 0. Where there are less than seven wines, judges simply don’t use the bottom scores. The winner of each group is the wine with the highest aggregate, though some weighting may be given to the number of first and second places each receives where the aggregates are close.

Jesberg, a former statistician, says the scoring system attempts to ensure that a wine can win only if it has at least one score of nine (or first place) from one of the judges. In practice, most the better wines received two or more first places. But in very high-quality groupings, ratings tended to be more dispersed.

Group winners move on to taste offs, ultimately for the category winner. In the shiraz class, for example, we tasted eight groups of wines, with two mini taste-offs, before assessing the final five outstanding wines, any of which I’d be happy to have on the dinner table.

The honours list, then, includes household names like Wynns, Leo Buring and Yalumba as well as small makers at the cutting edge of their craft.

Winewise Championship 2013 – medallion winner

Paringa Estate Mornington Peninsula 2011

Leo Buring Clare Valley Riesling 2012

Sauvignon blanc
Shaw and Smith Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Sauvignon blanc blend
Warner Glen Estate PBF Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2011

Meerea Park Hunter Valley Terracotta Semillon 2006

Other white varietal
Yalumba The Virgilius Eden Valley Viognier 2010

Sweet white
Heggies Vineyard Eden Valley Botrytis Riesling 2011

Cabernet Sauvignon
Brands Laira One Seven One Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Cabernet Bordeaux-style blend
Mandoon Margaret River Cabernet Merlot 2010

Classic Australian Blend
Wynns Coonawarra Estate V and A Lane Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2010

Grenache or blend
Rosemount Estate McLaren Vale GSM (grenache shiraz mourvedre) 2011

Italian red variety
Geoff Hardy Hand Crafted Limestone Coast Lagrein 2010

Other red blend
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2010

Other red varietal
Symphony Hill Reserve Granite Belt Petit Verdot 2009

Pinot Noir
Tim Knappstein Riposte The Sabre Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2010

Winburndale Bathurst Solitary Shiraz 2009

Centennial Vineyards Reserve Southern Highlands Tempranillo 2011

Fortified wine
Morris Rutherglen Rare Liqueur Muscat

Sparkling white
Centennial Blanc de Blancs NV

Sparkling red
Quelltaler Watervale Sparkling Shiraz NV

Judges by class

Day 1: Lester Jesberg, Deb Pearce, Ian McKenzie, Jane Faulkner, Peter Nixon, Tim James.
Sparkling white, sparkling red, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, other red varietal, other red blends, classic Australian red blend, fortified.

Day 2: Lester Jesberg, Deb Pearce, Ian McKenzie, Tim James, Chris Shanahan
Semillon, other white varietals, shiraz, sweet white.

Day 3: Lester Jesberg, Deb Pearce, Tim Knappstein, Nick Bulleid, Tim Kirk.
Sauvignon blanc-semillon blends, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, grenache and blends, Italian red varietals, cabernet Bordeaux-style blends.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 6 March 2013 in The Canberra Times and

Winewise’s Lester Jesberg writes about the championship

The concept of the Winewise Championship was born in the years I judged at the National Wine Show. The founders of that show had displayed considerable vision over 25 years ago in bringing together some of the best wines from the state capital shows, but I felt the concept needed a revamp.

Even though shows like Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide still receive strong industry support, having judged at them, I began to view them as “medal factories” with very large classes that are impossible to judge properly. I decided that regional shows (i.e. wine shows confined to the wines of single regions) produced more reliable results and provided a more accurate picture of wine quality. Put them all together, and we have a good representation of the complex mosaic that is Australian wine.

That formed the basis of my approach to a national wine show. Invite all the gold medal winners from the regionals and a few speciality shows like the International Riesling Challenge to enter, and wait and see what happened.

The response has been fantastic, and instead of spending days dealing with seemingly interminable line-ups of wines from different and contrasting regions, we would taste the wines in groups no larger than seven and simply rank them in order of preference, awarding nine to the best, six, four, three, two, one down to zero for the last. The grouping would be left to the stewards and would be based on grape variety, vintage and origin. In the case of large numbers of entries, there would be a number of heats and a final. Forget scoring out of 20 or 100. It simply wasn’t necessary.

Shiraz and chardonnay stand out

Every medallion-winner is a wine of excellence, but the strongest classes were chardonnay and shiraz. Both showed considerable diversity of style, and the wines that rose to the top were world class. The chardonnay heat winners were:

2011 First Creek Wines Winemakers Reserve Hunter Valley Chardonnay
2011 Gralyn Wildberry Springs Reserve Margaret River Chardonnay
2011 Paringa Estate Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay
2011 Seville Estate Reserve Yarra Valley Chardonnay
2010 Barwang Estate 842 Tumbarumba Chardonnay
2010 Seville Estate Reserve Yarra Valley Chardonnay
2009 Wolf Blass White Label Chardonnay
2008 Seville Estate Reserve Yarra Valley Chardonnay

2009 Saltram No.1 Barossa Shiraz
2009 Winburndale Solitary Shiraz (Bathurst, NSW)
2009 Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills Shiraz
2010 Honey Moon Vineyard Adelaide Hills Shiraz
2010 Brands Laira Tall Vine Coonawarra Shiraz
2010 Fox Gordon Hannah’s Swing Barossa Valley Shiraz
2010 Rojomoma Red Art Barossa Valley Shiraz
2011 Voyager Estate Margaret River Shiraz
2011 Mandoon Old Vine Swan Valley Shiraz

The chardonnay final presented us with a difficult task. The wines were so good that four different wines received first place points from the five judges. The end result was so close that it was unanimously agreed any of the four could have won without complaint from any judge. Chardonnay has taken great steps forward in the past decade, and the finalists were all complex and barrel-fermented, but at the same time driven by fresh, intense fruit. The coarse, oaky style of chardonnay is thankfully disappearing.

The fact that a shiraz from a small producer 20 km east of Bathurst won the shiraz medallion may surprise some, but not the crew at Winewise. Winburndale has done very well at the Small Vigneron Awards and the National Cool Climate Wine Show. The result was again very close, with each of the five finalists receiving a first place vote.

Riesling also deserves a special mention, and the high quality of the 2012 South Australian vintage was reinforced by the Leo Buring Clare Valley Riesling that just edged out the 2006 Peter Lehmann Wigan.

The Winewise Championship was judged over three days, and recognised the fact that it’s often difficult for judges to commit to that amount of time. Consequently ten judges participated, two doing the full three days, the others two or one. It’s an approach some shows would do well to consider.

Lester Jesberg