New wave wine shows

The Australian ‘wine show’ system has helped to mould the Australian wine industry, but questions are being asked about whether it is time to overhaul the system. Peter Forrestal reports.

Winemaker Robert Mann judging at the 2014 Dan Murphy’s National Wine Show of Australia.
Winemaker Robert Mann judging at the 2014 Dan Murphy’s National Wine Show of Australia.

The origin of Australia’s wine shows go way back into its 19th century colonial past, to the rise of the agricultural societies, whose focus was on “improving the breed” of a wide range of produce, from barley to beef cattle. The Sydney Wine Show, the oldest and still arguably the best-known, traces its roots to the founding of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales in 1822. Four years later, Gregory Blaxland was awarded a medal for the best Australian wine in the Society’s show. After a 20-year hiatus, it reformed in 1858 and within 10 years, the wine section was firmly established among its competitions.

Change in focus

In more recent times, however, shows have become a marketing tool, rather than a source of feedback on winemaking. This, in turn, has driven­ changes in the way the shows are ­conducted. Traditionally, for example, wines were eligible to be entered into wine shows while they were still “unfinished” – in tank or barrel; indeed, Australia’s most prestigious ­trophy, the Jimmy Watson, awarded every year for the best one year-old, dry red wine in the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, was traditionally almost inevitably won by an unfinished wine. 

Not surprisingly, winemakers and marketers would use competitions as a chance to ­assess whether their wines fitted into emerging trends or needed more work, or to see how the ­competition were handling their wines. ­Winemakers from large companies such as Treasury, ­Constellation or Pernod Ricard made up a sizeable proportion of the judging panels and it was not uncommon to see them attending the post-show ‘Exhibitors’ tasting at which all entries may be sampled. 

As marketing became more important, ­dissatisfaction grew with the awarding of medals­ to unfinished wines. Many felt that there was no guarantee that the unfinished wine that won an award would be the same as the ­bottle released on the market place. As a ­result, ­unfi­nished wines have all but dis­appeared from Australian wine shows. Where they can be ­entered, they are no longer eligible to win awards. The Melbourne Wine Show ­continued to allow unfinished wines for longer than ­others because, for many years, the family of the late Jimmy Watson after whom the trophy was named, resisted the change. As a result of the reforming work of the show’s two Chief Judges, Steve Webber and David Bicknell, however, the inevitable happened. The trophy is now given to the Best (one- or two-year-old) Red of the Show. It must be a finished wine. 

A new wave of judges 

Webber and Bicknell are typical of a new wave of judges who have brought major changes ­to the show system. In the 1980s and 1990s, the shows were largely chaired by a small group led by the ebullient, British-born Len Evans and his protégées, James Halliday, Brian Croser, Ian McKenzie and Michael Hill-Smith who shared views on what constituted a good, a mediocre and a faulty wine. The judging itself was and is still similar to the system adopted in New ­Zealand, South Africa and by the IWC and ­Decanter World Wine Awards in the UK, but very different to the OIV – International Organisation of Vine and Wine – competitions that are common in Europe. 

Tasters are given entire classes – of up to 100 or more wines on occasion – to taste in whatever order they like. Like OIV tasters, they are told vintages, but unlike OIV tasters, they are also given information about grape varieties They can taste and retaste as often as they wish, whereas OIV tasters sample one wine at a time and there is no going back. Wines are usually marked out of 20, although the Sydney and Melbourne Shows now use a 100-point scale, and entries that score between 15.5 and 16.9 receive a bronze medal; 17.0 to 18.4 warrants silver; and 18.5 to 20 points, a gold. Once the tasting for a class is completed, the judges share their scores and discuss the wines and retaste if necessary until they agree on a mark and a medal if appropriate. OIV rules preclude discussion and leave the allocation of medals to a computer that ­averages the scores. Where the show judges are unable to concur, the chair can adjudicate. On rare ­occasions, whoever is chairing might even overrule a panel to insist on a particular award which might unofficially be known as a ­‘Chairman’s Gold’. 

Traditionally, to become an associate, keen wine industry members would first serve as unpaid stewards, pulling corks, pouring glasses and emptying spittoons. To be promoted from associate, the aspiring candidate had to ­impress the judges. This judging hierarchy existed ­within the larger one of regional and national shows. So the chairman of a small local wine show might struggle to be accepted as a full judge in a national one. In more recent times, this structure has changed, thanks in part to the efforts of Evans who, in 2001, set up the annual Len Evans Tutorial to “seek out 12 gifted palates who could be further trained as show judges”. The ‘scholars’, as Evans called them, blind-taste top international wines and have to defend their evaluation of their quality.  A number of these scholars have become show judges, but the impact goes deeper. Until quite recently, wine shows were largely masculine environments; the number of women who have attended the tutorials has led to a larger proportion of female associates and judges in wine shows throughout Australia.

Winemakers lose influence 

Another change has been a shift away from the dominance of winemakers among the ­judges. For some, these production-­focused ­tasters’ technical assessment of wines was seen as a limitation. Sommeliers, wine ­writers, members of the wholesale and retail trade who have come through the tutorial bring a different perspective that is less concerned with technical perfection.

Alongside the tutorial, the wine shows have also been influenced by two other institutions: the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology­ (ASVO), and the Advanced Wine ­Assessment Courses run by the ­Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). Almost a thousand experienced wine industry personnel have ­participated in the AWRI courses over the past 20 years. The rigorous and demanding four-day course is designed to provide training for show judges and to develop the sensory analysis abilities of those involved to an elite level. While there is some focus on the technical aspects of show judging, it is primarily concerned with wine quality. As they cannot be a complete ­training for judges in four days, these courses serve more as a finishing school. Providing statistical measurement of performance is a vital part of the course. Those who do well can expect to be in demand as judges on the show circuit. 

Senior show judges and the fellow judges who share their views have always influenced the styles that are rewarded by Australian shows. Today, Bicknell is one of a group including Steve Webber, Tom Carson and Steve Pannell, who have led the move to leaner, tighter Chardonnays,­ for example. Under ­Bicknell’s stewardship of the Melbourne Show, the dominance of bold, full-bodied, warm-climate Shiraz in the taste-off for the Jimmy Watson Trophy and Best Red Wine of the Show was halted and recent winners have ­included cool-climate Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

Shows galore

The capital city shows – traditionally the country’s most prestigious - face growing ­competition from a plethora of regional and independent shows. Among the independent shows are long-standing commercial ventures, such as the Sydney International Top 100, the Boutique Wine Awards and the Six Nations Wine Challenge, and some that exist to draw attention to a variety or style: the Canberra ­International Riesling Challenge, the VISY Great Australian Shiraz Challenge, the James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge and the Great Australian Red Challenge. Winewise magazine, which reviews Australian wines, holds two shows: the Small Vigneron Awards and an invitation-only event, the Winewise Championship. There is also both a National Cool Climate Wine Show at Bathurst (in New South Wales) and an International Cool Climate Wine Show at Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula (Victoria). 

The relatively tiny Western Australian ­industry offers an illustration of the explosive growth in the number of regional shows. The long-standing Mount Barker Show founded in 1978 (now the Qantas Wine Show of Western Australia), now stands alongside separate shows in Margaret River, Geographe, the Swan ­Valley, Perth Hills, the Blackwood Valley, as well as the Timber Towns Shows (for Manjimup, Pemberton,­ Blackwood). Several shows that are held in regional towns in other parts of Australia – Rutherglen, Griffith, Cowra and Cairns –act in much the same way as capital city shows by accepting wines from around the country rather­ than focusing on their local area.  

There has been a great deal of recent talk of creating a three-tier structure for the show system. Wineries would enter regional shows; medal winners there would be eligible to ­enter the capital city shows and the best of those ­entries could then compete in the National Show.

James Halliday, a strong supporter of this proposal admits that:  “Endeavouring to make this three-tier system more logical and ­better structured is easy in principle, but very ­difficult in detail… Nonetheless, it is a work in progress.” Despite his optimism, however, there is little evidence of a move to the three-tier system; there are too many vested interests. However, calls for change are growing. 

A decade after a Wine Show Committee set up under the aegis of the ASVO came up with recommendations for judge impartiality, audit protocols, trophy judging, wine show standards and the use of (wine show) medals, a set of Len Evans scholars last year engaged in a feisty debate about wine shows and ­recommended that the ASVO: 

  • seek improved communication of wine show results to consumers
  • seek a collective meeting of agricultural societies to discuss wine industry concerns
  • shift the dialogue about the function of wine shows from “improving the breed” to “the pursuit of excellence”. 

 

Nearly 200 years after the system began, it shows no sign of age. There’s something healthy about an industry that can work so hard to improve the way it goes about judging the results of its endeavours.

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