Inside Australia’s Wine Awards: Agricultural Wine Shows

By Peter Bourne.

The origins of the Australian wine show system date back to the early 19th century, when they were a small part of the agricultural shows set up to improve the breed – be it cattle, sheep, wheat, wool or wine. The Sydney Royal Wine Show has been running since 1826 and is managed by the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. The RAS website claims the Society has been ‘an influential force in the direction and development of Australian agriculture through competitions, education and events since its foundation in 1822.’ Other capital cities followed their lead.

However, over time, these wine shows have morphed from their original purpose to become a marketing tool used by wine producers keen to encourage hesitant consumers to buy their brand. This coming August the 2019 KPMG Sydney Royal Wine Show chairman P.J. Charteris will lead a highly qualified group of 24 judges and associates in the blind tasting of 2200 wines. The wines will be tasted in classes (variety and style) by 3 judges each to determine which of the 20, 50 or more wines in the class should be awarded a bronze, silver or gold medal.

In the ‘olden days’ a pencil, rubber and clipboard were the tools — in the modern age i-Pads are the go. Traditional scoring was out of 20 (more about the 100 point system soon) — 3 points were awarded for colour & condition, 7 for aroma & bouquet and 10 for flavour. Wines that scored less than 14 were considered N.B.M. (nil by mouth) i.e. faulty and undrinkable. Nowadays our university trained winemakers ensure very few wines fall into his group. Around half the wines will be deemed a decent wine within the parameters of the class and scored between 14.1 to 15.4. The real action starts at 15.5 with a wine scoring up to 16.9 awarded a bronze medal, those between 17.1-18.4 a silver and above 18.5 a converted gold medal. Typically 25-40% of entries will score a bronze, 5-10% a silver and just 3-5% a gold medal. The tasting of the 2200 wines will go on for 3 days with each judge tasting 300-400 wines — a gruelling process, believe it or not! Gathering their tired tongues on the 4th day, all the judges taste the gold medal wines to determine the trophy winner for that class, or group of classes. Trophy winners are then eligible for the white or red wine of the show and finally the top gong — the wine of the show. Exhausted, the judges retire to the pub for a beer.

Extract from Vendimia Harvest Issue No8.

Regional Wine Shows, Special Purpose Shows & Competitions

Regional Wine Shows

While capital city shows accept entries from all over the county, the (smaller) regional shows are limited to the wines from their region. For instance the Royal Hobart Wine Show is a national show, while the Tasmanian Wine Show is limited to the Island’s wines. The Royal Adelaide Wine Show is national, while regional wine shows are run in the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and the Limestone Coast, which incorporates Coonawarra. The National Wine Show of Australia only accepts entries that ‘qualify through Australian regional & capital city wine shows, and special purpose competitions’ and is essentially looking for the best of the best.

Special Purpose Shows and Competitions

While the agricultural and regional wine shows are run on a not-for-profit basis, there are a number of commercial wine shows. The Australian & New Zealand Boutique Wine Show, the Sydney International Wine Competition, the National Cool Climate Wine Show, Australian Small Winemakers Show, the Canberra International Riesling Challenge and the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge are just a few of the names out there. All are professionally run, but consumers may be baffled by the difference between a small winemaker and a boutique one.

How important are these competitions for winemakers and vineyards?

While the winning of these awards can create a splash in the media, it is certainly not mandatory for winegrowers to enter into wine shows — and is actually a very costly process in terms of dollars, time and wine for the winemaker. Often small prestige producers with limited stock would rather sell via their cellar door. Large companies and those new to the business can gain attention by boasting of their gold medals and trophies, but on the flip side, a cult maker may not want to tell their dedicated customers their latest chardonnay scored just 14 points!! It happened to one of our iconic winegrowers and he’s never entered a wine show since.

The 100 Point System

What is this 100 point system I keep hearing about in the wine world??

Robert Parker Junior published the subscription-based Wine Advocate for over 30 years, predicated on his ability to pick winners. The great 1982 Bordeaux reds were overlooked by the traditional English wine critics, but Parker trumpeted their virtues. He was right, and his reputation was set in stone.

Parker began using a 100 point system, with all his top wines scoring in the high-90’s. Parker has awarded 100 points to the Chamber’s Rosewood Rutherglen Rare Muscat. The US-based Wine Spectator followed Parker’s lead with their 1995 Top 100 Wine of the Year awarded to the 1990 Penfold’s Grange with a rating of 97 points – a wine listed at $100 USD per bottle!!

Australian Wine Shows have now adopted the 100 point system with wines scoring less than 85 points in the N.B.M. category, a silver medal awarded at 90 points and a gold above 95. James Halliday follows the 100 point system, scoring the Morris of Rutherglen Old Premium Rare Liqueur Muscat at 100 points.

Victories versus value… is it worth it??

In reality, medals and trophies are only a guide and rarely take into account price. A $15 bottle can rub shoulders in the same wine-show class as a $150 bottle. Is the $150 bottle ten times as good? No—it may be better but the multiplier effect really doesn’t work with wine. Wines in the $10-$20 range are made to drink now and not necessarily cellared for a decade. Winning a medal — or even better, a trophy — is a quality guide but in the end, trust your palate and buy the wines that bring pleasure to you, your family and your friends.


The French Rhône: Fatherland to the Barossa Valley

Why the Rhône region in France is commonly compared to Australia’s Barossa Valley…

James Busby kick-started the Australian wine industry with a collection of 570 grape varieties shopped from France in 1831. His catalogue listed: No 1 Carignan No 2 Grenache No 3 Mataro No 9 Hermitage.

… the latter now known as Shiraz/Syrah, the original vines sourced from the hill of Hermitage in the northern Rhône Valley. (Mataro is a synonym for Mourvèdre with both names used here). These varieties remain the cornerstone of Australian red wine due to a simple climatic synergy. Australia is a warm-to-hot continent and the Rhône Valley the warmest of France’s major regions.

Syrah is the mandatory grape of the (somewhat cooler) northern Rhône appellations Hermitage, Cote Rôtie and St Joseph – all to the south of Lyon. Grenache takes the lead in the warmer southern Rhône regions with syrah in a supporting role.

The appellations of Côtes du Rhône and, the highly revered, Châteauneuf du Pape have inspired our GSM wine style. The juicy red fruit flavours of Grenache are given focus and drive by the black-fruited Shiraz and a bit of funk by Mourvèdre’s inherent earthiness. This trio occasionally forms a quartet with the more rustic grape, Carignan.

Region Insight: Orange


Wines from Orange and the Central ranges region are known to be light to medium bodied, elegant, aromatic and very fine. This is due to the uniquely harsh terroir and also the result of the heat summation.

Orange Terroir: being nestled on the side of a mountain, means two things for the wine region. The mountain affects the climate, with summers being harsh and warm, and winters commonly having snowfalls and being significantly colder than most of NSW. This combined with the simple fact that higher elevation packs flavour into wine, makes grapes from the Orange region incredibly sought after. Regions like the Hunter Valley often borrow Orange grapes to incorporate into their wines, adding some impacting flavour and complexity.

Shiraz and Chardonnay grapes are particularly suited to the terroir of Orange. Try Swinging Bridge Reserve Shiraz – a classic Orange example of a heavy, full flavoured Shiraz with incredible complexity and just the right amount of ageing. Or for those who love a white, try the incredible Cooks Lot Iconique Chardonnay. This simply must not be missed. As full-bodied as a white wine gets, with complex oak aromatics and buttery roundedness. It is an absolute winner!

Of course dont forget to check out Angullong’s Gold Medal winning Rosato Ross Hills robust Grenache Shiraz or the Naked Grape Moscato. All are true examples of what Orange has to offer.


Tim Smith: Barossa Valley Winemaker of the Year!!

Tim Smith Wines is a 5 RED STAR Halliday winery. And now head winemaker Tim has been awarded the highly respected title of Barossa Winemaker of the Year by the Barons of Barossa.

So, who is Tim?

Tim started his career in wine by working as a cellar hand for Yalumba in 1987 – 15 years later, having completed a wine science degree and with his experience in winemaking, he wont the Winemaker Exchange Scholarship to the Rhone Valley in France. In September 2001, Tim made the decision to start Tim Smith Wines, with the first vintage being made in 2002. And the rest is history…

Two of his outstanding wines are featured in our March 2019 Barossa Valley subscriptions:

Bugalugs by Tim Smith Shiraz

 96 Halliday Points
A juicy, not too serious wine, with impressive Barossa floor flavours and soft tannins from the use of older American and French oak. Included in the March 2019 Premium Reds & Premium Mixed subscriptions. A showcasing of Tim’s standout winemaking, the passion in the bottle is evident. Available now for purchase.


Tim Smith MGS (Mataro Grenache Shiraz)

Tim drew inspiration from the Southern Rhone style in making this wine. A blend from low yeilding vines across the Barossa, aged in older oak – this wine is plush & aromatic. Included in our March 2019 Premium Reds subscription. A wine with serious cellaring potential. Available now for purchase.

“I am a huge fan of the wines of Bandol, and I unashamedly draw inspiration from this Southern Rhone appellation. My Barossa Mataro Grenache Shiraz is made with Mataro being the dominant grape. This allows the Mataro fruit, which has a similar tannin structure as Shiraz, to be ready to drink upon release as well as having some serious cellaring potential.”  Tim Smith

Journals of a wine buyer: Day Four

Heading south from Bendigo through harsh country side towards brooding Mount Alexander, I can’t help but be amazed by how far removed the reality of the wine growing and making industry is from the perceived romance of wine – and the beautifully presented bottles of hard labour and heartache that grace the shelves of bottle shops with their classy designer labels. Twice today I will hear of a late frost that’s come through after the vines are past bud burst – and the total crop lost.

After visiting Balgownie Estate 5 star winery and Sutton Grange – and tasting some cracking Bendigo Shiraz and brokering deals for our subscribers, I’m on the road further south. Rising up into Daylesford and on to Ballarat the countryside becomes lush, green and productive. From here its north west to the Pyrenees wine region between Avoca and Stawell. Thankfully a navigation mistake places me right outside the door of 3 of Australia’s finest wineries – Dalwhinnie, Taltarni and Summerfield. These are all Halliday 5 red star wineries and Dalwhinnie and Summerfield are ‘double red’ – in the top 100. I visit each and am blown away. After a long meeting with Mark Summerfield, I fail to persuade him to sell us wine wholesale for the advantage of our clients. However, if you ever get the opportunity to buy one of his wines, don’t let it pass.

From here it’s over the Pyrenees ranges. I’m thankful that I am in a hire car! The road is rough, rutted and dusty – and I dodge Kangaroos, lizards and hares. Winding back down the southern side, the countryside opens up and before me is Glenlofty Estate. I meet with the Manager and Vineyard Manager and also a neighbouring grower from Quartz Hill. We sample a number of wines and do a tour of their massive 137 ha vineyard. This is a major vineyard, established by Southcorp, then taken over by Treasury Estate and then sold to current owner Canadian Roger Richmond – Smith. To stand on the top of the hill and view such a large magnificent and varied vineyard – and see 90% of it burnt out with frost and the 2018 vintage destroyed, the heartache is palpable.

As I leave to head back to Melbourne Airport, I reflect on how vast and varied this state is. What I’ve covered is extensive, but hardly touches it – it’s nothing more than a quick overview of what’s to be discovered and enjoyed. I look forward to covering all these areas one by one in depth. And that’s only the beginning. South of here are all the cool climate areas to be explored. What a journey!

Wine picks: Taltarni Sangiovese and Glenlofty Cabernet Sauvignon

Journals of a wine buyer: Day Three

Heathcote is Victoria’s premium Shiraz producing region. It is positioned in the heartland of central Victoria – mid way between Shepparton and Bendigo. The countryside is truly Australian – harsh, dry, dusty and has a low rainfall. The conditions here are difficult, with some years suffering from drought and others from too much rainfall or frost. The vines are low yielding, small and gnarled. The lack of moisture and harsh circumstances sends the root structure deep into a narrow belt of Cambrian high mineral soil that runs north from Heathcote township. This unique terroir produces intense, deeply coloured and flavoured fruit – and wine with unique savoury flavours.

First call is to the areas’ benchmark pioneer and producer, Ron Laughton from Jasper Hill Estate. Ron started the whole Heathcote journey some 40 years ago and is hailed as the pinnacle producer of the region. His wine is simply stunning – and so is his generosity. He takes me for a full tour, including tasting barrel samples of new vintages that will be blended to make up the next Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz. Next up is a visit to Bob Downing from Downing Estate, just over the road from Jasper Hill with vines planted in the same band of Cambrian soil. Some of Bob’s Shiraz’s are included in this month’s subscription. Sanguine Estate is next – this winery, along with Jasper Hill, Downing’s and Paul Osika are Halliday 5 Red Star rated – the highest awarded. Sanguine’s Shiraz’s are regularly rated amongst the 10 best in the world, along with the likes of Penfolds’ Grange. Heathcote is one of our finest Shiraz producing regions – producing wine of an acquired savoury taste profile. However, it’s not a tourist area with destination wineries. To see a broad selection from the region, visit The Wine Hub Cellar and Store in Heathcote Main Street – they stock products from almost all the area’s producers.

Journals of a wine buyer: Day Two

Driving up into Beechworth I realize that this is going to be a very different wine experience. At 530m it is approx. 360m higher than Albury and Wangaratta – both less than 40 minutes away.

Entering the township is a trip into yesteryear. Obviously an extremely rich centre in the mid 1800’s gold years, the heritage architecture is nothing short of magnificent, and is maintained in pristine condition. The town is beautiful – clean and well preserved with English tree lined streets. Its heritage, Ned Kelly history, arts and crafts shops and wine industry draw large crowds of tourists.

Beechworth’s most recognised and revered wine label is Giaconda, who produce some of Australia’s premier chardonnay that is sought after by wine lovers and collectors the world over. They have been named as one of the world’s top 10 white wine makers. Many of their wines sell in excess of $100 a bottle. This is clearly my first call! To my surprise- and disappointment- there is no cellar door.

Next up is Golden Ball, just over the road from Giaconda. This place is seriously tiny and boutique. Founded, grown and made by James McLaurin, it is only about 3.5 hectares. A recent Chardonnay of his received 98 Halliday points and top Chardonnay in Australia! Amazing stuff. His wine graces the wine lists of 28 of Australia’s top hatted restaurants.

I spend time with James, explaining the Vendimia project. It was clear that he didn’t have wine that fitted anywhere near the prices we needed to include in our subscriptions. But, after much persuasion he agreed to sell us a pallet of his 2011 Egalitaire, a wine that would normally retail for around $60… what a coup!

Beechworth…a wonderful area, great countryside, amazing wines, a beautiful part of the world – but I could soon see that we wouldn’t be able to achieve many wine purchases here. This is an area of small producers, high retail prices, high cellar door and restaurant demand and not enough quantities produced to sell us the full pallets we need for our subscriptions.

Journals of a wine buyer: Day One

It is October. I head west from the Hume as the sun breaks over the rolling hills behind me. Its golden glow spreads over the tapestry of green. Dotted between the fields, vineyards and livestock are magnificent Victorian federation buildings. It’s clearly a region that enjoyed wealth from the mid 1800’s gold rush. Entering Rutherglen it’s easy to see the town’s past wealth – this region was second only to Ballarat in the gold days. The town that is today a vibrant community of about 2500 once serviced around 30000. Heading just west of the township is surreal. Clustered together within what seems a stones throw are all the major names in finest fortified wines that we have grown up knowing – Stanton & Killen, Buller, Campbell’s and within a few kilometres Morris. There is something special going on here – a small patch of this vast country that nowhere else can emulate. Unique soil, minerals and growing conditions produce world class Muscat and Tokay that compare only with the best that comes from the fortified homeland of the world – Portugal. It seems bizarre that only a few kilometres away in the neighbouring wine growing regions of Beechworth and King Valley it cannot be repeated. In fact, it doesn’t seem like they can produce the same quality even on the other side of town.

First stop, Stanton and Killen, where I’m introduced to Wendy Killen. I am amazed that a family planted and run vineyard and winery that is a major exporter and one of Australia’s premier fortified makers is so hands on and family run. This is a James Halliday Red 5 star rated winery – the highest rating in Australia. It was established and planted in 1864 by Timothy Stanton. I proceed to have 4 hours with head wine maker Andrew Drumm. The aroma of this place is almost intoxicating – a combination of old wood barrels and sweetness – magnificent. After a full
tour, including inspecting storage barrels still full of wine from the middle of last century, we head to the lab. Here we work on our Master’s Blend mix – a perfect combination of their very finest fortifieds blended to a tasting profile to suit the requirements of our community. An amazing experience – Tawny for its “port” flavour, tannin and structure, blended with a percentage of aged Muscat to add a raisin sweetness, thickness and lusciousness and just 15% of a very old Topaque which perfectly integrates the flavours and adds depth. After trying over 20 combinations, this was it! It was amazing how much variation the smallest changes in percentage made! This blend is now available as a premium “community blend’ – available in 5 litre bulk drums.

Next stop – Buller wines, and I am surprised. Buller is one of the biggest names in the fortified industry and they dominate the Dan Murphy shelves – yet their establishment is surprisingly humble. It has had a chequered history in recent years. The business went into administration in 2013 and was taken over by the local Judd family. Nowadays, their cheaper wine is produced in the Swan Hill region and only the high end fortified is from the premium Rutherglen vineyard. Thankfully, the takeover included the purchase of all the old storage barrels, so the legend continues. It’s another Halliday 5 star rated establishment – and I’m in for a treat! Entering the tasting room I introduce myself and am taken through a standard tasting. Buller also does a full range of table wines – including Durif’s which are the best that this country produces. Durif is a high tannic, intensely inky dark and brooding wine which obviously likes the same soil and hot, dry growing conditions. We have included their delicious Nine Muses Shiraz in the current subscription. These guys also produce a magnificent Pedro Ximenez, the dark , intense Spanish Sherry that has gained a following for use in cooking – but seriously, it’s better than that, it’s an incredible drop!

Dave Whyte, the head wine maker takes me on a tour of the storage barn – an old shed full of the largest, oldest barrels I have ever seen. One large barrel is full of wine from 1940 – and it is stored very close to the roof on the 2nd floor. In summer its temperature rises dramatically and winter it lowers. This is apparently part of the maturation process. I am then taken on a full tasting flight of the oldest and rarest wines. Amazing and unbelievable! You simply can’t sip and spit this stuff, it’s like liquid gold! All of these products are in the hundreds of dollars a bottle.

As I leave Rutherglen, the thick syrupy sweetness lingers and I ponder a tiny part of our vast country so close to other wine regions yet so very unique. An area that looks innocuous and low key with the simplest of wineries and facilities – still run by small hands-on family’s, producing pure magic. I can’t help pondering how fortunate we are. This really is the lucky country.