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.


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

Who is James Halliday & What Are His Ratings?

You’ll notice that in many of our wine descriptions we include reference to James Halliday and his wine & vineyard ratings. But why should this particular man and his personal rating system shape our impression of the wines offered by Vendimia each quarter?
James Halliday is one of Australia’s most respected wine critics and vignerons. His career spans 47 years, and he is widely known in the industry for his witty and informative writing about all things wine. He was one of the founders of the Brokenwood vineyard in the Hunter Valley and Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, and is an unmatched authority on every aspect of the wine industry, from planting and pruning to making and marketing. Over his career James has contributed to more than 60 books on wine, with his most notable publication being the annual Australian Wine Companion — recognised nationally as the industry benchmark resource on Australia vineyards and the wines they produce.

As part of developing the content for the Australian Wine Companion and its supporting website, James developed his own system for rating wineries and their wines. With Australia broken down into its 63 distinct wine regions, James began nominating the best wineries in each regions using a three-tier classification system.

At the very top are the wineries with both their names and their star rating printed in red; these have been generally recognised for having a long track record of excellence – truly the best of the best.

Next are wineries with their stars (but not their names) printed in red, which have had a consistent record of excellence for at least the last three years.

Those wineries with black printed names and stars have achieved excellence this year (and sometimes longer). The vast majority of wineries that supply Vendimia are Halliday 4 star rated or greater.

After rating the winery, James then rates most of the individual wines produced by them. These wines are rated numerically by him within a range from 75 to 99 points. Wines from 86 to 99 points are considered Bronze/Silver or Gold medal standard wines. The wines included in Vendimia subscriptions invariable carry James Halliday ratings of between 90-95 points.