It’s an understatement to say the wine show system is important in Australia. Wine shows are the hinge around which the struggle for quality in Australian wine is articulated. They’re the source of the country’s greatest strengths and the reason for its greatest weaknesses. I love judging in them, despite misgivings about their effect: it’s fun, it’s educative, it’s collegiate. Australia’s most distinguished wine producers seldom enter shows, since they don’t require that kind of endorsement to sell their wine. Those same individuals, however, are often senior judges or even chairs at the shows themselves, meaning that the system has near-universal support here. Most of Australia’s wine journalists, too, judge or chair key shows.

It’s an understatement to say the wine show system is important in Australia. Wine shows are the hinge around which the struggle for quality in Australian wine is articulated.

They’re the source of the country’s greatest strengths and the reason for its greatest weaknesses.

I love judging in them, despite misgivings about their effect: it’s fun, it’s educative, it’s collegiate. Australia’s most distinguished wine producers seldom enter shows, since they don’t require that kind of endorsement to sell their wine. Those same individuals,

however, are often senior judges or even chairs at the shows themselves, meaning

that the system has near-universal support here.

Most of Australia’s wine journalists, too, judge or chair key shows. Judges are not paid: journalists give their time, and employees are donated by their companies. This is an act of

generosity on everyone’s part, given the number of shows that exist. Why? Australia has a bipolar wine industry: the community consensus about shows makes them the therapy room. It’s where David talks it over with Goliath.

Any Australian wine can contend at the National Show (in Canberra) and the Capital Shows (in each state’s capital city). There are Regional Shows for the wines of each region, and there are special shows like the Alternative Varieties Show or the Cool-Climate Wine Show.

In many ways, the Regional Shows and themed shows are more interesting than the Capital Shows, where judges have to shovel their way through avalanches of repetition in monster varietal classes. The arrival of a new chair, though, can change the whole tenor of a show, as Steve Webber, winemaker of De Bortoli, is doing in Melbourne. Feathers are ruffled. Many shows spend a whack of the entry fees on flying over an international judge.

The region or show thereby gets a little exposure abroad, and the judging process is enriched, at least in theory, by the bolshevism of an alien palate. International judges usually complain about the fault-finding tack of Australian judges. Their hosts listen politely, then carry on unrepentantly the next year. ‘Improving the breed’ remains the overall

aim: a kind of oenological eugenics.

I know that’s a loaded term, and in many ways it’s inappropriate: there is no moral dimension to wine flavour. Yet it’s not entirely inappropriate, either. Eugenics had normative goals; Australian wine shows have had normative consequences, meaning that the stylistic

band within which excellence is defined becomes a narrow one. And one of the main objections to eugenics is the moral hazard implicit in deciding which gene traits are desirable.

There is at least an analogy to be made here with excision by fault. I have found unrewarded wines of (for me) gold-medal quality among the also-rans in the post-judging show tasting. They’ve usually copped it for the merest hint of a trace of brettanomyces. We’re not talking hospitals or sewers here, but simply a back note which any international taster would regard as at worst irrelevant and at best desirable.

For me, the defining fault of Australian wine is excessive acidification. Few Australian judges would even countenance that as a fault. Tight, edgy, indigestible wines win gold medals.

In the show-judging context, indeed, palates quickly become inured to exaggerated acidity. At the dinner table, alas, it’s a different matter.

My other main objection to shows is that the classes are mostly varietal and never regional or sub-regional. In the Limestone Coast show, for example, which I judged in October, the classes were all varietal or blends. There were no Coonawarra classes; no class in which a Wrattonbully wine could contend against its local peers; no class which would enable the judges to get a fix on Mount Benson’s emerging sub-regional style. ‘In Australia, the varietal has killed the regional,’ claims the Barossa’s Rick Burge.

If so, the show system has a lot to answerfor. If Australia is serious about understanding and expressing regionality more limpidly in its wines than in the past, then introducing regional or GIbased classes into all shows would be the easiest way of all to hit the fast-forward button.

Beautiful and expressive regional character should be winning wines gold medals. In a big class at a national show, it may well be eliminating them for delivering poorly on a normative varietal ideal (often dominated by sluggers). That ideal is something different altogether. It should be judged in a different class.

The show system will remain pivotal here: it’s the most widely accepted system of endorsement for Australian consumers. It will continue to play well abroad, too, at least until regional identities and critical hierarchies are better established. But, like everything in the wine world, it needs permanent, ceaseless reform.

Written by Andrew Jefford