John “Chippy” Payne knows a thing or two about the changing tastes of Australian wine drinkers.
Peering into a crystal-clear wine glass containing a polite amount of chardonnay, he reminisces about his years as a steward with the National Wine Show of Australia.
“I came here for a tasting in 1974 and never went home,” says the retired project manager, lining up a row of blind tastings for Australia’s most exalted wine judges at Canberra’s EPIC showground, making sure that not even a hint of a label is glimpsed in this most rigorously governed competition.
Chippy had his eye on becoming a wine judge himself but reckons his inability to consistently recognise the qualities of a good wine put paid to that idea.
His decades-long steward’s role with Australia’s premier wine show has more than made up for any disappointment. As well as ensuring the smooth running of the judging along with a small team of like-minded volunteers, he is also a familiar face at the show’s National Wine Experience, in which every wine entered, including the winners, is made available for the public to try.
“The profile of the show has changed in line with the tastes of the community,” Chippy says. “In the early days, we even had flagons. There were lots of sherries and other things that are not so popular these days,” he says.
At this year’s National Wine Experience at EPIC on 23 November, wine enthusiasts are far more likely to encounter a Barbera than a bottle of Blue Nun; each wine neatly lined up with other showstoppers in the same category, with best-in-show winners front and centre for those who like to cut to the chase.
To qualify for entry, every wine must previously have won a medal at an Australian capital city or regional wine show, making the National Wine Show of Australia the unofficial arbiter of the best of the best Australian wines.
This week, in the show’s 45th year, 1258 wines from 235 wineries across the country are being judged by a committee comprising leading winemakers, sommeliers, industry professionals and wine critics, before the winners are revealed at a gala dinner at Canberra’s Arboretum on November 22.
Seventy-two of the wineries are entering for the first time.
Organising committee chair Andy Gregory is not surprised by the increasing number of wineries wanting to put their wines into the show.
“This is the show you want to win. It’s the best in the country – there is massive rigour around the judging and the wines coming out of it really are the most outstanding in Australia.”
Chair of Judges David Bicknell, chief winemaker at Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, credits the show’s insistence that only previous medal winners can enter with maintaining an exceptionally high standard among winners. And he too has seen a fair few changes in the industry over the years.
“You’re never quite sure what’s going to resonate in the market,” David says. “If you went back 10 or 15 years and asked winemakers what’s going to be the next big thing, I don’t think too many would have come up with Moscato, but it became really big really quickly.
“Wine still goes through these periods of fashion where things come out of the blue, like rose. Our climate, the very eclectic mix of Euro and Asian influences and the flavours in what we eat every day in this country all have an influence [on what Australians like to drink].”
David says none of the judges go into the show with preconceived notions, and he accepts that the dial will continue to shift in what Australian winemakers are producing, and how they’re producing it.
“More left-field wines are coming up; a lot of alternative varieties have gone into the ground because of climate change and people are getting better at making those wines. There’s a lot of replanting going on. What used to work in vineyards across the valley doesn’t necessarily work now. There’s a lot more defensive viticulture to protect fruit from the sun and protect the crop,” he says.
“One of the great things about the Australian wine industry is that there’s a desire to improve everything in terms of quality and to do it quickly; we don’t want to sit around for a couple of thousand years trying to work it out like they did in Europe. We want change within generations.”
Yabby Lake winemaker Tom Carson, a previous NWS chair who is back this year as a mentor judge to a group of young associates, says the public tasting event presents the perfect opportunity for wine enthusiasts – amateur or professional – to get an inside run on what’s happening in Australian winemaking.
“It’s certainly a great guide for potential buyers wanting to identify good wines. [At the National Wine Experience] there are some highly sought after wines available to taste. Some of the classes such as fortified wines comprise a few very old and rare examples.
“There are also single-vintage wineries producing very small batches that are in the market only for a short time. It’s a unique offering.”
For Chippy, the benefits for the average joe who doesn’t necessarily know his Semillon from his Chardonnay are more prosaic.
“People want to know what’s drinkable. Is the chardonnay I’m taking to my friend’s barbecue a good one?” he says.
“The National Wine Experience lets you try what the experts in the industry have judged to be the very best in Australian wines. It’s not a tasting as such, because that’s already been done, it’s more an opportunity to bring a mate or your partner along and have a great experience.
“If you love shiraz, you can focus on the shiraz classes … try a few and see how they go with duck or with chocolate. If you prefer chardonnay, stick to that, and try it a bit of cheese – far better than cheese with a glass of red in my view.”
Or if you want ultimate bragging rights, head straight for the trophy winners’ table and start writing your shopping list, safe in the knowledge that a diligent team of judges has done the hard yards for you.
The world’s your oyster (preferably with a cheeky little Hunter Semillon).
The National Wine Experience is on from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm, Saturday, 23 November at Exhibition Park in Canberra. Book your tickets today.
Limited tickets are still available for the National Wine Show of Australian trophy presentation dinner at the National Arboretum on Friday, 22 November. Book your tickets today.