Well, we were all judges at the 2018 Hunter Valley Wine show on Friday 24 August. Not only were we enjoying some great medal and Trophy winning wines, we all had our opinion about these wonderful wines, and also the show system and how the judges came to decide on the medals and trophies.
There were some 628 wines tasted by the judges with about half being awarded a medal. Only 7.6% attained Gold, the vast majority were bronze age wines! Now this represents the high quality of wines entered but a judging panel not carried away and wisely restricting the gold to only the most deserving wines in their opinion.
It looks like 2017 is shaping up to be a significant vintage going by the wines tasted and awarded medals.
One intriguing aspect of the judge’s comments was their search for freshness- even among the older wines. in class 22-Dry Red Wine Any Variety all the wines were of vintages older than 2010 yet the judges looked for the density of fruit and freshness, yet I would have thought developed aged wine characters would have almost excluded these characters. Did they mean lively rather than fresh? None the less, it was a well-rewarded class, so they must have included other aspects in coming to their conclusions.
It is hard to get a real feeling for the judgments made from the brief one to two lines written about each class in the printed results, but this year ‘Freshness’ came through as an all-important concept…was it groupthink? …did it influence the outcomes? Of course, we look for freshness in younger wines…perhaps the advent of the screw cap closure has altered expectations and the appearance of older wines.
Early in the proceedings, John Flannery PSM was introduced along with his recent publication ‘From Tendrils to Trophies-The origin of the Hunter Valley Wine Show’. John has had a long involvement with the show, being on the committee from 1984 to 2005, and has painstakingly pieced together the early history where records were not kept and they “just got on with organizing the show” to quote Robert Drinan an early member of the committee. Recollections of Chris Barnes, Graham Kaye, Ron Petrie and others helped to fill in the gaps. These men were key players in 1973 when the recently formed Hunter Valley Vineyard Association (HVVA) formed a sub-committee to organize a wine show.
John notes there was a small wine show in Singleton back in 1973 with some 90 wines entered the next year the newly formed Hunter Wine Show committee (separate from but including HVVA members) ran the show and has continued to this day to do so.
By 1974 there were 87 vineyards producing 12,000 tonnes to produce 8.2m litres of quality table wine. This reflected the rapid expansion in the previous 5 years from ‘a few hundred to a total of 4,000 hectares.’
Of particular interest today was the recognition back then that the tourists were interested in the wine industry. Tourism was expanding back in 1974 and support for the wine show came from the fledgeling Singleton Tourism Association and Singleton Council. Today the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association(HVWTA) is actively promoting the “Good Life” and encouraging tourists to visit and enjoy the Hunter.
Of course, wine judging of Hunter wines had been a key feature of the Hunter River Vineyard Association from its foundation back in 1847. The aim being to improve the quality of wines made and share experiences. The report of a tasting from the Maitland Mercury shows the detail our early pioneers went into. It also reflects the fact they were seeking to publicise the wines produced- nothing really has changed!
Why Gold, Silver and Bronze medals? It all started in 1822 when the London Society of Arts offered a gold medal for “the finest wine, not less than 20 gallons, of good marketable quality made from the produce of the vineyards in New South Wales.

Blaxland’s silver medal State Library NSW R266
Of historical interest was the subsequent awarding of the first Silver medal to an Australian wine in 1823 to Mr Gregory Blaxland for wine from his Parramatta vineyard.
Now those who follow wine show results may have seen some recent articles in The Real Review by Huon Hooke about some aberrant awards of Gold medals in regional wine shows and even in the respected Sydney wine show.
To quote Huon “the Melbourne International Wine Competition was apparently judged by a gaggle of monkeys. How else to explain the bizarre results” and this from a well-respected journalist and wine judge who is most restrained in his criticisms and seldom speaks out harshly. The $6 Cabernet Sauvignon from Coles was awarded a double gold yet did not merit even bronze when tasted independently by Huon. The show was judged by retailers and seemed odd that the wines had rather inflated awards.
We are fortunate in the Hunter to have a highly ethical and experienced show system and have avoided this type of influence although Regional shows do have their Achilles heel. But as Huon Hooke explains Regional shows can err on the side of inflated awards where judging is less acute or judges less experienced. There can be subtle pressures on judges to make awards for the community to enjoy and local producers celebrate.
In some situations, the judges will be familiar with the characters of local wines and consciously or subconsciously recognize them as such, bringing a bias into their Judgement despite endeavours to mask the wines.
Wine tasting and judging is NOT an accurate scientific endeavour. As Huon points out ‘Judging where judges never actually sit down and drink a glass of each wine – permits wines with certain flaws to do better than they ought. One such flaw is underripe tannins.’ ‘a few sniffs and a sip or two and you might not notice that the tannins are sappy and unripe’
At our Legends Lunch, we often comment on how a wine will open up over time and what appears to be a limited wine will end up being a most enjoyable and a wine of great character. Given the time restraints of wine show judging, I suspect some wines go straight through to the keeper!
The Australian Society for Viticulture and Oenology has put out a series of recommendations for wine shows as a result of the scrutiny being applied to wine shows. In recommendation 1 entitled Judge Impartially they outline some of the problems and current practices that might impinge on their impartiality.
These include awareness of identifying numbers or exposed labels, wines poured in front of judges where bottle shape or other factors can lead to the identification (particularly during trophy judging).
Selective or biased judging can occur when a judge deliberately awards a wine a lower ranking because it may differ from personal preference for the wine style within that class of show; also when an unusual blend of grapes or a particular (aged) vintage is recognized. This is particularly prevalent in trophy judging.
I am not sure if personal preference can be nullified and what role it has when chairs push their preference. I suspect we role with the punches and wait for the results of the next show. A well-known phenomenon no medal in one show and a gold in another…some famous Hunter Rieslings have found gold elsewhere!
Also noted was where discussion on attributes of wines occurs between judges when tasting wines, particularly when judging trophies, so that the potential to influence a judge’s final decision exists. Stories about certain well know chairmen of a past era having told the judges to go back and get it right! abound. An era when wine style development was a central aspect of the shows.
Another interesting aspect is in the non-varietal classes where judges are unaware of the varietals involved making appreciation difficult. They point out some varietals may be disadvantaged when entered in classes for Other Varietals if the Variety is not revealed to Judges.

Maitland Mercury 1853
On this point, those entering a particular show may withhold wines from the show if the reputation for assessing such wines is unreliable. So the Hunter show sees lots of Semillon, Chardonnay, and Shiraz but not too many newer or emerging varieties, producers play to the shows strength, Shiraz 2017, for example, being by far the biggest class with 69 entrants while Other Red Varietals and blends 2016 and older class 17, having only 6 entrants, including Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
There is no doubt the show system has greatly helped the development of quality wines in Australia but today it has some challenges. The overall standard of our wines is high- you rarely get a bad wine, even at the lower end of the price scale-success as it were, in developing the industry.
Non the less, the purchase of wine is based on many factors so an award-winning wine may not attract a buyer if the style is out of fashion (Reisling for example). The major producers have sometimes relied on show medals to promote their wines and indeed put a lot of effort into ‘preparing’ their wines for the shows. With the emergence of Dan Murphy and like outlets, promotions based on price will often beat gold medals or worse dubious gold medals from retailer dominated shows devalue the concept of award-winning wines and undermine the show system.
Well, we enjoyed the 2018 Hunter Valley Wine Show, sponsored by CCL, a label company (Clear Image), Spicers Vineyard Estates, and Atkinson Vinden Lawyers; Not a retailer in sight. Once again it got people talking and many of the issues surrounding the wine shows, as always, were discussed. The usual suspects did well-almost like a rotating roster with Tyrrells, Mount Pleasant, Brokenwood and the McGuigans taking turns but also a spread of other well-known hunters to balance out the day.
I have used the following sources for this blog
From Tendrils to Trophies The Origin of the Hunter Valley Wine Show John Flannery 2018 Griffin Press
Schedule of Results Hunter Valley Wine Show 2018
Wine Show rivers of Gold Huon Hooke July 2017 The Real Review
More bizarre results at wine shows August 10, 2017, The Real Review
Australian Society for Viticulture and Oenology Wine show Project Wine Show Recommendations
Author: Robert Lusby AM
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