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Sydney Royal Wine Show International Judge - Rod Smith

Posted on : 16 August 2019

Written by: Rod Smith MW

I have been privileged to judge wine in places as diverse as London, Sofia, Dallas, Moscow, Transylvania and Shanghai, over the course of three decades, but I can comfortably say that the Sydney Royal Wine Show this year has been as well organised and efficiently run as the best of them. The obvious support and investment of an organisation like KPMG has contributed to the appropriateness and enjoyment of the judging environment in every way, and this is both important and well appreciated by all who experienced it.

As with all wine shows, there were samples of all quality levels, and this is good thing. Even some of the Merlots. It is far easier to judge differences than similarities. Inevitably some people will submit less than perfect wines in the hope that a surprise bonus medal will come their way which will help sales. It is up to the judges to ensure that this does not happen, and the rigour and quality of all the judges I met here, and especially such a dedicated Chairman and collection of Panel Chairs will go a long way to ensure the continuing high reputation of the Sydney Royal and its integrity and trustworthiness. Mentioning no names, but there are other shows where lucky medals do often happen, and not enough checks and balances are made to lessen or eliminate the possibility. This is most definitely not the case here. All the winning wines tonight fully deserve their awards, I am sure.

If I may be so cheeky as to risk telling you what to do, or what you have done, I would like to make the following few observations.

Australian wine's success, in the UK market at least, was down to its ability to maximise the opportunities of exploiting a growing thirst for wine among other alcoholic drinks. All the usual clichés apply: English on labels, an affinity with all things Aussie, easy to understand varietal profiles, Sweetness of fruit, bucketloads of popcorny oak and buttery malo, Critters, value, consistency (including early championing of alternative closures) and discounting - everything contributed in differing proportions to the success of wine brands big and small.

Notice that list didn't include the word 'quality'.

But all of those things are 'qualities' in different ways. Certainly to the consumer, and it is from their perspective that we would be well advised to look at our industry.

Australia succeeded because it made the wines its customers wanted to drink, rather than expecting its consumers to want to drink the wines that it happened to make. Which was the, er, French and Italian way.

But there is room for both. The latter way is not arrogant. It is artistic, and it is the author of all true greatness in wine. Well, okay, with the French it IS arrogance. But sometimes with justification. And arrogance is not the exclusive preserve of the French.

Nowadays, just as there are plenty of progressive commercially successful producers in Europe who will craft a wine to their customers’ specifications with 5 grams per litre of sugar and some oak chips or whatever, there is an increasing number of producers in Australia - many represented in the show, and in this room - who are ploughing their own furrow and creating wine as art rather than only as commerce. It's almost certainly not as easy, but it's definitely more fun.

Inevitably wine judges gravitate towards these wines. They're more interesting, they taste better, they're more classy and we all want to drink them. But for everyone who has become bored of glossy oaky Chardonnay and peppermint-patty Shiraz, there are dozens yet to discover them. Coffee flavoured wine and American Cabernet aged in Bourbon barrels would not succeed otherwise. But succeed they do.

All things - in some way - follow this progression. It might take weeks or it might take centuries, but from architecture to hair-styles, music to restaurant service, everything goes roughly like this:

  • Weird
  • Unusual
  • Normal
  • Typical
  • Stereotypical
  • Cliché

Of course we all like discovering quality in the weird. Especially hipster sommeliers. Who are weird. Sometimes they like weirdness for weirdness' sake. Which can be an expensive mistake for the rest of us.

But we all avoid the clichés like the plague. Well, except when it comes to buying a television or a brand of coffee or whatever. Those products we consume but don't feel the need to think about. Well, no matter how sad the fact may be, wine is one of those things for almost all of its consumers. Our consumers. The well-made clichés can deserve medals too.

Today's clichés were weird once. Today's weird wines will grow up to be clichés one day. And in some cases, sooner that you think.

Diversity is the key, and from my perspective it's great that there are people making ripe juicy accessible wines in the South of France (as often as not down to Australian winemakers anyway). But it's even better that there are refreshing, linear, crisp and sulphidic/chalky Chardonnays coming from cooler areas here, and people planting varieties like Saperavi, Nero d'Avola, and Vermentino - to see what happens.

Hopefully, and I am sure that, we rewarded the best examples of all styles from both ends of the spectrum and in between, and found the interesting wines to spread our collective passion wider. I certainly made lots of great discoveries, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have done so.

Rod Smith MW

2019 International Guest Judge - KPMG Sydney Royal Wine Show

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