by Tiffany Hoy
SYDNEY, Feb. 7 (Xinhua) -- The race is on to select the best of the best of Australian wine at the Sydney Royal Wine Show this week -- with the pick of the bunch headed for China's most sophisticated cellars and dinner parties.
This year's competition attracted 2,345 entries across different classes, representing nearly every wine region in Australia.
After four days of intense tasting, the judges will decide the winners of 37 trophies and medals for each class, with the national 'best of shows' to be announced on February 14.
"I think because this wine show is open to all wine regions in Australia, and we do get all wine regions exhibiting, we're going to see the best that Australia has to offer -- whether it's Margaret River Cabernet or Chardonnay, Barossa Shiraz, McLaren Vale Shiraz, Hunter Valley Semillon, Yarra Valley Pinot and Chardonnay, sparkling wine from Tasmania -- we see all these great wines come through the show.
"We do see the full range that Australia makes, and if they're good enough, they'll get rewarded," Chairman of Judges Iain Riggs told Xinhua.
At stake for the winemakers is the right to display a gold, silver or bronze medal on their label, making it easier for new drinkers to pick out the gems in the crowded wine market.
"Out of 2,400 entries, only 4 percent or 5 percent will get gold medals. It's a very exacting and rigorous task, reviewing all these wines," said Riggs.
"It's a bit like a stamp of approval: the wine has been through a very strict process of getting to the top and is the best that we can find," he added.
Each wine is judged without labels to ensure impartiality, and the judging room is kept at a cool 20 degrees Celsius to keep the wine from getting too warm and obscuring subtle nuances of flavour.
As head judge, Riggs will lead five panels of industry experts to examine and grade each entry in the 79 judging classes.
"Australian winemakers and consumers really are looking for wines of finesse and balance, and I think this will flow out to all parts of the world -- China in particular," said Riggs.
China is fast becoming Australia's largest wine export partner, with Australian reds a particular hit with the Chinese palette.
France, Spain, Chile, Australia and Italy are currently the major sources of China's wine imports, accounting for 82 percent of the total. In the first half of 2012, China Customs reports that the nation imported 200 million litres of wine -- valued at 1. 11 billion U.S. dollars.
Well-known amongst wine circles in both Australia and China, Riggs is experienced with the Chinese market, and will travel to Shanghai in June to preside as Chairman at the Shanghai International Wine Challenge.
"The general groundswell of interest in consuming wine is very strong in China. We love it; we love our Chinese partners -- and the Shanghai International Wine Challenge is one way that we can give back to the growing industry in China and the growing consumer interest in drinking wine," he said.
With so many foreign brands flooding the market, Riggs' best advice for newcomers about wine appreciation is to drink widely, sampling wine from overseas and different parts of Australia.
"As winemakers we concentrate on capturing the fruit character that shows what that region does best -- whether it's Hunter Valley for Semillon, McLaren Vale for Shiraz, or Yarra Valley for Chardonnay.
"If you like Riesling, try wine from Gippsland in Victoria, from Eden Valley and from Clare Valley in South Australia, right through to the Great Southern in Western Australia," he advised.
"From last year's wine show, we had some great red wines from Mount Langi Ghiran; from Bay of Fires, their Pinot -- great Pinots down in Tasmania; and across all of Australia the wine regions were represented with trophies, plus big companies and small companies.
"You get those regional characters coming through -- they're quite different from European wines and American wines, but they' re very, very Australian," he added.
Despite the individual flavour strengths found in each region, Riggs believes that there is something distinctive about all Australian wine.
"Australian wine, compared to wines from Europe, is quite different. We have lots of sunshine, lots of great vineyard sites. We have some of the oldest soils on the planet. We are blessed with abundant water, and abundant sunshine.. It's a huge country, and we make some great wines right across the country."
"With the Wine Show's white coats and clipboards, hierarchy of tasters and the hushed atmosphere in the judging hall, you could be forgiven for forgetting that wine is really all about enjoyment.
"At the end of the day, the best way to judge wine is to experience it with friends," says Riggs.
"You have a big group of friends, lots of wine on the table -- the one that goes first, that's the one you want to re-buy," he said.
Till Thursday next week, the hunt is on for the next golden bottle of Australian grape.