Giant Steps for lighter-bodied reds

Huon Hooke
On to a winner: Yabby Lake winemaker Tom Carson is incoming chairman of judges at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards.
On to a winner: Yabby Lake winemaker Tom Carson is incoming chairman of judges at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. 

The Royal Melbourne Wine Awards judging room this year had more leaks that Julia Gillard's cabinet. Stories swirled around the historic Jimmy Watson Trophy victory of the 2012 Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir, the first pinot noir ever to win this trophy - awarded to the best one or two-year-old red wine in the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards (formerly Royal Melbourne Wine Show) - in the trophy's 52-year existence.

Eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that, while Yabby Lake won the Watson, a different pinot noir won the James Halliday Trophy - also part of the Melbourne Wine Awards - for the best pinot noir of the show: Giant Steps Applejack Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012. If the Jimmy Watson winner is not the best pinot noir of the show, it raises the question: why not?

The answer is that Giant Steps did not have the minimum quantity required on hand to be eligible for the Jimmy Watson Trophy, which is 250 dozen*. When Giant Steps owner Phil Sexton was asked the question, he had to admit the output was 247 dozen, just three cases short. Exhibitors are required to state on the entry form whether their wine satisfies the quantity requirements for all of the relevant trophies. So the Watson was awarded to the next wine in line, which was Yabby Lake.

Giant Steps winemaker Steve Flamsteed.
Giant Steps winemaker Steve Flamsteed. Photo: Gary Medlicott

Less scrupulous people might have been tempted to fib about the number. After all, the trophy has been said to be worth at least $1 million to the winning exhibitor, but for Sexton and his winemaker, Steve Flamsteed, it will always be the big one that got away. Sexton, incidentally, is chairman of the Melbourne show's wine committee.

His Applejack excelled anyway, winning the Halliday pinot trophy, as well as best wine of the Yarra Valley Wine Show just a few weeks earlier.

An interesting aside: the Applejack vineyard was established and owned by Ray Guerin, the ex-Hardy's, now Shaw + Smith, vineyard man who won Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine's Viticulturist of the Year Award in September. In a further twist, the vineyard was recently sold to Giant Steps. This sale was great news for Giant Steps, because it secured an outstanding fruit source, but not for David Bicknell, of Oakridge, who has also made some great wines from this vineyard, which appears on his labels as Guerin Vineyard. Bicknell made three superb wines off the Guerin vineyard in 2012: a chardonnay and a pinot noir under Oakridge's Local Vineyard Series label, and the 864 Pinot Noir, which is Oakridge's top label. But 2013 was the last time Oakridge was able to buy those grapes.

To make the whole thing look even more clubby, Bicknell is the retiring chairman of judges at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. And who is the incoming chairman? Yabby Lake's winemaker, Tom Carson.

Carson could easily have judged his own wine at Royal Melbourne, but he didn't, at least not until it came to the trophy tastings, in which all judges participate. A panel chaired by Carson judged one-third of the 2012 pinot class, while Matt Harrop, of Shadowfax, and Jim Chatto, of McWilliams, chaired the panels judging the other two-thirds, and it was Harrop's panel which pulled out the Yabby Lake pinot as its top wine. Carson's panel pulled out the Giant Steps Applejack. Giant Steps then beat Yabby Lake in a judge-off, but we know who went on to win the Watson!

All judging is done blind, of course. None of this will ease the paranoia of the many South Australian winemakers who have seen a change in the direction of the Melbourne show judging in recent years, and despair of their wine styles winning the Watson.


Recent Watson winners have been lighter-bodied, cool-climate shirazes: Best's of Great Western last year; Tasmania's Glaetzer-Dixon the year before. Before 2008, South Australian reds, especially big wines from the warmer regions, dominated the Watson.

Applejack is a 16-hectare vineyard on a 40-hectare property in the cool, elevated Gladysdale area of the Upper Yarra. Phil Sexton describes it as a very special site and very different from the middle of the valley, where his main vineyard is located, the climate much gentler and the harvest a week later. Already, he's had sauvignon blanc pulled out and replaced by more pinot noir.

The 2012 Giant Steps Applejack Pinot Noir ($45) is all gone from the winery. The 2012 Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir is available with a three-bottle limit for $95 from the cellar door or Carson is precise about the quantity made: 3836 bottles, and it wasn't released till after the show, on October 28.

*The minimum quantity rule aims to ensure there is some stock of the winning wine for the public to buy. Last year, a Mornington Peninsula wine, Jones Road 2011 Nepean Chardonnay, was stripped of two trophies and a gold medal it had won at Melbourne because the quantity made was below the minimum. The winery had published that information on its website. In that case, the quantity made wasn't even close to the required minimum, the trophy results had been publicly announced before the mistake was discovered, and a public disqualification was necessary. Humiliating for the winery, perhaps, but a credibility boost for the show.