Owen Latta, Fred Peacock, Judi Cullam and Janice McDonald.

The scene was set for a very special evening at Black Bar & Grill at Sydney’s The Star for the 2018 Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year awards, held in conjunction with Perpetual. As it was the awards’ 21st anniversary, the night was seen as a coming of age, and for the first time in the history of the awards the dishes on serve had been created and prepared by not one chef, but two – Chase Kojima of Sokyo and Dany Karam of Black. The dual chefs made for an exciting see-saw between Japanese fusion and modern Australian with Middle Eastern flair.

The guests began to arrive at the venue, where they were ushered to the bar to enjoy a glass of 2015 Yarra Burn Vintage Cuvée (made by former winner Ed Carr), one of twelve wines to be poured throughout the night, alongside still and sparkling Antipodes water.

Throughout the venue the tables were sparkling, as 220 Riedel Veritas glasses were waiting for the first bracket of wine to be poured by head sommelier Addy Lam and his team. With five brackets to get through over the course of the night, it meant that a grand total of 1,100 glasses would be used (no mean feat for the kitchen’s dishwashers!).

The eight finalists had all arrived, twelve of the best winemakers in Australia in total: Frank van de Loo (Mount Majura Vineyard), husband and wife Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy (Quealy Winemakers), Franco D’Anna (Hoddles Creek Estate), brother and sister Matthew and Anna Pooley (Pooley Wines), Janice McDonald (Burch Family Wines), Paul Hotker (Bleasdale), Lucy Maddox and Chris Derrez (Madrez Wine Services), and Willy Lunn (Yering Station).

It was a diverse group, with ten of Australia's wine regions represented: Canberra District, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Tasmania, Margaret River, Great Southern, Langhorne Creek, Orange, Hilltops and the Central Ranges.

The winner of Winemaker of the Year was amongst them, but of the 110 guests in the room only a handful of people knew who that was, making for nervous energy as everyone took their seats.

MC Peter Bourne welcomed everybody and invited GT WINE editor Judy Sarris to speak. “When you think how many winemakers there are in Australia, it’s an outstanding achievement to be chosen as one of the top eight,” said Sarris. “The Winemaker of the Year Award itself is in its 21st year. Since the beginning, our esteemed judging panel has remained much the same bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table.”

The panel is made up of chair Peter Forrestal, Huon Hooke, Nick Bulleid MW, Andrew Caillard MW, Mike Bennie, Toni Paterson MW, and Peter Bourne. Forrestal and Hooke have been a part of the judging panel since the Awards’ inception in 1998. “Through their tireless work, we’ve celebrated the achievements of 168 finalists over the years.”

An entrée of tuna sashimi, caviar, wasabi crème fraîche, caper powder and stinging nettle by chef Kojima was served alongside 2017 Colmar Estate Block 6 Riesling and 2015 Quealy Turbul Friulano. They were matches made in heaven as the zing of the Colmar Estate cut through the oiliness of the sashimi, and the richness of the skin contact Quealy combined with that of the wasabi crème fraîche.

The empty plates and glasses were cleared and replaced by scallops, buttermilk dressing, lemon, spring vegetables and poppy seeds by chef Karam with the 2016 Pooley Cooinda Vale Chardonnay and 2015 Eastern Peake Block I10V5 Chardonnay. As guests chowed down on the scallops, the eight finalists were each presented with a certificate and a set of eight of Riedel’s new Performace Champagne glasses.

Both the chefs were then invited to the stage for a quick chat with MC Bourne. Chase Kojima introduced the next course, his Ayelsbury duck breast, foie gras chawanmushi, cherry blossom, roasted apple and yukari paired to 2015 Bream Creek Reserve Pinot Noir and 2017 Hoddles Creek Estate PSB Pinot Noir. “But what is foie gras chawanmushi?” asked Bourne.

“Foie gras is like melt in your mouth and it’s very hard to do that with the stuff that we get in Australia,” said Kojima. “So using japanese egg custard – chawanmushi – we got a mouth explosion, exactly how I like my foie gras.”

Dany Karam was then asked what his next dish would be, to be served after the announcement of the Young Winemaker Medal winner and the recipient of the Perpetual Viticulturist of the Year. “We’re having the best of the best. It’s a David Blackmore Wagyu from Victoria – it’s one of the best Wagyu producers outside of Japan – with smoked mash potato, asparagus, horseradish and pepper sauce,” said Karam. It was to be matched beautifully with the 2016 Mount Majura Vineyard Rock Block Tempranillo and the 2016 Bleasdale Double Take Malbec.

Kylie Smith, group executive, Marketing and Communications at Perpetual, long-time premium sponsor of the GT WINE Winemaker of the Year Awards, was called to the stage to announce the winner of the Young Winemaker Medal – Owen Latta of Eastern Peake and Latta Vino – and the winner of the Perpetual Viticulturalist of the Year – Fred Peacock of Bream Creek. Both very deserving of the accolades.

An unidentified wine was then poured as Sally Evans, daughter of Len Evans, took to the stage to play Wine Options. The Wine Options game had everyone up on their feet, and everyone quickly sitting back down as the third question about regionality stumped most of the room. The Wine Options game, as in past years, revealed the winner of the Len Evans Award 2018: Judi Cullam of Frankland Estate. The mystery wine was of course a riesling, a variety that Cullam has championed in Australia through hard work and innovative educational events.

Judy Sarris then took to the stage for the final time that night, to announce this year’s winner of Winemaker of the Year. The room was quiet as she opened the envelope and read out Janice McDonald’s name.

“I feel lost for words,” began McDonald. “I want to particularly thank Jeff and Amy Burch for the support and belief in what I've done with Howard Park and the other brands we have.

“The enormous effort and resources from so many people that go in to creating and being successful in this award are just too numerous to mention. The thing that’s always fascinated me about wine is that we look at this coloured liquid in the glass and everyone in this room knows what goes in to creating that. It looks so simple, but we all realise it is just so complex.”

The perfect words to finish the night and tuck in to the final course of Pyengana cloth bound cheddar and Holy Goat La Luna goats cheese paired with 2015 Yering Station Reserve Shiraz Viogner and the winner’s 2013 Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheers to that.

2015 Yarra Burn Vintage
2017 Colmar Estate Block 6 Riesling
2016 Quealy Turbul Friulano
Tuna sashimi, caviar, wasabi crème fraîche, caper powder, stinging nettle. By Chase Kojima
2016 Pooley Cooinda Vale Chardonnay
2015 Eastern Peake Block I10V5 Chardonnay
Scallop, buttermilk dressing, lemon, spring vegetables, poppy seeds. By Dany Karam
2015 Bream Creek Reserve Pinot Noir
2017 Hoddles Creek Estate PSB Pinot Noir
Aylesbury duck breast, foie gras chawanmushi, cherry blossom roasted apple, yukari. By Chase Kojima
2016 Mount Majura Vineyard Rock Block Tempranillo
2016 Bleasdale Double Take Malbec
Blackmore Wagyu flat iron MBS9+, asparagus, horseradish, smoked potato, pepper sauce. By Dany Karam
2015 Yering Station Reserve Shiraz Viognier
2013 Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon
Pyengana Cloth-bound cheddar, Tas.
Holy Goat La Luna, Vic.
Served with soda bread, lavosh and condiments.

Water supplied by Antipodes