The concept of the Riesling Challenge came from Ken Helm AM, a pioneer Canberra winemaker with a passion for Riesling. The idea was launched in 1999 by Senator David Brownhill, later the Chair of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, at the Murrumbateman Cool Climate Wine Show. Australia is the second biggest Riesling producer in the world next to Germany, and it seemed right that it should promote the variety. The concept was further developed by Ken, with the Hyatt Hotel Canberra (the major sponsor at the time) and a group of Canberra business people including Jim Murphy AM, James Service, Paul Walshe, and Emmanuel Notaras, together with the ACT Government.
Wolf Blass AM accepted an invitation to be the first Chairman of Judges; he held that position for six years. He introduced the Wolf Blass Award, became a major sponsor, member of the Committee and is now the International Ambassador for the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. Ken Helm was elected Chairman and from that position has guided development over the last fourteen years.
The inaugural event in October 2000 at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra attracted 137 Australian entries. The trophy for the Best Riesling in that year went to McWilliams 1996 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling.
In 2002 entries were sought from New Zealand, and in 2003 the Wolf Blass Award was initiated to recognise a person or innovation that made a major contribution to the development and promotion of Riesling.
In 2004 the German Ambassador, Dr Klaus Peter Klaiber, offered a Perpetual Trophy for the Best German Wine and organised a comparative tasting of 21 German wines. Ken saw an opportunity and suggested to the Committee, that from 2005 the event should become the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. Since then it has since attracted increasing numbers of wines from Riesling producers across the world.
The international concept was made possible due to Canberra’s diplomatic missions, which provide a unique opportunity to have the wines from various countries sourced through the Ambassadors and High Commissioners. Up to 10 countries have been involved over the years.
Seminars conducted by Charles Sturt University (CSU) Wagga Wagga were introduced to promote better winemaking and appreciation of the many styles of Riesling. CSU oenology students vie for positions as stewards during the Challenge to increase their experience and education.
In 2006 Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at Yalumba Wines South Australia, became Chair of Judges for three years. Louisa bought her extensive winemaking/judging experience, intelligence and innovation to the judging and to the development of the event. The Challenge has drawn judges from Germany, USA, England and New Zealand and from winemakers, media and sommeliers from across Australia.
2008 saw the introduction of judging on a regional level, a first in Australia for an international event. It showcases the individual characteristics unique to a wine’s location in the world, the soil, the climate, aspect etc. This concept is now being promoted by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation for promotion of Australian wines. The 2008 Challenge attracted 512 entries from Australia, Germany, New Zealand, the USA, South Africa and Austria. It has become an internationally-recognised wine event, making it the largest event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Ken Helm was invited in 2008, 2010 and 2012 by the Germany/Rhineland Pfalz Government to judge at the Best of Riesling – the biggest event of its type in the world. He uses these opportunities to promote Australian Rieslings, the CIRC and seek closer relationships with German winemakers, judges and media.
2009 marked the 10th anniversary and received a record number of 550 entries from 10 countries. An innovation that year was the introduction of Associate Judges, to train them in the appreciation of the world of Riesling. Judging moved to a larger area at the historic Albert Hall, adjacent to the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, which will be home for the event for the foreseeable future. This was made possible through increased sponsorship support by the ACT Government.
The ACT Government’s 10 years support for the event was recognised with the presentation of a trophy at the 2009 awards dinner. In the same year, David O’Leary, chief winemaker from O’Leary Walker Wines, began his term as Chair of the high-profile judging panel, overseeing an increased number of judges working in two panels of three judges.
2010 saw the CIRC Committee employ a professional secretariat management firm - Commerce Management Services (Sue Hart) - to stage the event, as it had outgrown a casual secretary in a home office. That year also saw as a spin off from the Challenge the publication of Riesling in Australia by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess, the first comprehensive book on the history, regions, legends, producers and winemaking of Riesling in Australia. Ken Helm’s contribution to the development and promotion of the Riesling Challenge, the variety and the development of Canberra Wine industry, was recognised with an Order of Australia (AM) on 26 January 2010.
In 2012 the 100 point judging system was introduced, Ben Edwards commenced his term as Chair of Judges, and a Riesling Master Class for the wine industry and consumers was added to the event.
The 2013 Challenge was held in Canberra’s Centenary Year which was marked with the presentation to Dr Edgar Riek OAM of a special Centenary of Canberra Award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the Canberra Wine Industry.
The Canberra International Riesling Challenge has been a leader in innovation in wine judging, and promotion of wine and Riesling. The future will see it further develop with plans for national and International road shows to promote the best Rieslings in the world, and the Australian Wine Industry.