Vintage Chart? Sure. Oh, and pass the ketchup..

With all the talk of scoring wine recently, I was reminded of the most pointless association between wine and numbers, that of the vintage chart. Kermit Lynch sums it up beautifully as follows (an exerpt from: Inspiring Thirst – Vintage Selections from the Kermit Lynch Wine Brochure, 2004, Ten Speed Press ). Well worth buying the book just for the few pages he devotes to this topic:

“Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant may even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.”

 

The Kermit Lynch Vintage Chart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Preserving Home Turf – A Very Special Part of the World

Travel has many upsides and, when you travel as much as I do, the homecoming often delivers just as much delight and inspiration as the destination just visited.

I love the fresh context that travel gives. Whilst working in the northern hemisphere this year, McLaren Vale was in the news as the battle between urban sprawl and wine-growing played out.

The wines are familiar to many people, but it’s the unique combination of wine, food, history, culture, beaches and laid back quality of life that draw me back each and every year.

For those that haven’t visited, I shot a little movie to show you the place and some of the people that make it really special. Take a look around at what’s on offer and spare a thought to think just how unique and significant it all is, in a global context, and make sure you tell your friends. Enjoy!

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Big Australian Wine Shows – Taking the Bull by the Horns

Ah yes, the Pandora’s Box that is the Australian Wine Show “system”. There’s no nice way to say what I am about to say and it is by no means a complete critique of Australian wine shows – it’s a very specific matter. It is also a conversation that has been repeatedly had behind the scenes, at lunch and at dinner and around the back of the shed. I thought it might be worth widening the circle of conversation a little. We’re all mates after all.

I’ve long been involved in judging wine shows in Australia and will continue to do so this coming season. I’ve judged at many capital city shows – Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. I’m currently on the judging panel at the National Wine Show and I’ve judged at many regional shows as well as a handful of international wine judging gigs.

And I, along with anyone in possession of even barely functioning ears and eyes, have long recognised the need for change and evolution at the big end of the Australian wine show scene. I work on the “get involved and make change from within” philosophy; I simply can’t respect those that whine and whinge from the sidelines.

There has been some degree of ongoing change and evolution in most capital city wine shows in Australia. Melbourne, for example, has run a particularly impressive race to reinvention in recent years, most notably grindingly amending their flagship award, The Jimmy Watson Trophy, to become an award for bottled rather than unfinished wine. A giant step for the Royal Melbourne Wine Show but a small step for mankind. I wonder how many consumers will even notice.

But it becomes increasingly obvious that there seems to be an immovable barrier to change at many of our capital city wine shows. Despite the common sense, intelligence, expertise, drive etc. of the various capital city wine show steering committees, the judges, captains of industry and others who toss their hat in the show ring, there is an ongoing and fundamental disconnect between all of these people that champion the great cause of Australian wineries and the capital city wine show “landlords” – these being the various Royal Agricultural Societies.

The most commonly stated raison d’être for our capital city wine shows is twofold:

1)    to “improve the breed” – that wonderful private school-ish saying that means to champion great wine and encourage/teach others to follow (here here, toodle pip, bravo and there’s a good lad!).

2)    as a promotional vehicle to increase the popularity and sales of wine – a form of marketing, if you like.

Do our capital city wine shows really improve the breed? I don’t think so. And it’s not really their fault either. The world of wine production, and all that drives and shapes its leading edge, has evolved impressively and it’s a vastly different place in which we make and enjoy wine today than when the capital city show template was first cast in the mid-19th century.

Today, winemakers looking to improve their best efforts hire consultants, travel the world, meet the great makers, buy and taste the great examples and look to their peers, at times. Hell, they might even consult the internet.

Regional wine shows offer a very different encounter. They are the most effective wine shows in Australia when it comes to improving the breed from a grass roots level and they are intimate and nurturing of their constituent winemakers. They’re closely connected to the reality of the local wine industry. Regional wine shows also reinvest their spoils in their stakeholders and their local community. I love ‘em.

I should also make the distinction here about truly regional shows and isolate the quasi-regional wine shows that include Cowra, Griffith and Rutherglen. I struggle to understand the contemporary relevance of these wine shows that simply open their regional branding to all and sundry willing to pay up and send in. And I am certainly not alone on this. It just doesn’t make sense.

On the marketing front, it seems to be a widely held consensus (from my conversations, at least) that one decent review from a respected critic is a vastly more relevant and more valuable means of promoting wine to distributors/agents, trade and consumers – everybody you need to convince to buy your wine – than several gold medals from capital city wine shows. And I would suggest the exchange rate is now constantly and irreversibly moving against the favour of capital city wine shows.

It’s astounding then to see that most capital city wine shows don’t do a better job of getting their results out into the market, whether by investing more, doing a better job, or both.

Here, Sydney is a notable exception, making a good fist of promoting the whole wine, dairy and fine food package. It’s a common sense offering that has built some momentum in the market. There’s talk of iphone apps carrying results and producing consumer-friendly versions of catalogues, exactly the sort of initiatives that would potentially build ongoing relevance and value for wineries and consumers alike. Encouraging stuff.

But exactly why do we have capital city wine shows in this day and age and why do we need six roughly identical ones, seven if you count the National Wine Show in Canberra, which is a kind of über-capital city wine show? I bet consumers would give up some interesting points of view on this.

It seems to me the reason we have all these capital city wine shows in Australia is jointly tradition and business, quite big business. Consult the websites of the various Agricultural Societies and tally up the rough total of annual entries and you’ll see that the going rate of turnover for each capital city wine show in Australia is significant.

For example, in 2010, the Royal Melbourne Wine Show garnered around 3250 entries, each of which paid AUD$120 to be in the running, generating an income of around AUD$390,000.

Anecdotally, from a member of a capital city wine show committee who asked to remain anonymous (for fear of retribution I can only assume), the windfall from their 2010 show ran at around $180,000 after all costs.

The issue with this, and one that each and every member of Australia’s winemaking community should consider before sending their entries off to our capital city wine shows, is that it won’t be long before these events will collectively amass somewhere approaching AUD$1,000,000 after operating costs are paid and that the large proportion of this money heads off into the coffers of the various Agricultural Societies.

Given the fact that nowadays they really don’t improve the breed and are widely regarded as an increasingly obsolete marketing tool, the return on investment in capital city wine shows does not seem to stack up all that well for the Australian wine community. Isn’t it time the industry took charge and demanded dramatic and constructive changes for its own benefit. Where’s the leadership on this? Where is it coming unstuck?

Why aren’t our Agricultural Societies reinvesting the bulk of the money they make from their respective capital city wine shows back into the Australian wine community – why aren’t they investing in clever initiatives aimed at assisting winemakers in “improving the breed”? Wasn’t this their original mission? Where has the love gone?

To simply say “we do it the way it’s always been done” is to walk a slippery slope. Harvesting this money year after year and returning the bare minimum to the Australian wine community means our Agricultural Societies are potentially digging their own shallow grave.

Maybe a new and better system will come along, one that works with a strong connection and understanding of the context of today’s wine trade, one that is as outwardly focused as it is inwardly aware and one that rewards all of its stakeholders more fairly?

Is it time for a new system of exhibiting and judging Australian wine? Surely a system that delivers a great result and a fair return to all corners of the industry that supports it is the bare minimum Australian wineries, the industry and their wines deserve. A fair go for all is not too much to ask.

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Video: A Hearty Party at Adelaide’s Central Market

Here’s a video I shot at the Adelaide Central Market during a wine tasting event called Hearty Party. No big deal – just Australia’s BEST food market inviting a group of winemakers in to pour wine on a busy wintry Friday night. But the thing that struck me, was the way in which people interacted with the wines – it was a very different experience to your standard in-store wine tasting (which I often find sterile and awkward).

I and many others are always on the case for presenting food and wine as hand in hand and it can be quite uncertain territory for many people. But strolling through the market with arms and trolleys ladened with the weekend’s ingredients, people stopped, tasted and talked to winemakers about what they were cooking, how the wine would perform with the food and even how best to serve it. So relaxed, not at all intimidated, both winemakers and visitors were equally engaged and entertained.

Mussels were steamed and big, seriously big pans of paella were steaming away in the cool night air flanked by a group of local winemakers and their best winter wares.

Such a simple exercise, one that we see so little of in Australia, but one that bends in the direction of the enviably developed culture of eating and drinking that countries like France, Spain and Italy have long enjoyed. Let’s hope we see more of this – it just makes sense.

Anyway, enjoy the movie – I had fun shooting it!

 

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2011 Young Gun of Wine Award – Finalists

2010 Yung Gun of Wine finalists and judges (and one potential future gun!)

Yesterday I got together with Max Allen, Philip Rich, Rollo Crittenden and Rory Kent to judge the 2011 Young Gun of Wine Award. Above you’re looking at the 2010 finalists and judges, read on for the class of 2011.

In its 5th year, it’s tradition that we invite the previous year’s winner back to judge the following year and Rollo was as worthy a contributor as he was finalist and winner. Rory Kent is the boundlessly energetic mastermind behind the competition and the surrounding festival of events and it’s my job to take the minutes/chair the competition.

Each year it’s a reliable barometer of temperature in the Australian wine talent pool and the extent to which the competition evolves is always a (pleasant) surprise.

How we judge it: Well, it’s fair to say it certainly isn’t a wine show. Our short list of twenty-odd winemakers are discussed round table style as we taste two wines from each contestant. The need to present quality wine with purpose and merit is well and truly on the agenda but it’s not where it’s won or lost. The wines (as long as they are up to scratch) are a backdrop for a broader discussion.

Leadership, how each one engages with their context, their region(s), consistent improvement – many other things are discussed and inevitably it’s a case of tough decisions to whittle the short list down to the best 11 finalists. Spread across four states this year, the finalists are from South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and ACT (Canberra District).

From there, choosing the winner is something we really agonise over, thrash out, debate – call it what you will. It’s one VERY tough decision with such impressive talent.

Here are the 11 finalists – congratulations and see you all when we announce the winner on August 22nd and throughout the festive week leading up to the big night. The people’s choice tasting will be at the Prince Wine Store (Bank St, South Melbourne) on Saturday 20th August if you want to cast your own vote.

2011 Young Gun of Wine Finalists:

  • Adam Wadewitz (Best’s)
  • Alex Head (Head Wines)
  • Andrew Marks (The Wanderer)
  • David Bowley (Vinteloper)
  • Dylan McMahon (Seville Estate)
  • Elena Golakova-Brooks (Cien Y Pico & Dandelion Vineyards)
  • Mike Aylward (Ocean Eight)
  • Nick Glaetzer (Glaetzer Dixon)
  • Nick Spencer (Eden Road Wines)
  • Rory Lane (The Story)
  • Sam Wigan (Running With Bulls)

Look at the event website HERE and have a look at last year’s events, images etc – return soon for the full list of 2011 Young Gun of Wine Festival.

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Great Australian Wine – is there any Alternative?

I was lucky enough to speak at the Australian National University’s 7th University House Wine Symposium recently and I was asked to talk about ‘alternative varieties’. It was an inspiring day – the other speakers included Andy Pitmann, Leanne Webb, Brian Croser, Dan Buckle, Brian Walsh and Libbie Tassie, with James Halliday on the dinner speech.

I was introduced to the symposium as a voice of insight and diplomacy and someone who speaks their mind. They were very kind words. I have since been reminded that, in spite of this introduction, I made some provocative remarks, and they seem to have reverberated with some attendees. I even got a “please explain” from Max Allen via Twitter. I must have struck a chord.

Paul Starr wrote a piece about my presentation in his blog Bianco – Rosso and I like his observations on expertise (fish, ponds, size) – so much so I started to reflect on some key messages of my presentation.

My umbrella point to the ANU conference around the issue of alternative varieties (for those that didn’t attend) was that the Canberra District wine region has such a lucky opportunity it cannot afford to squander and that it has some important choices to make. Success is at stake.

Canberra has established riesling and shiraz with impressive speed and conviction – it’s almost a dream come true and not just for the region’s stakeholders. It’s something to be celebrated. It has the attention of all enthusiasts, amateurs, dabblers, dilettantes, practitioners, experts and observers (and anyone else who happens to be in ear shot) and now it must to galvanise this attention.

My message for Canberra producers was to focus on their core mission first and foremost because timing is imperative to success and the moment is NOW. If they don’t focus enough or well enough, the moment will pass. It will be harder to re-create the opportunity down the track.

Many (probably most) wine regions in Australia are struggling to identify, agree and focus collectively on their signature wines, as well as make them in sufficient enough numbers to be utterly convincing to the rest of the world.

Canberra has, through the work of the Edgar Rieke/John Kirk generation and subsequently the Tim Kirk/Ken Helm/Alex McKay/Nick O’Leary/Brian Martin etc generation, elaborated a compelling terroir. They’ve identified a clear opportunity to realise signature styles that are undoubtedly great wines in a world sense. They’re interesting, distinctive and can be made consistently.

This presents a significant opportunity. Throwing the seemingly boundless “excitement” of alternative varieties into the mix may be a liability for the region at this moment in their brief and to-date successful history and so mine was a cautionary tale.

More than that though, I also made the point that the act of sourcing, growing, making and bottling a wine is something anyone can do – but success dictates that the mission for Canberra’s winemakers is to make great and distinctive wine. We actually don’t have any need for anything else. We have enough wine in the world already, in fact, we have way too much.

We have too much bulk wine in tanks, we have too much average wine, we have too much of the wrong type of wine, the wrong style, labeled, in cleanskin, we have too much OK wine, we even have too much pretty darn decent wine. But we have a shortage of GREAT wine.

And to merely exist, is not to be great.

So-called ‘alternative’ varieties are too often celebrated in what I find to be a pointless manner. Celebrated very often by small producers and way too often by some members of the media and frequently by some members of the trade for no other reason than they’re different. Tastings reveal many are certainly not celebrated on the basis of quality.

And no Max Allen I am NOT talking about you – you are leading by example here and you are, through the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show and all your various outlets, providing important critical benchmarking for varietal exploration. We thank you.

But what we see very often is that the lesser producers in a region (and I’m talking Australia here) fail to make wine of sufficient quality in that region’s most established/famous/successful/important/celebrated styles and so take refuge in obscurity as a means of staying out of a competition they cannot win. It’s a game of attracting attention by alternate means and you can’t really blame them.

I also see the same thing happen with wine writers – many a story has been written (and published) on the basis that something is different/new and therefore exciting/newsworthy. And I think it’s a waste of precious publishing space when so much of what’s really important is ignored in the name of an easy story that takes little time/effort/intellect to write. Editors often have blood-stained hands too.

Imagine if investment writers wrote about companies simply on the basis that they were new and unproven in the market and they recommended it would be fun to try them – would you be sinking your precious dollars in? Or if restaurant critics wrote up the new local restaurant because it’s, well, new? Would you not want to know if the food is any good, the service and (more importantly perhaps) the wine list?

We all like to hear what’s new, but I don’t think that’s enough when wine is at hand. Very few people have enough money to spend on wine to chance buying bad bottles simply on the basis that it’s hardly been heard of, let alone perfected.

Wine critics are supposed to know enough to put all these millions of bottles into a useful context and to share their insight, their knowledge and experience. Ideally it’s done with some wisdom, wit and generous spirit. Ditto sommeliers and wine merchants.

I don’t want to just know that a wine is new or alternative, I want to know if it’s any good. I also want to know why it’s of interest, why it should be grown in one place and not another, why it is/will be great, how it delivers a profound result etc etc.

Every year I taste so many wines being made in Australia that are failed missions off along the tangent of new, alternative and different. Many are around for a few vintages only to gather dust in drab cellar door bargain bins and be offered by online auction and discount wine specialists. What is the point? It’s a waste of glass for starters.

If critics don’t elucidate the good from the bad, if sommeliers and wine merchants don’t make informed choices on the basis of an astute palate and wines are recommended and sold simply because they’re weird/new/unheard of, we’re proliferating a burgeoning lake of bad wine and – even worse than that – average wine.

It’s a bit like those slightly corked bottles; most people can’t identify the actual problem, they spend precious money, have a bad/unsatisfactory experience and go elsewhere. That’s not going to end well for Australian wine.

Many ‘alternative variety’ wines simply shouldn’t be bottled, let alone written about, listed and foisted upon unsuspecting consumers in the name of “difference”, and this brings me to Paul Starr’s final sentence – “My knowledge is less than ‘expert’ in wine or in Italian wine, and suspect it will always be the case that there is more left to learn than I will ever know. And I think I’d rather share my learning than my expertise, whatever size this pond is.”

Bravo – the great and frustrating allure of wine is that it is so diverse, so vast, newly minted every year and then changing constantly once bottled. It excites the hell out of me that great wines are being made all over the world as I write and as you read. There’s so much to learn and so much learning to share.

But good winemakers, the ones that are successful, the ones we need, the ones that contribute to the culture of their region and the ones that are shaping the dynamic and exciting frontier that is Australian wine currently, are recognised because they make, bottle and release GREAT wine.

Sharing your learning is one thing – bottling it in liquid form and asking people to part with their money to experience it is another game all together. You’ll survive for a while making average wine in Australia (probably on the WET tax methadone program), but not for long.

Australia is at one very important cross-roads as a wine producing nation and we need everyone making the very best wine they can. One important piece of that puzzle is making educated, smart and sometimes tough decisions about what grape variety(ies) to work with.

It’s time to step up with courage and make distinctive wine, not just ANY wine. We need to be focused. And frankly, we also need collective strategy to really succeed. And we need regions as well-placed as the Canberra District to really nail it to the wall.

Great winemakers are those that don’t bottle and release anything less than their very best. They don’t put their name to anything that’s average and they certainly don’t do things on the basis of vive la difference first – quality second.

They showcase the results of detailed, thoughtful and astute experiments, the bounty of their hard work, their dedication, their clever intuition and, perhaps most importantly, their honest and self-effacing reflection. They proudly bottle concisely resolved results, not the experiment itself. Imagine the same with food. We wouldn’t waste time eating the stuff.

And as I said the other day in Canberra, just because you can, certainly doesn’t mean you should. When I celebrate something – I like to celebrate with a glass of something great, not just something weird and wet.

Canberra’s best alternatives:

Ravensworth Sangiovese

Lark Hill Grüner Veltliner

Clonakilla Viognier

Mount Majura Tempranillo

Capital Wines The Ambassadoor Tempranillo

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Shaw + Smith’s Tasmanian (ad)Venture

Martin Shaw and Michael Hill-Smith

The potential in Tasmania, specifically around pinot noir in Tasmania, is something we’ve all heard much about. And for a while there it felt as if the train was never going to reach the station.

But it’s fair to say that Tasmania’s journey has finally ended, or more likely just begun, as the quality of pinot noir across a whole range of regions and producers is an enthralling thing to taste – the 2009 vintage wines leave little doubt that we’re finally seeing the excitement we’ve been waiting for.

This impending moment has drawn a steady crowd of admirers and new participants. Samuel Smith & Son recently expanded on their sparkling wine project Jansz with the purchase of the Dalrymple Vineyard, with the specific aim of making great pinot noir. Both their 2009 and 2010 wines are outstanding.

Then the purchase of Tamar Ridge by long-established family winemakers Brown Brothers heralded this New Year and a new era for Tasmanian wine. Worthy of all the fanfare it stands as a vote of confidence in Tasmania, largely carrying an agenda of making great pinot noir. Their ability to produce and popularize Tasmanian pinot is unquestionable.

And now comes the announcement that the ink is drying on Shaw + Smith’s purchase of a prime 20 hectare plot of mature Tasmanian vineyard, taking the excitement up another gear.

Yes folks, that dynamic duo of the Adelaide Hills Shaw + Smith has just bought the Tolpuddle Vineyard. Established in 1988 by the Casimaty family, Tony Jordan and Gary Crittenden and planted to pinot noir and chardonnay, it’s a jewel in the Coal River Valley that quite simple shone out and caught their eye on a road trip from north to south. “Martin saw the vineyard and was instantly impressed – much of the vines have been there for 20 years and that’s an absolute blessing,” Hill-Smith says.

The public quest to make great pinot noir at Shaw + Smith began in the Adelaide Hills with the release of their inaugural 2007 vintage pinot and gathered pace and conviction with the impressive follow-on 2008.

But this marks a serious step in the direction of what has always been an Adelaide Hills-focused brand (save for a brief dalliance with Barossa shiraz under the Elixir label) and a significant one for all of Tasmania’s wine producers.

Having just spent a weekend in Tasmania tasting pinot and presenting masterclasses on the same topic, it’s fair to say the leadership that Martin Shaw and Michael Hill-Smith have demonstrated across many fronts is an asset that could not have arrived at a better time for the greater Tasmanian cause.

Tolpuddle Vineyard has long been the supplier of high quality grapes to a number of wineries and their intention is to continue to serve those arrangements, whilst starting to select parts of the vineyard to make their own wine from vintage 2012. It’s very early days, but they say the plan is to vinify the wines in Tasmania from the get go.

The Adelaide Hills pinot noir will continue as planned and it’s likely the Tasmanian wines will be branded under another name, so as not to distract from Shaw + Smith’s affiliation with the Adelaide Hills region. “I think it’s the way forward, people are more interested in regional and single site expressions and that’s more in keeping with our established philosophy rather than stretching the Shaw + Smith name across multiple regions,” Hill-Smith said.

Tasmania – you just got lucky. And then some.

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