Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Importance of Vintage in Australia: the failure of overseas commentators and publications

Once you have the wine bug, the vintage bug follows shortly after. This bug is the obsession with all the vagaries and variances that each different season brings to a wine. You want to find out what are considered the historic vintages from different regions both within Australia and overseas, and then if you can, pick up some wines from these vintages. You want to know how the latest vintage of your favourite wine region is shaping up. You start to become aware that warmer vintages often produce wines that show well in youth but are not necessarily great long-termers, while on the other hand the relatively cooler vintages often produce the wines that are built to age. You look for those winemakers who can produce gems from a tough vintage.

All this focus on vintage is not just an academic interest, but rather because it’s a key determinant in the quality of a wine. Classic cases in point are the vintages of 2007 and 2008 in the Hunter Valley. 2007 is one of the best vintages in recent memory in the Hunter, particularly for Shiraz. I’ve put/will put plenty of 07 Hunter Shiraz in the cellar. Conversely 2008 was more or less a write off for Hunter Shiraz because of rain. If you do see an 08 Hunter Shiraz in a bottle shop (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one actually), move on and buy something else.

All this leads to a big gripe of mine and the main focus of this post, and that is the laziness and/or ignorance of many overseas wine commentators and publications when it comes to vintage assessment in Australia. It is actually the exception rather than the rule that you will read anything useful from an overseas commentator or publication on the quality of different vintages. The problems tend to fall into two main categories –

1. Giving the whole of Australia a vintage rating – in numerous world wine guides and publications, such as Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide as an example, Australia as a whole is given a vintage rating. There’s no breakdown by region or even by state. To produce one vintage rating for Australia is either the result of ignorance, borne of the belief that an entire continent is just one flat plain subject to the same weather patterns. Alternatively it’s the result of trying to condense a vintage chart that includes all the world’s major wine producing countries. I appreciate that this wouldn’t be an easy exercise, but if you can’t do something well, why do it at all? A cursory glance at any recent vintage in Australia will give one a sense of the meaninglessness of a single vintage rating for Australia -

- 2006 – Barossa Valley – very good, Yarra Valley – very good, Hunter Valley– average-good, Margaret River – poor-average

- 2007 – Barossa Valley – poor-average, Yarra Valley – poor, Hunter Valley – very good, Margaret River – very good

- 2008 – Barossa Valley – poor, Yarra Valley – average-good, Hunter Valley – write-off, Margaret River – very good

Even that summation above is pretty crude (and I’m sure debatable), and in reality the picture is more nuanced. I’ve labelled 06 in the Margaret River as poor-average, but this is largely based on red wines. If you were looking at the whites, however, it’s actually a pretty good vintage. In any case the big picture is that for each year that I’ve listed one of Australia’s main wine regions has had an excellent vintage while at least one has had a very poor vintage. To give Australia one single rating, good or bad, would completely miss the mark for one of Australia’s most significant wine regions. Moreover, giving half a thought to the size of Australia, and the fact that the Hunter Valley and Margaret River are about 4000kms apart, which is further than any two individual European wine regions, this should be blindingly obvious. Sicily is a relatively paltry 1500kms from Champagne and yet I doubt anyone would ever be silly enough to include these two wine regions in one single vintage rating.

2. Vintage Assessments that are at odds with all local assessments – Now there are of course overseas commentators who do distinguish between regions in Australia when discussing vintages, but unfortunately I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read or heard an assessment of a vintage that is completely at odds with both local assessment and my own personal experience. Of course, vintage assessment is not a purely objective exercise. People who more or less drink the same wines often come to somewhat different conclusions as to the quality of a vintage. However, what I am talking about are glaring differences that to my mind bear no resemblance to the wines that came out of that specific vintage. An example of this is Wine Spectator – www.winespectator.com – whose vintage chart has the Barossa and McLaren Vale rated a 96 for the 2005 vintage, while 2006 is rated an 88! This is in marked contrast to the assessment of James Halliday who rated 2005 in the Barossa a 7 out of 10, and 2006 a 10 out of 10. While I’m not sure that I would consider 2006 a 10 out of 10 vintage, I nevertheless concur with the proposition that 2006 was a very good vintage, and definitely a better vintage than 2005, which to my mind was decidedly more mixed.

Another example is from Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic over the past couple of decades. In his vintage chart he rates the 2006 vintage in Western Australia an 89, while the 2007 vintage is rated an 86. Anyone who has consumed a reasonable number of wines from Western Australia from both vintages would find it very hard to come to the conclusion that 2006 is the better vintage. In 2006 red varieties struggled to ripen, enduring the coldest summer in a number of decades, and indeed a number of wineries didn’t produce their “Premium” red wines from the vintage. 2007, on the other hand is an excellent vintage, and to me is clearly the better vintage in Western Australia taken as a whole, and that has been the consensus from all local points of view that I have read or heard.

What’s the effect of this combination of laziness and/or ignorance when it comes to assessment of vintages in Australia? Well at a time when the image of Australian wine overseas has taken a bit of a beating, it certainly doesn’t help our cause that commentators in countries like the US and UK can’t produce useful guides to vintage. It’s far from being the main source of our image problem overseas, but is one of those things that undoubtedly has a cumulative effect. Has an American consumer who had heard good things about Margaret River Cabernet made a decision to buy an 06 instead of an 07 off the back of Robert Parker’s vintage ratings? With the purchase of an 06 they could well be wondering what all those Aussies were raving about when it came to Margaret River Cabernet. Had they been guided towards an 07 they would more than likely see what the fuss is about.

There are plenty of efforts at present on the part of people involved in Australian wine to improve our image overseas, and in particular to highlight the diverse range of wine regions in this country. Part of this work is undoubtedly an effort to highlight the many different terroirs and climactic conditions that exist in Australia. A sign that these efforts have really had an effect would be when we get some more accurate and detailed Australian vintage charts from overseas commentators and publications.



stu said...

Well said Red. I love a good rant, especially when it is actually quite well considered and correct.

Chris Plummer said...

Yes, another excellent rant Red. I've actually got a post relating to the lack of consideration given to vintage variation planned in the near future myself (completely unrelated to this though ;).

You've certainly brought up some good points, as always. I guess all we can do is keep blogging, providing a free point of information on Australian wine for all wine consumers globally - so long as they have internet access ;). Let's just hope our assumptions are more accurate than some of your cases mentioned here.

Tidy little vintage chart as well by the way, gets your point across nicely ;)

Chris P

Author: Sean Mitchell said...

A good read and good points. Assuming Australia has a single climate, is about as sensible as asking for a Barossa pinot: you might be right, but you probably won't be.

Red said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Yes it is a rant that has been building for some time. As mentioned the more overseas based content you read the more poor vintage assessments you come across, and my tipping point was actually a Gary Vaynerchuk video I was watching where he knowingly discussed how 2005 was a better vintage than 2004 in the Barossa!

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