Great wine is more than fruit

The pros and cons of wine competitions are widely debated; so are the shortcomings of the judging process. It’s a truism that there is no perfect way to evaluate wine, and none of the methods – including wine shows – should be taken as gospel. One area where I believe the shows have been losing credibility is their tendency to give major awards to excessively young red wines. These infant wines have yet to demonstrate their true worth – they’re what Len Evans termed ‘callow’ wines.

A wine’s true worth really emerges after a degree of time in the bottle. When judging red wines for trophies, all other things being equal, I would tend to favour an older wine over a very young one. I recall hearing Evans say as much, too. Age reveals the inherent strength, or weakness, of a wine.

Very young red wines of, say, one to two years, often seduce judges with their bright, fresh, but one-dimensional primary fruit. Those wines often fail to mature into anything interesting. It is frankly an embarrassment to the show system that wines such as $10 bottles of unwooded or lightly wooded red, often from the Riverina or Murray Valley, bottled after only one year’s maturation and never intended as great wines or wines for the cellar, score major awards. We regularly see the likes of De Bortoli Sacred Hill (tastings), McWilliam’s Hanwood (tastings), Wyndham Estate Bin 555 (tastings) and Westend Richland winning trophies against more worthy, but less youthfully showy, wines.

The winemakers are no doubt bemused by this, but they are good sports and they would never say anything negative about the judges’ palates. (Why would they bite the hand that feeds them, anyway?) These may well be wines of merit, well-made and great bargains for drinkers not looking for more than one-dimensional primary fruit.

More than once at wine show dinners, older, wiser winemen such as Bob Roberts, the founder of Huntington Estate (tastings), loudly (and justifiably) lamented that there was only shrill, young red wine to drink. Nothing mature, mellow or complex.

The most recent occasion was a dinner celebrating the trophy wines of the 2009 NSW Wine Awards. Here, guests were faced with a glass of 2008 Westend Estate Cabernet Shiraz (tastings) and beside it, one of 2004 Freeman Rondinella Corvina (tastings).

Both had won a trophy: the Westend for the best young blended red wine; the Freeman for best mature red wine. The difference was cheese and chalk. The Westend was a very good example of its type: a straightforward, fruit-driven, early-bottled, inexpensive red for selling and drinking young. Its producer, the gentle, understated Bill Calabria – one of the nice guys of the industry – would never claim this as a great wine or a wine to cellar with long-term expectations. Frankly, it tasted shrill, grapy, unstructured, simple to the point of being boring, and incompatible with the food.

The Freeman, on the other hand, was outstanding, a wine of real depth and character, a structured wine with the potential to age gracefully for many years, evolving with time into something different – maybe not better, but at least as good. It’s only four years older than the Westend, but what a difference four years can make in the life of a young red wine, especially a serious wine built along classical lines. It’s had the time in barrel and then in bottle to evolve into a complex wine that is about much more than fruit. For sure, it does possess ample fruit, but it also has savouryness and a layering of flavour that results in a truly profound wine of real character, that you can sip repeatedly and never tire of, and which harmonises with food rather than fighting it.

Both wines are current releases, the Westend retailing at $15, the Freeman at $30: both very reasonable and appropriate prices, in my book. But the aspirations of their makers could not be more different. Is the Westend really a trophy wine?

And are we too obsessed with fruit when judging in shows? Good wine is not fruit alone. Good wine builds on fruit to create something much more. On my first visit to Burgundy more than 25 years ago a wise, old winemaker taught me a lesson I won’t forget. Tasting the current vintage out of barrel, I enthused in my pidgin French that it showed tremendous fruit. “”Yes, it has a lot of fruit,”” he said, “”But it is not yet wine.””

This was at first rather puzzling to a young Aussie indoctrinated with the gospel of fruit. In time, I understood what he meant.

There are many reasons why young wines dominate the award lists of shows. They’re what the winemakers have to exhibit. And they’re what the marketers have to sell. But I shudder when I see them paraded as trophy wines.

* Just after this was written, we saw another example. Wolf Blass Yellow Label Shiraz Viognier 2008 (tastings), an $18 wine, was judged best red wine of the Royal Adelaide Wine Show. It’s a good wine, but I refuse to believe it was the best red entered in that show!

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Feb-Mar 2010.

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