You Can’t Legislate for Quality

It happened during the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting in Sydney in February. A roomful of riesling lovers had just tasted a flight which included Frankland Estate’s own 2002 Isolation Ridge Riesling (tasting). Hunter Smith, a member of the family that owns the winery, mentioned in passing that the wine had been banned from export approval. “On what grounds?” asked the moderator, English-born Berlin-dwelling Stuart Piggott. “They said it was un-wine-like,” replied Hunter. Whereupon the room erupted in gales of laughter, the loudest being the incredulous cackle of Piggott himself. It’s a very good riesling, a bit phenolic, yes, but non unreasonably so. I couldn’t see why anyone could reasonably criticize it, even taking into account that it was a younger wine when the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation* tasters sampled it years ago.

These days quite a few winemakers are experimenting with solids ferments in riesling, bottling it unfined and unfiltered, and using old barrels for fermentation, not to mention ambient yeasts. All these things, which would have been considered very eccentric in Australia 20 years ago, are being trialled in the hope of making more interesting, more complex, more food-friendly riesling. Some makers are adding less acid or none at all, which can result in wines with better harmony and mouth-feel, but which might taste a little un-Australian to some people.

Similar things are happening with other varieties. Shiraz, for instance. Some winemakers, De Bortoli’s Steve Webber included, are leaving some of the naturally occurring sulfide in their shiraz – partly because they think it adds something interesting to the flavour and texture, and partly because removing it by fining can subtly damage a wine. And yet such wines have been banned from export for being faulty. Here are a couple of case-studies.

Canberra’s Lerida Estate had a shiraz banned on the grounds that it had a chemical taint. Owners Ann Caine and Jim Lumbers pursued the issue but could not find out what was wrong with their wine. Caine took the wine to five leading Canberra region winemakers who were all perplexed by the ‘fault’ claim. “One of them, Greg Gallagher, thought it was simply that it was a cool-climate shiraz and that the South Australians tasting the wine were obviously not used to the taste.”

Webber, who is continually agitating for Australia to make more wines with ‘charm and interest’, had one of his edgy Yarra Valley shirazes rejected. “We had a shiraz that had won a gold medal, and it was a wine of charm and interest,” he said. The AWBC panel said it was too volatile. “So we had a problem: we had to remove what makes wine interesting.”

Volatility is easy to measure, but charm and interest are not. Universally acknowledged great wines of the world, such as the white Burgundies of Coche-Dury and Ramonet, “have degrees of mercaptans (sulfur-related compounds) that you and I adore,” says Webber – but the AWBC panel would throw these wines out on their ear, because they would detect in them an unacceptable fault and they would fail to look any further. Hence they would fail to notice those wines have ‘charm and interest’ in spadefuls.

Back in the 1970s and ‘80s a lot of Australian wines were faulty because of bad winemaking and viticulture, and a hard-line stance was taken against these faults, especially by show judges. Australian wine improved immeasurably.

But that was long ago and the world of wine has changed. Today, judging wine is far less simple. There are many more styles and permutations. To apply a rule that any perceptible fault, whether real or imagined, is grounds for dismissing a wine is just not sensible. Such an approach would trash many of the world’s greatest wines, as Webber alludes.

No-one tasting a wine blind can discern the motives of the maker: was he or she deliberately making a wine with a slight fault in order to capture more interesting characteristics, or is it the result of ignorance and neglect? It’s not easy to say.

I believe that quality cannot be legislated. All of the world’s elaborate appellation control schemes have failed to guarantee wine quality. Every region, no matter how highly regarded, has its bad wines. There are many crook grand cru wines in Burgundy and Alsace despite vaunted appellations and lofty prices. The only guarantee of quality is the producer’s name on the bottle. It has always been thus.

*Following sustained criticism, Wine Australia, formerly AWBC, recently abolished mandatory tasting of all wines seeking export approval.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, April-May 2012.


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