Yearly Archives: 1992

Verdelho takes a hold in Aussie vineyards

For a wine that’s vibrant, rich, and different try verdelho this summer. It’s not for the faint-hearted with its mouth-flooding flavours and viscous, velvety texture. But it offers variety at a modest price.

There’s not a great deal made in Australia, between 80 thousand and 100 thousand dozen bottles a year by my estimate. Most comes from three locations: the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Swan Valley and Darling Ranges foothills in Western Australia, with significant planting also at Cowra and Padthaway.

Cuttings of the verdelho vine found their way separately to the east and west of Australia last century direct from the Island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean, about 700 kilometres west of Morocco. On Madeira, verdelho is the most widely planted of the four varieties used in making Madeira. By law, it makes up at least 60 per cent of those seductive medium-dry Madeiras labeled as Verdelho.

In 1824, convict-turned-surgeon, Dr William Redfern, Planted verdelho near Campbelltown, N.S.W., and it is probably from here that the Hunter Valley strain has its origins. In the 1890’s Houghtons introduced cuttings into the Swan Valley near Perth.

These proved susceptible to the fungal disease oidium and the vines were grubbed out in the 1930’s. Later, Houghton’s famous winemaker, Jack Mann, discovered one single vine growing. From it, Houghtons re-established the variety in their vineyards in the Swan Valley and at Moondah Brook in the Darling Ranges foothills, 90 kilometres north of Perth.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that in 1990 Australia crushed 1366 tonnes of verdelho for winemaking. At the time there were 121 hectares of verdelho vines in bearing and another 53 planted but not productive.

N.S.W. accounted for 326 of the 1366 tonnes. 309 of those 326 tonnes were from the Hunter Valley. Western Australia contributed 571 tonnes. That leaves a puzzling 469 tonnes not accounted for in ABS figures. Presumably other states simply lump their verdelho in the broad category ‘other white varieties’.

Certainly, about 130 tonnes of verdelho comes from Lindemans Padthaway vineyard, 80 kilometres north of Coonawarra in South Eastern South Australia. Philip John, Lindeman’s chief winemaker, tells me he draws a little also from Langhorne Creek. He commented that much of the verdelho coming his way ends up in other blends, never hitting retail shelves under a verdelho label.

If there are not huge numbers of verdelhos on the market, those available reflect the special flavours and texture peculiar to the grape. Within that theme, different makers and regions offer distinctive variations.

From the Hunter Valley, styles range from gentle understatement to overwhelming opulence. The Penfold Wine Group offers two from this area: Lindemans Hunter River Verdelhao Bin 8065 1992 and Tulloch Hunter River Verdelho 1992.

The Tulloch wine, sourced from very low-yielding vines planted by present General Manager Jay Tulloch’s grandfather packs a lot of flavour for a wine of only 11.5 per cent alcohol. Nevertheless, it’s gentle, soft, and finishes bone dry with the velvety thumbprint of verdelho in the background.

Its cellar mate, the Lindemans wine, comes from low-yielding vineyards at Broke. Still only 11.5 per cent alcohol, it’s richer and rounder than the Tulloch wine, some of that fullness coming from residual sugar – a clever winemaking trick used commonly with rhine rieslings.

Wyndham Estate’s 1991 Verdelho shows a little bottle age. The aroma’s strikingly rich, and the palate full and soft with verdelho’s peculiar flavour. It seems to float in the mouth, having a notable viscous, ethereal structure. Though Wyndham is now part of the Orlando Group, this wine was very much the creation of Brian McGuigan before he went his own way.

For the final Hunter wine, Drayton’s Verdelho 1992, winemaker Trevor Drayton has simply let the grape flavours rip. The result’s a tour de force: opulent varietal flavours and an oily structure reminiscent of traminer. It’s a big wine indeed and needs to be drunk with food.

Lindemans Padthaway Verdelho 1992, the first released since 1987, departs from the simple varietal style of old. Taking advantage of all the left-over Aliers and Troncais oak barrels from the famous Padthaway Chardonnay, winemaker Philip John oak fermented about one third of the 1992 Verdelho to produce a magnificent white. The oak adds firmness and fullness without interfering in any way with the underlying natural grape flavours.

The West’s Moondah Brook Estate Verdelho 1992 smells of verdelho, but it’s overlaid with a tangy ‘passionfruit’ character which comes through on the very full, tingly-fresh palate.

They’re all good, sound individual wines. My preferences are for the Tulloch with entrees and Lindemans Padthaway for the main course.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Europe wine agreement underpins Aussie export push

Chablis, Chianti, Champagne, Claret, Frascati, Graves, Hock, Lambrusco, Moselle, Madeira, Marsala, Malaga, Port, Riesling, Sherry, Sauternes, White Bordeaux, White Burgundy etc., etc., etc. Your days are numbered (officially).

Outline of an agreement negotiated with the European Community was issued last Sunday, jointly, by Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Simon Crean, Chairman of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, George Paciullo, and President of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Brian Croser,

The agreement, blessed by both government and industry, kisses goodbye to two centuries of using European place names on Australian wines.

In one sense the agreement merely confirms what was happening anyway. Twenty vigorous years of growth and innovation, and increasing pride in our wines, witnessed a strong trend towards naming our wines by brand, grape variety and region of origin. Few of our better wines now carry European place names. And the practice seems to have been trickling down to lower-priced wines in recent years.

Commercially, though, the agreement is of enormous value to Australia’s wine industry as it underpins our right of access to the EC. Mr Crean’s negotiators, under Phil Fitch, head of the Wine and Brandy section, not only secured major concessions for our exporters, but really gave nothing away in return as far as I can see.

Chuffed as the Europeans (especially the French) may be at securing names rightfully theirs, the value to them in the Australian market is, I suspect, nil. Producers may disagree, but I find it hard to believe when we finally stop using ‘Chablis’ and the like, that a single sale will be lost by our makers or gained by the Europeans, unless we look another fifty years ahead.

What the Europeans want to teach Australians is akin to telling us not to call a ball point a Biro or a vacuum cleaner a Hoover. In the long run, they’ll succeed. A future generation (not just a handfull of wine buffs) will know that Chablis is not any dry white but a chardonnay from around a North-Eastern French town of that name.

The Europeans, generously, recognise this. They accept that our usage of their geographic terms is an accident of history, not an act of deception. Our industry grew out of Europe last century and, in isolation from European markets, geographic terms passed into common usage, becoming generic terms for wine styles.

In recent years, some Australian winemakers, cynically I believe, appropriated names not in general usage. Thus, some recently acquired names will dissapear from our labels quickly: Beaujolais, Cava, Frascati, Sancerre, St Emillion and White Bordeaux may not be used after 1993. These will be followed at the end of 1997, by Chianti, Frontignan, Hock, Madeira, and Malaga.

Phasing out of the more widely used European names is still subject to negotiation, but will probably run well into next century.

Phil Fitch from the Department of Primary Industries and Energy tells me the agreement eases certification requirements for Australian wines headed for the EC. Thus eight separate analyses for every wine comes down to three… a big saving in time and money.

As well, both parties will recognise each other ‘s winemaking standards and practices. Australia becomes an immediate beneficiary as at last our unique sweet whites gain admission to EC markets. Until now, wines like De Bortoli Late Picked Semillon were barred because their combination of high alcohol and sugar content were considered ‘impossible’ to be natural.

When the agreement comes into force it will have treaty status.

Phil Fitch says the EC negotiators have at all phases (negotiations began in 1986 when John Kerin was Minister) consulted with member states. He is therefore confident that it will proceed quickly through any legislation required over there. In Australia, considerable legislation, in the realm of food regulation and trade marks, has to be drafted and passed. EC winemaking standards and practices and proprietary rights to geographic names will thus be given legal definition.

So, while much behind the scene work goes on, we can expect to see the agreement in place by late next year.

I suppose in a larger sense, it can be viewed and welcomed as part of the at times painfully slow but unrelenting move towards free world trade.

In this instance, Australia seems to be the major beneficiary. Here we are, a tiny nation, producing barely 1.7 per cent of the world’s wine, at times a victim of battles between larger nations, winning better access to the globe’s biggest wine market.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Challenges for Australian wine shows

The ACI Australian Wine Show, conducted at NATEX last month, highlighted dilemmas faced by wine show committees Australia wide. Problems stem from a combination of a dramatically changed role of wine shows, the sheer numbers of wines being entered, and the absence of many top makers’ wines from some of the more important classes.

We should remember that Wine Shows are controlled by Agricultural Societies. They originally provided a far less technically competent industry than we know today with expert opinion. Shows were a source not just of awards but of sound technical advice for makers.

The growth of the market, and with it technical competency, means winemakers, mostly with batchelor-of-science degrees in oenology, need little advice from peers on the show-judging circuit. What they like to see is how their own wines scrub up against those of competitors across the continent.

But the biggest beneficiaries of show successes are owners of Gold and Trophy-winning labels and, in a broad sense, an often bewildered consumer looking for reliable, unbiased endorsement of the best wines.

The poser for Wine Show Committees is to create conditions that allow judges to deliver valid results to the consumer. In theory, under perfect conditions, results from any show would be exactly reproducible at another.

That never happens, of course. Odd wines pop up for golds show after show, but there seems little correlation of results from one event to the next – even with the same judges operating. Not only that but class definitions vary so much amongst shows as to virtually guarantee little continuity and, hence, great confusion for consumers over what the various classes mean.

Recognizing commercial benefits of winning show awards, a healthy rivalry exists amongst shows. The better ones, notably Adelaide and Canberra, strive for credibility and the prestige that goes with it (prestige seems the only reward organisers get).

Thus, Canberra accepts only wines already bottled. The organisers back this up with random winery and retail checks to ensure wines entered are the same as those available to the public. This overcomes the type of farce we see, for example, in Melbourne’s Jimmy Watson Trophy: quite simply the one year old barrel samples tasted by judges are not the finished wine the consumer sees several years after the event.

Adelaide introduced price categories (under and over $10) in many of its classes this year. This recognises the reality of the market place and the fact that for judging results to have any meaning, like must be compared with like.

Even in comparing like wines, I believe results grow less reliable in direct proportion to the size of the class. If the relative merits of all wines in a class were accurately pegged by judges, then, in theory, we could reshuffle the wines into a different order, recall the judges the next day, and the results would be same.

In truth, the results would not be exactly the same. Which is why when I look at the sheer size of some classes in Canberra, I wonder at the results. Class 18 featured 115 1991 and older Chardonnays; class 26 120 1990 and older Cabernets; and Class 38 85 1990 and older chardonnays. Nobody is good enough to meaningfully grade that many wines in one hit.

Perhaps the solution is to have smaller classes, divided by grape variety as well as price. Looking at Canberra’s Class 26 (115 1990 and older cabernets) the judges awarded points out of 20 to reds ranging in price from $6 to $30 a bottle and covering virtually the whole gamet of styles made in Australia and New Zealand. If we are to believe the judges, then a $10 Leasingham Cabernet Malbec 1990 (51 points) is better than a $30 Penfolds Bin 707 1989 (39 points). Nonsense! The whole class glares with anomalies and makes a poor form guide.

The sort of error that puts a very good cheap wine ahead of a clearly better dearer wines is common. But more often it’s the other way round as expensive wines win ‘cheap’ gold medals when they’re pitted against low priced products.

While our wine shows need overhauling to maintain credility for the consumer (and it may mean we end up with a string of regional shows and only one major national one), their value is immense in keeping our wines in the glare of public scrutiny.

Still, most wines continue to be bought for reasons other than a medal count. And, by the only objective measure we have of wine quality – auction prices – twenty of the thirty four wines identified by Langton’s Auctioneers as fetching the best prices seldom or never win medals.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Langton’s Classification: a demand based view of Aussie wine quality

Wine advice, being an almost entirely subjective thing, tends to be a mire of opinion and opinionation. The track record and consistency of the critic count as much as those of the wines reviewed. There is, however, one objective view of quality: auction values over long periods of time.

Langton’s wine auctioneers have come up with their own classification of Australian wines, made public during the recent Penfold Red Wine Clinics. It was an entirely appropriate time, coinciding as it did with the release of a new vintage of Grange Hermitage, star performer of the Australian auction circuit.

Langton’s Classification of Distinguished Australian Wines groups wines according to performance in Australian auctions. In the words of Andrew Caillard, Langton’s Sydney manager, “the most important criteria for inclusion on this list are a minimum of ten years of vintage, and a consistent record on the auction market.”

Thirty four wines– twenty two reds, ten whites, and two fortifieds, spread over three categories…make the grade. And while we may all wade in with our two bits worth on the classification, it does, in some senses give a ‘pure’ market value. And particularly because it takes into account consistent performance over time regardless of vintage, it can claim some validity as a form guide of Australian producers.

On the other hand, promising and proven new comers are excluded. So we shouldn’t let it prejudice our views of the untried. As well, if we imagine the auction system as a giant sieve that never stops shaking, inevitably there’ll be casualties as some top wines tumble through.

Not surprisingly, Penfolds Grange Hermitage stands alone, the sole wine in Langton’s ‘outstanding A’ category. First made in 1951 on an experimental basis, Grange’s unique qualities became widely appreciated only in the 1960’s. It has since remained the most sought after auction wine.

The just-released 1987 vintage ($85 to $100 a bottle) demonstrates why. It’s inky deep in colour and the aroma and flavour assail the nose and palate in volumes. It hasn’t the fleshy richness of the 1986, but it makes up for that by being more in the classical Grange mould: intense, firm, and infinitely complex…a sure bet for the cellar.

Andrew Caillard tells me Grange is the first Australian wine drawing international buyers to Australian auctions. Almost half the bottles offered now go offshore. That certainly underpins the value of our only ‘first growth’. Its price resilience is remarkable considering how other wines have been devalued in this long, deep recession.

Six red wines qualify for Langton’s ‘outstanding B’ category. South Australia contributes four and Victoria two.

Of the South Australians, two come from the Penfold Group: Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 (a Coonawarra-Barossa blend with minor additions from other South Australian vineyards) and Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon (100 per cent Coonawarra). Petaluma Coonawarra completes a trio from the great terra rossa. Henschke gets the fourth South Australian guernsey with Hill of Grace from the vineyard of that name in the hills to the east of the Barossa.

Both Victorian wines hail from the Yarra Valley: the elegant Mount Mary Cabernet and Yarra Yerring’S blockbuster Dry Red No.1.

Langton’s pack all other ‘distinguished’ wines into the ‘excellent’ category, all listed below:

Excellent’ whites: De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon (Griffith, NSW); Lakes Folly Chardonnay (Hunter Valley, NSW); Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay (Margaret River, WA); Mount Mary Chardonnay (Yarra Valley, Vic); Petaluma Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills, SA); Pipers Brook Chardonnay (Launceston, Tas); Petaluma Rhine Riesling (Clare Valley, SA); Rothbury Estate Individual Paddock Semillon (Hunter Valley, NSW); Tyrells Hunter River Riesling Vat 1 (Hunter Valley, NSW); and Tyrells Chardonnay Vat 47 (Hunter Valley, NSW),

Excellent’ reds: Brokenwood ‘Graveyard’ Hermitage (Hunter Valley, NSW); Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River, WA); Henschke ‘Cyril Henschke’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Eden Valley area, SA); Henschke Mount Edelstone (Eden Valley area, SA); Lakes Folly Cabernet (Hunter Valley, NSW); Lindemans Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet (Coonawarra, SA); Lindemans St George Cabernet (Coonawarra, SA); Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River, WA); Mount Mary Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley, SA); Penfolds St Henri (multi-district blend, SA); Redbank Sally’s Paddock (Vic); Virgin Hills Dry Red (Keyneton, Vic); Wolf Blass Black Label (multi-district blend, SA); and Yarra Yerring Dry Red No.2 and Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley, Vic).

Excellent’ fortifieds: Chateau Reynella Vintage Port and Hardys Vintage Port.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Lovely old gems uncorked in Canberra

Little wonder Australia’s wines are so good! Our leading winemakers and judges burn with ardour for the product they make. In Canberra this week for the Qantas/ACI Wine Show, sheer enthusiasm conquered tedium: after tasting hundreds of wines by day judges headed off into nights of wine exploration.

It was amazing to see James Halliday in action at the judges’ dinner last Tuesday. Here’s a man, so enthused by wine, he threw in a law career to follow his dream. Even before retiring from the law he was an accomplished winemaker with several vintages behind him at Brokenwood Winery in the Hunter and Coldstream Hills established in the Yarra Valley. By that time, too, he’d published books as well as writing a weekly column, first for the National Times and then The Weekend Australian.

At Cafe Barocca on Tuesday evening, Halliday took control of the 26 mainly old wines brought along by judges. He organised the serving order then regularly nudged Alby Sedaitis and staff aside to pour wines…keen to see 22 judges, associate-judges and guests get their portion of each bottle (ever squeezed 22 glasses from a bottle?)

What we saw, then, was a progression of wonderful wines, many of them classics and an inspiration to winemakers, crossing a broad, international spectrum of styles. For casual wine drinkers there was good news, too. For several outstanding old wines opened were humbly priced.

Of three sparkling wines served, Dom Perignon Rose 1982 showed the sheer brilliance of that vintage in Champagne and just how far our own winemakers have yet to travel. And our winemakers’ reaction was not one of jealousy but to see a model, a standard to strive towards. Jansz 1990 (Tasmania) with its taut, austere, acidic structure was the perfect foil to antipasto, and a cellar-aged magnum of Lanson Rose NV Champagne, a gentle, fruity, refreshing but simple aperitif.

Chairman of judges, Ian McKenzie, produced a soft, quite delicious 1972 Berri-Renmano Rhine Riesling. Here, from the much-reviled Riverland, was a twenty-year-old white that probably sold for $1.50 in its day. Australian rhine riesling is vastly under-appreciated.

From the Rhone Valley George Vernay’s Condrieu 1990 introduced a novel spectrum of flavours. Some called it violets, Dr Edgar Riek called it winter Jasmine. Having seen a 1981 vintage from Vernay’s neighbour, Marcel Guigal, two days earlier, I believe viognier, the grape variety of Condrieu, deserves a place in Australian winemaking.

Pinot Noir has little popularity in Australia, partly because we’ve seen so few good ones and also because we’re attuned more to robustness than delicacy in our reds. Halliday is perhaps its leading proponent in Australia. I got the feeling we were glimpsing James’ aspirations in drinking his magnificent French pinot, Clos Vougeot 1989 (Domaine Meo Camuzet). It tasted infinitely more complex than a 1991 Heemskerk (Tasmania). Another French wine, Chambertin (Domaine Armand Rousseau) 1982 showed us the combination of rich gamey flavours and delicacy, to be found in mature Burgundy. If Burgundy at $150 a pop is out of reach, try Halliday’s Coldstream Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 1991 for a glimpse of the variety’s charm.

There were absolute gems amongst shirazes from France and Australia. Two sublime oak matured French wines got full marks for cellaring potential: Guigal’s Northern Rhone wines from Cote Rotie: La Mouline 1986 and La Turque 1986. The only comparable Australian wine, Grange Hermitage, was not present but we did see a few quite old, venerable vintages.

McWilliams Hunter Valley Richard Hermitage 1954 had a rich, sweet, gamey old aroma and gorgeous old, sweet, flavours. Wynns ovens Valley Burgundy 1956 opened brilliantly with rich, maturing fruit flavours and alcoholic sweetness making it look far from finished. Note, the current vintage sells for around $8 a bottle…a bargain for the cellar.

Visiting Italian judge, Piero Antinori, stunned us with his Tuscan showpiece, Solaia 1978, a remarkably Bordeaux-like Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend.

Reynella Commemoration Cabernet 1963 had a lovely, old, full, chocolaty richness perhaps a bit past its best; Hardy’s Tintara Cabernet Bin C407 1962 showed a leaner, tauter structure and seemed fresher than the Reynella. Both were overshadowed, however, by a Max Schubert classic, Penfolds Bin 61 Kalimna Cabernet Eden Valley Shiraz 1963 with its overwhelming depth, power and comparative freshness.

The French had the last say, however with the magnificent 1961 Chateau Beycheville (Bordeaux) and an Alsacian white, Hugel Riesling Vendange Tardive 1976. In a star-studded line-up it had to be the wine of the night for freshness and depth of flavour. With such inspiration and a cheerful competitiveness, our winemakers forge onwards.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

How a treasure trove of sparkling ‘burgundy’ in Seppelts Great Western cellars saw light of day

For decades a great treasure trove of sparkling burgundy lay entombed in Seppelt’s underground drives at Great Western, Victoria. Wines from vintages 1954 to 1972 rested in peace until the appointment of winemaker Warren Randall in 1982.

Just 25, full of enthusiasm and eager to stake out his new domain, Warren set out with one of the old Great Western hands to explore the 2.5 kilometres of underground tunnels.

It was a step back in time and not simply because the tunnels dated from gold rushes of the 1860’s. His first surprise was in finding a stack of dusty old bottles sealed with tirage corks and metal clips…a sealing method long since replaced by the rest of the world with crown seals. When Randall observed, “They’re tirage corks!”, the old hand muttered, “That’s pretty good young fella.”

For the rest of the tour Randall was marked as a young man with a peculiar ability to state the obvious. The stack, noted Warren, was covered in dust and draped in black fungus. A grimy blackboard carried chalk marks “SSB 54/1”. Warren enquired and was told that stood for ‘show sparkling burgundy, 1954 vintage, stack 1’. So when he stopped at successive stacks, looked at blackboards, and declared “This is 1957 show sparkling burgundy” and so on through a range of vintages covering eighteen years, the old hand just shook his head. The new winemaker was a beauty.

Randall was stunned by the range and depth of sparkling burgundy in the drives. He was even more stunned to find it did not exist in the company’s books. The locals knew all about it. But elsewhere in Seppelt’s far-flung wine empire it was unknown. So, when Randall sent a stock take to Seppelt boss Ross Jenkins in Adelaide, it ruffled a few feathers.

It also presented Seppelt’s marketing department with a wonderful opportunity…one they failed to grasp. Here was an historic cache – in commercial quantities – of mature wines spanning two and a bit decades.

Randall says “It was a great privilege at 25 to be in charge of those wines.”

For him it was a labour of love to prepare these wines for the market. And doing so inspired him to re-start production. Thus, in 1982 he made base wines for the first Seppelt sparkling burgundies to be laid down since 1972.

At the same time he put an end to the bad habit of tipping ullaged bottles of these old gems down the drain. As he sorted through the stacks, ullaged bottles still more than half full were tipped into 1982 blends. Which gave birth to three special bottlings from that year. The one I recall was a 65/82 blend.

Many of the old wines reeked of hydrogen sulphide and ‘mercaptan’, the smelly amalgam of sulphur with tannin. Beneath the barnyard smells, though, was the wonderful richness of mature shiraz sourced mainly from Great Western, but with some material also from Rutherglen and the Barossa Valley.

Randall set to work disgorging sediment from the bottles…a labour intensive task that left him exhausted and stained red from head to toe. Before re-corking the bottles he topped them up with a mix of wine, sugar, and a cocktail of copper and silver salts to kill off the hydrogen sulphide smells.

Thus, Australian wine drinkers were given a rare treat: fully mature wines from the 1954, 1957, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1967, and 1972 vintages. Prices simply did not reflect production and holding costs. But the labeling was a disgrace to the then Seppelt marketing department, revealing a complete lack of imagination or any sympathy with the extreme historical value of the wines.

Those who bought the wines did well. Imagine picking up a 1954 red in perfect condition for about $10 a bottle.

The discovery and marketing of these old gems engendered the making of a new generation of sparkling burgundies. Randall makes them these days for Andrew Garrett, using mainly McLaren Vale Shiraz.

And winemaker Ian McKenzie tells me the Seppelt Show Reserve wines are now sourced entirely from the same Great Western Shiraz vines that contributed most to those now famous old blends.

The current release 1983 is in the mould of those originals: a big, solid, mature-tasting red with bubbles in it. But with pressure on wineries to release wines young, the trend from other companies seems to be towards a lighter, fruitier sparkling burgundy, lower in tannin, and, therefore, less ‘burgundy’ and more sparkling.

Seppelt will be joined in the traditional style soon, I believe, with a Lindeman Hunter Shiraz version, and a McLaren Vale/Barossa blend from the Penfold Group.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Guide to sparkling wine and Champagne for Christmas 1992

How the bubblies are made

Consumers are set to win in 1992’s silly season battle of the bubbles. The guns are loaded and ready to fire as producers big and small jostle in a crowded, potentially lucrative market for two sometimes incompatible objectives: market share and profitability.

1992 sees perhaps the biggest armoury ever assembled of domestic bubblies from $2.99 bargains to $30-a-bottle deluxe blends capable of taking on even hallowed French originals. The French, of course, have big guns of their own to fire and plan on doing so.

Just a few weeks back I painted a rather gloomy view of French Champagne prices based on a lineal projection of prices ex-France and exchange rates in turmoil. It now looks as if the French are reacting to a dramatic collapse of export markets. Already Piper Heidsieck lands to retailers at about $14 a bottle less than I estimated the base French price to be. And I know of other Champagne Houses offerings big discounts to Australian distributors. So watch out for the French ‘fightback’.

At the other end of the market we’ll see the same old brands slugging it out, screaming for attention at $2.99 to $4.99 a bottle. Even this tiny price range offers considerable variation in quality and style. It embraces wines made by all three sparkling-winemaking methods and includes sweet, dry, whites, pinks and reds.

There’s been an enormous proliferation of brands, accompanied by a general but not universal leap in quality, in the $6 to $15 a bottle price range. And the super-duper Australian bubblies, selling for $15 to $30 a dozen seem more numerous than ever.

Just where the value lies in all these price ranges I’m about to explore (and report on) in a series of tastings of 100 odd wines.

With sparkling wines, as with still wines, quality comes back to the grapes. Just as you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, the most gifted Champagne maker on earth cannot make a top bubbly from second-class grapes. Thus, the high quality of Australia’s new generation of sparkling wines comes more from two decades of investment in vineyards than it does from winemaking skills.

But the latter is still important. There is probably more scope for a winemaker to influence the aroma and flavour of a sparkling wine than in any other wine style: the winemaker decides not only how the base wine is to be made and blended but chooses the method of adding bubbles; duration and conditions of maturation; and, finally in the case of bottle fermented sparkling wine, gets one last crack at its flavour in the addition of ‘liqueur’ prior to re-corking after the sediment of secondary fermentation is removed.

The cheapest bubblies are mainly cask quality wines injected with carbon dioxide. Under Australian law these must be labeled ‘carbonated wine’. Often as cheap, and virtually indistinguishable in quality, are the tank fermented (‘cuvee close’ or ‘Charmat’) wines which may be labeled as ‘sparkling wine’. Carbon dioxide gas, a natural by-product of fermentation, dissolves as the base wine undergoes an induced secondary fermentation in a sealed tank.

Largely, though, carbonation and bulk fermentation have given way in Australia to bottle fermentation. Any wine acquiring its bubble through a secondary fermentation in a bottle, provided it stays sealed in that bottle for a minimum of six months, may be called ‘champagne’.

A high degree of mechanisation sees millions of cases a year of ‘champagne’ pumped out in the $4 to $5 price range. In general, these wines are remarkably good for the money and should be seen as a major achievement by our winemakers.

We may call these bubblies champagne. But in Europe and an increasing number of export markets (including New Zealand) the name is reserved strictly for original Champagne from the 30,000 hectares of vines in the region of Reims and Epernay in Northern France.

French law embraces not just technical details such as minimum maturation periods, but more importantly specifies vineyard locations, grape varieties permitted, grape yields per hectare, and juice yields per kilogram of grapes. In other words, the things that really control the style of wine to expect under the name ‘Champagne’.

Laws controlling French Champagne production have, overall, given the consumer a high degree of reliability and consistency. But they have proven inadequate in recent years when production boomed just prior to the current slump. More on this and the widely misunderstood and complex topic of ‘yeast autolysis’ flavours in champagne next week.

October 25th, 1992

Champagne’s yeastiness – the great myth

Champagne’s so-called ‘yeastiness’, waffled on about by so many Australian wine writers, is a myth. Champagne contains no yeast. Its lovely, unique flavours derive almost entirely from grapes and bottle age. The tiny addition of flavour picked up from decaying yeast cells during bottle maturation are subtle, fragile, and detectable only by the most finely tuned noses and palates.

All this talk of ‘marmite’, ‘vegemite’ and ‘brioche’ aromas and flavours has nothing to do with yeast and everything to do with grapes.

Edmond Moudiere, winemaker at Champagne Mercier from 1949 to 1971 and Moet and Chandon from 1971 told me last year during a tasting at Moet’s Yarra Valley Domaine Chandon, “Pinot Meunier is essential to Champagne. It gives nose – what people call ‘yeasty’, ‘warm bread’ and ‘brioche’ aromas.” This observation, he said, was backed by research of scientists at Epernay’s CIVC, the body controlling Champagne production.

Moudiere’s words, backed by such depth of experience and research, echoed those of Douglas Lamb, one of Australia’s larger-than-life wine merchants and Champagne experts. Doug drew the same conclusion after countless trips to the Champagne region.

I’ll never forget Doug’s amazing Champagne palate revealed in a series of tastings here in Canberra during 1979, 80, and 81. Doug knows Champagne from the vineyard to the bottle and was quick to dismiss loose comments about ‘yeasty’ aromas. “No. It’s that damned Meunier” he’d say before deliberating on the nature of each of Champagne’s three grape varieties.

In the Champagne region many makers simply scratch their heads in wonder at talk of yeast. Vineyards, grapes, blending and bottle age are what they see as important. “Non!” said Louis Marc d’Harcourt, descendent of the Monsieur Werle in Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Werle. “There is no flavour of yeast or yeast autolysis in Champagne. The crucial point in the success of this form of cellaring is that wine is left undisturbed and there is less contact of the wine with air.”

Remi Krug believes “what some wine writers call ‘yeasty’ is simply an inaccurate description of a good characteristic of the wine derived from fruit, not yeast. There is some interchange between the lees in a bottle and the wine, but that flavour is subtle.” Interestingly, Krug is one of the few deluxe Champagnes using Pinot Meunier in the blend. Moet’s Dom Perignon, Bollinger’s Tradition RD, and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame, for example, all claim to use only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The CIVC’s Chief Oenologist told me yeast autolysis (enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells following bottle fermentation) makes important but subtle differences to champagne. He expressed the view that the most intense uptake of flavour from the process occurred in the first six to eight months after bottling. But this view was contradicted by another oenologist, Monsieur Feuillat of Dijon. In his view flavour uptake did not start until after eight or nine months in bottle.

How a Burgundian came wading into the Champagne argument I’m not sure. But we can have no qualms about comments made by Warren Randall in Canberra last week. Warren, now with Andrew Garrett as Chief Winemaker probably has more experience with sparkling wine than any other maker in Australia.

He worked with the legendary Norm Walker at Seaview Champagne cellars before taking on, at only 25 years of age, Australia’s plum sparkling winemaking job at Seppelts Great Western Cellars in 1982.

Warren, like Moet’s Edmond Moudiere, sees Pinot Meunier as the ‘yeast’ in wine writers’ vocabularies. He cites the case of a Drumborg Pinot Meunier 1984, dubbed by Petaluma’s Brian Croser ‘Australia’s greatest educational wine.’ One week after secondary fermentation finished, before autolysis could have begun, it displayed all of the so-called ‘yeasty’ characteristics of French Non Vintage Champagne…a characteristic that showed clearly also in the show champion, Seppelts Great Western Vintage Brut 1984, into which most of the 1984 Pinot Meunier went. Randall says that when he left Seppelts…and his supply of Pinot Meunier…he lost one of his sparkling winemaking aces.

Randall believes yeast autolysis plays an important role in Champagne but, like the CIVC’s oenologist, sees the aromas and flavours it adds as subtle, delicate and fragile. He believes the flavours peak after 2 to 3 years in bottle. He also believes the flavour contribution comes not so much from autolysis, but from slow chemical changes to short chain fatty acids and amino acids exsorbed from the dead yeast cells during autolysis.

Despite the chemical intricacies of making good bubbly, the search for quality goes nowhere without the right grapes. And as we’ll see next week, that search is pushing further south to cooler climes.

November 1st, 1992

A form guide to what’s in the bubbly market

The good news from tasting a hundred or so Australasian sparkling wines over the past few weeks was the overall high quality. At all price points there is value to be found for the consumer. Where only ten years ago tastings of mid and high priced sparklings produced more disappointments than delights, there is now a wide correlation between price and quality.

The standard of top shelf methode champenoise, all employing the classic Champagne grape varieties pinot noir and chardonnay, has leapt. It now breaks into two broad categories, though: big, sparkling white burgundy styles from warmer areas, and fine, delicate wines from cooler areas (southern Victoria, Tasmania, and New Zealand).

Wine drinkers love variety, so I imagine there will always be room for both styles. But for the purists seeking the delicate, elegant, exquisite flavours characteristic of the French originals, it will be the southern wines winning favour.

France’s Champagne region is at the northern limits of viticulture, at a latitude of 50 degrees. There you can pick a grape high in acid and with an alcohol potential of just 9 per cent, and it will be packed with intense, ripe flavours. This combination of high acidity with flavour is the heart of Champagne.

Grow the same grape variety in even our so-called cool-climate areas like Coonawarra or Padthaway, and the flavour’s just not there when acidity is high. Thus, early experiments at making delicate ‘champagnes from these areas simply produced thin, acidic wines with little flavour.

Some winemakers, like Brian Croser of Petaluma, headed for the hills, rather than go south in the search for cooler growing conditions. While Croser’s vineyards sit at an altitude of 500 metres at Mount Lofty, near Adelaide, I well remember a dinner party conversation with him in 1979. He saw then that Tasmania was the place to go for bubblies, but isolation made it impracticable at the time.

In my tasting of 20 top shelf bubblies, as it turned out, Croser 1990 topped my selection of bigger styles, and Jansz 1990 (Tasmania) the delicate styles. Croser shows the amazing fruit richness of the 1990 vintage. Its only shortcoming, mentioned here a few months back, is that it needs another year or two of bottle maturation.

Jansz 1990 has tremendous appeal. The colour’s very pale; the bubble’s small and persistent; the aroma is gently fragrant; and the flavour’s quite intense, yet delicate and fine, and with the steely structure of high, natural acidity. Here we’re seeing the benefits of true cool-climate grape growing.

Other cool-climate styles that appealed to me were Domaine Chandon 89-1 Brut (Victoria), Taltarni Blanc de Blanc (Victoria, but next release contains Tasmanian material), and Deutz Marlborough Cuvee NV (New Zealand). Scoring was very tight amongst this group, with slightly different ratings from judge to judge.

The surprise of the line up, and my second choice amongst the big style wines, was Rosemount’s Adelaide Hills 1989 Brut ($17.99). There are no prizes for guessing who the contract maker is.

Of the middle-priced bubblies, winner by a country mile was a wine available under two labels: Bridgewater Mill Brut NV and Pine Ridge Brut Reserve NV. As I understand it, the current release is from the 1991 vintage. It’s made by Brian Croser at Bridgewater Mill from South Australian Rhine Riesling grapes. Which goes to show that the classic champagne mix of pinot and chardonnay is not the best combination in all circumstances. Anyone who’s tasted a good German Riesling Sekt will not be surprised by this choice.

Clustered in a tight pack after it were Andrew Garrett Classic Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Andrew Garrett NV Chardonnay, and Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay 1989 (recently reduced by the makers from around $15 to $10 retail), and Montana Lindauer Brut (New Zealand)

Sparkling Burgundies I find a peculiar lot and confess I cannot think of an occasion when I’d want to drink one. Still, the demand’s there. Of the nine tasted, Seppelt Show Sparkling Burgundy 1983 blew everything else away…as it ought at $30 a bottle. Peter Rumball’s Coonawarra Cuvee scrubbed up well and Yalumba’s Cuvee Prestige Cabernet Sauvignon gets a guernsey, too.

With cheaper bubblies, the key to good buying is in finding fresh stock. Of the dozens we tasted, I rated Seppelts Great Western Brut at the top, closely followed by De Bortoli’s Jean Pierre and Kaiser Stuhl Brut. These three showed a lovely freshness. I believe it was that rather than any innate superiority of fruit flavours putting them just slightly ahead of the pack. Just look for the specials amongst high-turnover brands.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Tasting Coonawarra

By any measure, Coonawarra is an extraordinary wine-growing region. Its broad acres produce annually more than 20,000 tonnes of grapes, about two thirds red, one third white. Its reputation, though, springs solidly from elegant reds produced there since late last century.

For most of its vinous history, however, Coonawarra sent its reds away for blending. The region’s modern history, and its wide reputation with wine drinkers, springs from the establishment of Wynns Coonawarra Estate by David Wynn in the early 1950’s.

Since then the area’s expanded rapidly, mainly at the hands of Australia’s biggest wineries, but with a significant presence of smaller and middle-sized operators. Many others not physically present in the area nevertheless make outstanding Coonawarra reds by buying from contract growers.

The area’s flatness and high water table are the wine drinker’s greatest friend. Flatness allows an ease of vineyard management through mechanisation of tilling, spraying, pruning and harvesting. And the prolific underground water supply means not only moisture for sun-stressed vines in the dry summer, but frost protection through overhead spraying in spring.

A large part of Coonawarra’s unique, elegant fruit flavours derive from the climate: as Australia’s southernmost major aggregation of vines it enjoys a long, comparatively cool ripening period. By the time red grapes are harvested in March and April, they have an intensity of flavour but higher natural acidity and lower pH then those grown in our mainly warmer regions. These are characteristics winemakers say make wines of greater flavour intensity, fragrance, longevity, and elegance.

Historically, Coonawarra’s greatest reds come from the northern end of a narrow strip of shallow ‘terra rossa’ soil overlying a limestone reef. However, patches of these well-drained soils are sprinkled widely through the immediate largely boggy terrain. Thus, despite local winemakers having thrown a formal boundary around ‘Coonawarra’, the jury – the world’s red wine drinkers – is still out on exactly where the limits should be.

Without doubt in my mind, Coonawarra’s average quality of red stands above that of any other Australian region. In fact, it’s difficult to think of any region in the world whose average quality is so high. I think what we are seeing in Coonawarra today are the fruits of a particularly favoured growing area being combined with advanced vineyard management and winemaking skills.

In tasting thirty eight Coonawarras this week, I saw amongst a myriad of winemaker styles a common thread running through reds that ranged from simple good value drinking to some that are amongst the most profound being made in Australia today.

That common thread is a delightful cherry-like fragrance and a most delicious, fine, delicate fruit flavour. Finally, each winemaker puts his or her own thumbprint on a wine, but in masked tastings of wines from one region, the first thing perceived (frustrating when you’re looking for differences) are the similarities. In the case of Coonawarra, the common bond turned out to be very strong.

Beneath the surface, though, every wine turned out to be an individual. And in awarding scores out of twenty for these thirty eight wines just as in our show system, we three very experienced judges proved our own fallibility and highlighted some of the dilemmas of judging raised in last week’s column.

With so few objective criteria in wine judging, any notion of a wine having some fixed value in points is nonsense. The more I taste and evaluate, the more ridiculous seem the ever-so-earnest claims of some commentators to award wines points on a fixed scale out of 100.

As we concluded after our Coonawarra tasting. – a single region and only thirty-eight wines – a one hundred point scale could barely cover the scope of qualities we saw. Yet some commentators claim to be able to compress all the wines of the world into this scale. Even if any one palate were keen enough to make such fine distinctions, surely the results would be valid only if they could be reproduced consistently. They cannot.

Even Australia’s best show judges give a wine 19 points and a gold medal in one show, and 13.5 points and no medal in another show a week later.

In our little tasting we put one wine, Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet 1989, in two separate line-ups. I gave it 14.5 points in one, and 17.0 in the other. Both other judges made the same mistake. Which simply shows that our perception of a wine varies according to the circumstances.

Nevertheless, there is, I believe a need for critical evaluation of wines, and there are valid conclusions to be drawn about the relative merits of wines. But they are far more subtle than putting a fixed number on each product. More on this and the lovely Coonawarras next week.

October 4th, 1992

The shortcomings of wine judging have been discussed in this column over the last few weeks. Despite the pitfalls and errors inherent when so few objective criteria are available, from a consumer’s point of view, it’s important the judging and opinion making goes on.

I can’t think of any other product undergoing as much public scrutiny as wine. The glare of lights and constant dissection contribute to the amazingly high quality we enjoy today. The show judging system in particular keeps makers at a high level of competitiveness constantly throwing a spotlight on wines that are not up to scratch.

Even if results from show to show reveal inconsistencies in judging, all that means for the consumer is to take any single result with a grain of salt. In the long run, the best wines keep rising to the top. And, no matter what the experts say, the final judge is the consumer.

Over a very long period of time the price drinkers pay for a wine is a fair indicator of quality. Thus, the safest buys are wines with long pedigrees and constantly high auction prices. In the short term though…and this applies especially when we’re looking for something new and exciting…the price asked by a maker is not necessarily a reflection of a wine’s comparative quality.

Since we’re so often in the position of having to buy without tasting, expert opinion has its role. Look for wines rating highly amongst numerous commentators and in many wine shows. Finally, no matter how revered a wine is, it’s no good if it’s not to your taste. And always buy a bottle and drink it before getting a case for the cellar. If it doesn’t pass the bottle test, move on to something else.

Now, back to those lovely Coonawarra reds tasted last week.

Just as in Australian wine shows it was a masked tasting (we knew we were tasting Coonawarras, but all we had in front of us were numbered glasses. The bottles were out of sight). After assessing the wines we compared scores out of twenty for each wine. Where there was a disparity, we discussed the wine while re-tasting it.

Now that’s the point at which show judging usually stops. Judges scores are tallied after the discussion and the aggregate determines awards: 46.5 to 50.5 bronze; 51 to 55 points silver; and 55.5 points and above gold.

In our smaller, private tasting we had time to take things two revealing steps further. Having scored the wines, we next unmasked the bottles and re-examined each in light of its price. After all, a $10 wine rated one point below a $20 may be extraordinary value-for-money.

The second extra step, and casual drinkers will see the sense in it, was to re-cork the wines for re-appraisal the next day. All wine collectors are familiar with the problem of loving a wine on the strength of a quick sip taken with the winemaker but finding little charm in the dozen lugged home in the boot.

This highlights one of the dilemmas of wine judging and tasting: you can’t really know a wine until you’ve drunk it. Sipping and spitting are just not the same. As well, very high quality young reds built for long-term cellaring take a long time to reveal all their hidden depths and complexities. Thus tasting and re-tasting over a few days unveils the real champions more reliably than one quick tasting.

Our tasting threw up a couple of gems. Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet 1988 rose quickly to the surface and stayed there over the days the bottles were re-examined. There simply isn’t any questioning the power and elegance of this wine as vintage after vintage it wins trophies and golds in Australia as well as high praise overseas.

Contrasting with the sheer power of John Riddoch is Petaluma Coonawarra 1988. It’s a wine always easy to identify in blind tastings (unfortunately, because the judge is instantly biased) because of its extraordinary crimson colour – a hallmark of Brian Croser’s fanatically anaerobic approach to winemaking. The fruit flavours are extraordinarily concentrated and, though four years old, the wine tastes as if it’s barely out of the fermenter. It requires long cellaring and, strangely enough, I believe its absolute purity of fruit flavour will make it another controversial Petaluma red. It’s good and it’s distinctive, but there will be those who simply don’t like the style; others will love it.

There were other individual wines, in my view not rising quite to the level of John Riddoch or Petaluma, but still with their own individual accents as well as a whole band of outstanding value reds as well. These will be discussed next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Wine opinion? Which ones to follow

As wine drinkers we’re bombarded with a considerable volume of opinion as to which are the best wines.

As a commentator…one of those public voices on wine if you wish…I always feel some uncertainty when it comes to recommendations or criticisms. The simple fact is that when it comes to wine, there are few absolute values. Almost all that we say in judgement of a wine is subjective. So many deliberations on wine in our daily press are the mere whim of the writer; some fail even to ascertain the facts.

The fragility of our judgement on wine struck me a number of times in the past few weeks.

The first occasion, already reported on in this column, was in the awarding of the Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Melbourne Wine Show.

A dubious award at the best of times (given that it virtually guarantees commercial success to samples only partly through oak maturation) the Jimmy Watson this year simply did not go to the best wine in the taste off.

Chairman of judges, Bill Chambers, told me that it was simple. There were four wines in the taste off, a shiraz, a cabernet, a pinot noir, and a blend, and the judges picked the best one.

Well, Bill, they did not. Chief Winemaker at Seppelt’s, Ian McKenzie, was only too happy to collect the prize for his 1991 Harper’s Range. But no one was more surprised than Macka that this pleasant $10 wine beat another of his reds, the $20 a bottle Seppelt Dorrien Estate Cabernet 1991.

It’d be nice to believe the judges had stumbled on one of the great bargains of all time. But, no, the tooth fairy doesn’t exist, and as Ian McKenzie cheerfully admits, Dorrien is by far the better wine. The judges got it wrong.

Under Ian McKenzie’s chairmanship they got it wrong in some of the red classes in last year’s Canberra Show, too. As detailed in this column late last year, when you line up a hundred tannic young reds, it’s virtually impossible to assess the quality pecking order in one sitting.

Yet when you put young reds in masked tastings against older wines, invariably the young wines rise to the top as judges bypass sometimes quite glorious vintages.

We saw this phenomenon emerge strongly in the recent Melbourne Age/Sydney Morning Herald annual review of red wines.

It’s easy to see how good judgment lapses in these tastings: the rich, fruity aromas, powerful flavours, and gripping tannins of baby reds swamp more subtle characteristics of older wines.

The lesson is not that judges are necessarily incompetent (although that may sometimes the case), but that results of any one tasting are an approximation – .a broad guide only and in no way definitive in the sense that rankings are fixed forever.

During the week, I sat in on three extensive masked tastings, every one of them illustrating some of these points. In one, we lined up twenty-two young Australian blends (mainly cabernet with shiraz or merlot) with retail prices ranging from $6 to $15 a bottle.

My top pointed wine was the $6-a-bottle Penfolds Koonunga Hill Claret 1990. Neither of the other two judges ranked it top, but both rated it amongst the best few wines of the tasting.

After unveiling the wines then re-tasting and discussing each, a few valid conclusions could be drawn: a couple of the wines were faulty and would not look good in any tasting; several more stood apart in that they offered the drinker a greater depth of aroma and flavour; the rest sat in the middle as pleasant but undistinguished.

Of the top wines, the three judges reached no consensus as to the order of merit. In show-judging this is no problem as panels of three judges simply tally their points for each wine: thus a wine pointed bronze by one judge, silver, by a second, and gold by a third, normally scores enough to win silver.

My conclusion is that in ours and like tastings (including show judging), wines rising to gold, silver or bronze status tend to be superior wines of comparable quality. A wine winning gold, silver, and bronze medals in many different shows is usually outstanding. And one that wins gold consistently is a sure bet.

From a consumer’s point of view, accolades from numerous sources over a wide span of time is a reliable guide. Single bursts of enthusiasm about any wine, especially one with no track record, should be treated with the greatest skepticism.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Drinker with a running problem

I’m a drinker with a running problem.

That’s what Brian Wenn at the Runner’s Shop told me, anyway.

And with wine-drinking taking priority over running, it’s been hard to swallow Monty Dortkamp’s advice in preparation for today’s Canberra Times Fun Run. I mean, no wine for a whole week before the run! No way, Monty. I didn’t mind skipping this morning’s glass but, well, Saturday wouldn’t have been the same without a decent red.

Anyway, what would Monty know. I’ve often drunk wine with him, but I’ve never seen him run.

And what about after the race? I won’t run as fast as I did ten years ago. Or, rather, I’ll run even more slowly than I did then. But at 44 surely I can try for a personal best at the bar afterwards. I mean ten kilometre’s a long way to run without a drink.

Even Steve Monaghetti admits to a warm red on a cold night. Could it’ve been a period of abstinence that did him in at Barcelona?

Ben Johnson’s name may be mud. But, my, wasn’t he fast over one hundred metres. His coach, Charles Francis, admits steroids helped a little. And he also says that Ben thrived on late nights and beer.

I guess sprinting’s what you’d expect of a beer drinker. The stuff’s so bulky, ten seconds is about all you can take before a pit stop.

Wine drinkers, though, take a more leisurely approach. Just as a good lunch lingers for six hours – each new course and wine deserves full attention – so a distance runner enjoys the slow unraveling of the course.

There are other parallels between long-distance runners and wine drinkers, too.

Wine buffs are discerning not only in what they drink, but in how it’s served, where it’s served, what it’s served in, what it’s served with, and who else is there.

Runners are just as fussy. They look the part (just as Grange looks more becoming in an Orefors glass than in a beer mug, serious runners colour co-ordinate from head to toe: from reflective sunglasses to Reebok runners).

If you don’t believe me, jog out to Deek’s drive anytime after 6 am on a summer’s Sunday. It’s a blaze of fashion, whizzing and wobbling by in a faint, pungent haze of sweat. More often than not, little bands run and wheeze together, gasping conversations over ten or even twenty kilometres.

Or watch one of the ACT Cross Country Club’s events and count the dollars on five hundred or so feet of varying ages and sex. You won’t find anyone loping around in canvas Dunlops. They’re about as welcome as Ben Ean at a dinner party.

Hang around after and listen to the conversations. They’re as studded with jargon as bizarre as you’ll find at any wine tastings. Just as tasters find berries, cherries, raspberries, and tar in wines made from grapes, runners warm up, warm down, achieve PB’s (personal bests), fall prey to DNF’s (did not finish), run ‘reps’ and enjoy the odd bout of Fartlek.

If you’re serving a ’62 Lafitte, you don’t just whip out the cork and splash it into vegemite glasses. You stand it in a warm place to reach room temperature, allowing the sediment to settle before ever so carefully easing the cork out and gently pouring it into a crystal decanter. Finally you serve it lovingly into fine glassware, then sniff and sip appreciatively.

Similarly, you won’t see Andrew Lloyd, Sean Creighton, Deek or any other top runners strap on their boots and roar off at top speed. Like old wines, they need to be warmed up first. Watch Deek sometime: gentle run throughs, a longer, slow jog, short fast sprints, and then into the long solid grind of the race.

Afterwards, distance runners ‘warm down’: first recovering from the race then heading off for a few easy kilometres. This, according to Monty, gets the blood out of the muscles and back to the heart.

Wine drinkers, too, have a warm-down phase, especially after a PB. When the dinner party’s done, you don’t down forks and rush off into the night. Coffee and cognac ease the drinker to a more comfortable level and afterward, sleep, and a slow start the next day round off the event.

Finally, whether a runner’s high or a wine drinker’s high is the better, I don’t know. But today I’m trying both. Pity the run has to come first.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007