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