National Wine Show judges got it wrong

If you’re confused about which sparkling wine to buy for Christmas, don’t worry. You’re in good company. Even our top wine judges can’t make sense of the increasing array of sparkling wines available to us.

It’s clear from the results of the 1993 ACI National Wine Show of Australia, announced here in Canberra two weeks ago, that the judges, including a Chairman who presides over the biggest sparkling wine cellar in the southern hemisphere, cannot pick $10 bubblies from $20 bubblies on the tasting bench.

The Kit Stevens Trophy for best bottle-fermented sparkling wine was awarded to Killawarra Premier Vintage Brut 1990, a very rich, sparkling white burgundy style retailing widely at $9 to $11 a bottle. It was the top-scoring wine in its class of 37 mostly more expensive wines and went on to win the trophy in a taste off against gold medal winners from other classes.

In its own class, this modestly-priced bubbly vanquished, amongst others, both the 1989 and 1990 vintages of Salinger ($27), Hardy Classique Cuvee Pinot Chardonnay 1990 ($28), Andrew Garrett Randall Pinot Chardonnay 1989 ($18), Yalumba ‘D’ 1990 ($27), Yellowglen Cuvee Victoria 1990 ($27), and Yellowglen Vintage Brut 1990 ($20).

Taken at face value, the results should send us sprinting, wallets and purses open, to the nearest retailer. Alternately, we could see the results as erratic – simply more evidence that the notion of awarding points out of 20 to each wine in a big line up and producing any meaningful result is nonsense. Accept that last proposition, and we have to wonder about the future of wine shows.

The result certainly must puzzle the Penfold Wine Group. It provided 22 of the 37 wines in the class. Yet two vintages of the wine it regards as the company’s flagship methode champenoise, Salinger, fared poorly considering its retail price of around $27. The 1989 scored just 43 points out of 60 (an aggregate of three judges awarding points out of 20) while the 1990 earned a silver medal with 51 points.

My own hunch, and we see this over and again at wine shows, is that judges tend to note fuller, richer wines, while glossing over more elegant, restrained entries. So what we end up with from the judges is not an absolute, objective measure of quality but a simple vote of personal preference, based on sniffing, sipping, and spitting a lot of wines in a short period of time.

The fact that judges cannot split cheap bubblies from expensive ones also highlights a growing homogeneity. Very few of the sparkling wines entered in premium classes in our wine shows are made from anything other than pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, the varieties used by the French in the Champagne region.

Entering a wine based on semillon, riesling, chenin blanc, or ondenc in one of these classes is the kiss of death, not because of poor quality but simply because they’d be different. Anything that stands out in a wine show is usually cut down.

Why do our sparkling-wine makers use such a narrow palate of grapes in the better sparkling wines? In white table wine we enjoy the varied flavours of chardonnay, semillon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, traminer and several other lesser varieties. But for bubbly we’ve stuck with the classics.

I think the answer is partly that the classics make good bubbly and partly that the show system tends to perpetuate fashions. At the moment only pinot-chardonnay blends win gongs, so almost everyone makes pinot-chardonnay bubblies. It’s a hard cycle to break into, despite ample evidence world wide that pinot-chardonnay blends are not the be-all and end-all of sparkling wine.

Germans make exquisite Sekt from the riesling grape; French vignerons in Vouvray (Loire Valley) offer superb, long-lived bubblies from chenin blanc; in Piedmont there’s the delicious and sweet Asti spumante from the local moscato grape; and throughout Italy drinkers enjoy bubblies made from a multitude of grapes unknown in Australia. (One that struck me was a verdicchio/garganega blend). And, of course, the Spanish make terrific bubbly from a pot pourri of grapes.

In Australia we can still taste the unique flavour of ondenc in Seppelts Hans Irvine blend; the richness of semillon in JY Tulloch Hunter Cuvee Brut (the judges gave it the thumbs down); and the fruity delicacy of Clare Valley Rhine Riesling in Brian Croser’s Pine Ridge Brut NV (Croser doesn’t bother to show it. He knows the judging system too well).

Unfortunately, we won’t see many of the world’s more interesting bubblies this Christmas. And if we were, we probably couldn’t afford them. For wine drinkers the banana republic is here as our weak dollar diminishes the choices available to us. For variety, then, be bold. Forget what the judges think and follow your own palate. There’s no reason to believe their opinions are better than yours or mine.