Hugh Johnson reflects on Royal Sydney Wine Show 1995

Friday of last week saw what seemed like most of Australia’s wine industry lunching at Sydney Opera House, celebrating another Royal Sydney Wine Show, savouring trophy-winning wines, and hoping for a few insights from Chairman of Judges Len Evans and perhaps a glimpse of visiting judge, Hugh Johnson, the world’s most widely read wine writer.

Johnson spoke first. In his own gentle way, quelling the chatter of a few hundred voices, he delivered an outsider’s view on wine judging and of Australian wine. A refreshing view it was, too, from a man happy to deliver personal judgement on wine quality but scathingly critical of those giving so called ‘objective’ scores:

I judge wines by loving it or hating it … and there’s not much in between. I love vitality in a wine, the sort of wine where one bottle is not enough… giving wines points creates a spurious sense of accuracy and if you can believe it means something when someone gives a wine 87 points out of 100 then you would believe anything.”

Nevertheless, Johnson saw some validity in the Australian Show circuit’s Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal award system as it “gives a good broad guide of performance on the day.”

Johnson sees “variety as the essence of wine” and believes that what the French call “terroir” (the combination of soil, climate, aspect and location of vineyards) is at the heart of wine variety.

He said he once viewed us as the France (”How did that bunch of ruffians come to make the best wines in the world?”) of the Southern hemisphere , but now broadens that view, “Australia is the France of the New World.”

But he cautioned us about the tough competition we face in world markets “You are in a boom time, but the waves are short and choppy. The concept of a great tidal wave taking Australian wine around the world and crushing everyone else is desirable but unlikely. Other countries around the world are learning to make wine — France for example.”

Johnson loves our red wines in particular and sees them as our great strength, calling them “… wonderful, mind-bending, gripping blends.” (He added that he’ll be buying his whites in New Zealand.)

Having patted us on the back and cautioned us about being too cocky during the current boom, he noted one feature that separated us from other winemaking countries, “You have incredible team work here, unlike any other country in the world”. He noted that our competitors tended to be secretive with a go-it-alone mentality. And though it went unsaid, I suppose our wine show system with its constant and fearless public scrutiny, provides a meeting point as well as a sparring venue for our producers.

Len Evans followed Hugh Johnson, echoing his preference for our reds over our whites. “The reds emerging are far better than the whites”, observed Evans. Then slipped into a joke, “A fellow said to his mate, ‘I bought a new kind of hearing aid.’ ‘What type is it?’ his mate asked. ‘5.30 he answered’”.

When the laughing stopped Len suggested perhaps Australian wine makers had bought the wrong kind of hearing aid because they were not hearing the message that our whites were not as good as our reds.

We’ve got the vineyards. We’ve got the wine makers. But will the consumer support better whites. Are they being encouraged to do so?”

Len’s been pushing this theme for a few years now because he sees it as most important for the wine industry, especially in export markets. Visiting Len at Rothbury Estate, on another occasion, he observed that our best reds were raved about in export markets, with a notable trickle down effect on the image of our mass-produced commercial reds.

But the same is not true of our whites. Our cheaper whites sell well but they are “just in the quaffing category” says Len.

Len knows that finally our export dollars are earned from these quaffing wines. But he sees vital long-term significance in having flagship whites as well as flagship reds to maintain the image of Australia as a premium wine producer.

Unless we succeed in conveying that image to overseas consumers then we end up selling a commodity with limited export value and, of course, risk losing markets to any country that can undercut our costs.

As usual, Len’s talk was short, good-humoured and to the point. I hope our white-wine makers were listening.