Goodbye Len Evans, the world will miss you

Len Evans, Australia’s greatest wine man died suddenly of a heart attack on August 17th, just two weeks shy of his 76th birthday.

Len crammed a lot into those years – perhaps too much his cardiologist might say. But nothing was ever going to mollify Len’s ebullience, creativity, energy, love of great wine or commitment to the Australian wine industry.

When I look back over thirty years in the wine industry – about the time that’s elapsed since Len’s first heart attack – I cannot recall any other figure of such influence.

And Len’s influence was wide, deep and prolonged stretching from the early 1960s when he wrote his regular Bulletin wine columns right up until his death.

Len could sing, joke, entertain, judge wine, write, play golf like a champion, sculpt, make ceramics, build houses, found restaurants, bottle shops and wineries and perhaps, most importantly of all, see an international future for Australian wine.

He helped popularise wine drinking in the sixties and seventies, showed us the rollicking side of the industry in his Weekend Australian Indulgence column in the late seventies and early eighties, then urged the industry towards ever better quality for the rest of his life.

That urging took many shapes, from hard-hitting public comments to enforcing high judging standards to mentoring hundreds of talented industry people.

For example, we could credit some of the recent advances in white winemaking with Len’s constant urging a decade earlier. At a NSW Wine Press Club lunch following the Sydney Show in 1995, Len observed, not for the first time, “The reds emerging are far better than the whites”, 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.

Perhaps the key to Len’s wide influence lies not so much in his public pronouncements but more in his ability to connect with so many people at all levels.  He had an extraordinary ability to remember names and positions of people with whom he came into contact.

For young people, it was always flattering and memorable to be publicly greeted by someone of Len’s charisma. But it could also be intimidating, because Len loved to call upon new contacts to stand up and speak, totally unprepared, sometimes in front of hundreds of people.

A constant theme for Len, publicly and privately, was the need for Australia’s wine industry to be outward looking and built on quality. ‘Complacency is our enemy’, he once said, ‘And if we’re not complacent we’ll be a great wine producing nation. If we’re going to get there, our wines will have to keep getting better. We should make the best $10, the best $20 wine and so on – but we’ll have a fight on the $200 ones’.

This theme of quality and internationalism drove the establishment of the Len Evan’s Tutorial – a weeklong intensive seminar held each year for young, accomplished wine people seeking entree into Australia’s show system.

Len believed passionately in shows as a force for good. And he saw the need to bring forward a new generation of wine show judges with an appreciation of international benchmarks.

Len is gone. But the show will go on.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1996 $180-$240
In today’s salute to Len Evans it seems fitting to include two contrasting luxury Champagnes from the great 1996 vintage. The all-chardonnay Taittinger Comtes de Champagne – sourced from top-ranking vineyards in the Champagne district’s Côtes des Blancs sub region – has Champagne’s elusive combination of intensity and delicacy. Without pinot noir in the blend the colour is a deceptively pale lemon, belying its ten years’ age. But that prolonged bottle ageing prior to release added a subtle patina of aromas, flavours and textures that simply enhances the wine’s extraordinary vivacity and freshness. This is about as good as aperitif style Champagne gets.

Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame Champagne 1996 $220 o $260
Veuve Clicquot’s luxury Champagne is a more traditional blend of two-thirds pinot noir and one-third chardonnay. The high pinot content gives the blend its deeper colour and assertive backbone but this is mollified by the more delicate chardonnay. La Grande Dame’s great flavour intensity comes from the quality of the grapes – all sourced from top-ranked vineyards: Verzenay, Verzy, Ambonnay and Bouzy for the pinot noir; and Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for the chardonnay. While power with elegance is always the keynote of La Grande Dame, the 1996 seems particularly elegant though, from experience, the assertive pinot character tends to grow with bottle age.

Tyrrell’s Reserve Belford Hunter Valley Semillon 1999 $29
The Elliott family planted the Belford vineyard in the Hunter in 1933 and a fourth generation still controls it. However, Tyrrell’s lease and manage the vineyard which is source of some their best semillon. Typically these are very pale, minerally and delicate as young wines, gradually taking on a fuller, honeyed character with bottle age. Fortunately, Tyrrell’s hold small volumes back for later release, giving the majority of drinkers without cellars a chance to taste the glories of aged semillon. The 1999 is a lovely drop that’s just beginning to show some of the classic maturation characters while retaining great freshness. Cellar door phone 02 4993 7000.

Copyright  © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007