Driving the Ferraris of the wine world

Few people drive the cars that win motor races. Yet motor sports contribute considerably to safety and performance developments in motor vehicles – improvements that finally trickle down to the family sedan.

Similarly, relatively few drinkers enjoy the Ferraris of the wine world – the great and enduring names that excite drinkers, inspire winemakers and lead, ultimately, to the production of better everyday drinking as surely as motor racing leads to better family cars.

Happily, the vehicle/vine metaphor doesn’t stretch to money: while the prices of top notch cars are unattainable to most at hundreds of thousands of dollars, the world’s greatest wines remain relatively accessible at hundreds of dollars a bottle.

Serious wine buffs, winemakers and wine judges – not necessarily wealthy people — can and do test-drive the world’s most venerable bottles, often spreading the expense over a group of tasters.

The practice is particularly widespread in Australia’s winemaking community and even more marked amongst Australia’s leading wine show judges.

While this may appear at odds with our parochial wine taste (Australia’s imports represent only a few per cent of total wine consumption), it’s probably one of the key forces driving improvements in wine quality.

It’s all about benchmarking. And to benchmark in a global market, winemakers need the broadest possible frame of reference plus an unbiased appreciation of the best the world can offer.

Take chardonnay for example. If a winemaker seeks to be amongst the best, benchmark tastings must include leading examples from Australia, New Zealand and the United States as well as a bottle or two from one of the great Domaines of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne in France’s Burgundy region.

This doesn’t imply any fawning reverence for names — just a genuine, open-minded examination of what the world has to offer. Our best winemakers and judges do this and readily acknowledge road-to-Damascus experiences provided by the best wines of, for example, Domaine Leflaive of Puligny-Montrachet or Domaine Bonneau-du-Martray of Corton-Charlemagne.

These are the Ferraris of the chardonnay world, bound to impress anyone with more than a passing interest in wine. And the price? Perhaps $200 to $400 a bottle. That’s not much really, especially if half a dozen people chip in for the pleasure.

The late Len Evans was the greatest proponent of the ‘Ferrari principle’, having propelled two generations of Australian wine judges to an appreciation of the world’s best – as a prerequisite to competent judging. How can you judge, Len insisted, if you didn’t know the outer limits of quality?

Over lunches, dinners, tastings and at gatherings after a day’s judging, Len, as show chairman, insisted on great bottles, served masked and discussed openly. Talented insiders enjoyed an even more intense tutelage under Len, gaining comprehensive exposure to benchmark wines, especially those of France, Germany and Portugal.

Even after his death, Len continues mentoring via the annual ‘Len Evans Tutorial’ – a structured week long, live-in series of tastings and tutorials for promising youngish palates, conducted by Len’s leading acolytes. The course, through exposure to the word’s great wines, seeks to put wine excellence in a global context.

But there’s life beyond Len as well. While he provided inspiration and leadership, dozens of other influential winemakers and show judges explore the world of wine – sometimes on their own tasting benches, but also in the open forum that continues to follow judges around the wine show circuit.

Mixed in with the ‘Ferraris’ tasted after hours by show judges is a generous blend of rare old Australian wines, regional specialties from around the world and an eclectic mix of anything anyone regards as interesting. So a day’s judging of Australian wine invariably ends with more tasting and lively discussion in the evening.

This restless examination of what the world and we are up to, reverberates through Australian wineries inspiring innovation in as many directions as there are styles of wine.

What the ‘Ferrari’ wines do is provide inspiration for those aiming for the top. While the French wonder how they can possibly exceed the quality of 1985 Chateaux Margaux, 1978 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Le Montrachet, 1985 Krug Champagne or 1967 Chateau d’Yquem, our winemakers know that our quality limits have yet to be approached. We know we can do better.

From a consumer viewpoint, wine drinking becomes more interesting as we expand our frame of reference, experimenting with previously unknown flavours from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. And, even if only occasionally, to share one of the acknowledged benchmark greats, provides enormous drinking satisfaction as well as blowing the possibilities even more wide open.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007