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Wine Style and Wine Quality

It seems to me that wine style and wine quality are often confused, not only in the minds of wine consumers but more importantly in those of wine judges. The added complication is that ‘style’ is related to ‘fashion’.

When Brian Croser became president of the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia and also Chief Judge of the Adelaide Wine Show during the 1990’s, he commented that ‘exhibits are increasingly cloned to meet…style preferences of the judges’. He went on to state that ‘the broad objective…should be to create the opportunity of a greater diversity of style representation’ for the wine entries in the shows.

Now, many years later, it seems that the ideals expressed by Croser have still not been achieved in our show system. This is probably due to the fact that the judges are merely human. Wine judges, as with all of us, prefer particular wine styles and these evolve over time. As the wine writer James Halliday says, commenting on Croser’s sentiments, ‘it is reasonable to suggest that when (show judges) come across a successful example of that style, it flies in the face of all reason to suggest that they will not give it high points, perhaps a gold medal’.

One of the problems is that some show judges like to believe that they are somehow judging against some mythical, absolute standard, rather than according to their own style preferences. At a ‘meet the judges’ workshop after a recent wine show, I raised this question of style with the judges, but they claimed that they were in fact judging absolute quality. In the early days of the revival of the Australian wine industry, there appeared to be many wines showing faults and a major role of wine show judges would be sorting out the quality wines from the faulty wines. But the wines of today are generally fault free so the judges are left to contend with style as a means of sorting out the medal winners.

It would be a healthy change if wine show judges kept the style and quality issue firmly in their minds during their judging in order to be less likely to confuse the issue. James Halliday, in his article, makes the point that show judges now often include members from abroad, who he says, ‘certainly introduce a breath of fresh air, but if their views are listened to, some rank outsiders among the wine entries get up to finish first’. His tone seems to suggest that this is not a desirable situation. It is also probably not likely because the Chairman of Judges generally has the final say as regards some of the more important awards.

The awarding of medals to wines that conform to a preferred style is an issue which is annoying to those winemakers whose style of wine may not conform to the fashion in vogue. I attended a seminar recently where the object was to demonstrate, through a series of tastings of a range of chardonnay wines, the style that wine makers today should be conforming to. The reason suggested to the participants was to make a chardonnay which was much leaner and more acid driven so as to compete favourably with sauvignon blanc wines which happened to be the current fashionable white wine.

The leader of that seminar is now the Chairman of Judges at a current major wine show. The style of chardonnay he preferred was enhanced if it also showed a ‘struck match’ character. This style also typically had no malo-lactic fermentation and showed the tightness of structure that comes with maturation in new oak. At Narkoojee our chardonnay style has typically shown the generous but softer mouthfeel that results from a portion of malo-lactic fermentation, with a richness coming from riper fruit and lower acidity.

Any sulphide character (normally referred to as ‘rotten egg gas’ or ‘burnt rubber’) was regarded as a fault and if detected in our wines, would be copper-fined out as a matter of course. It seems that this character is now known by the term of endearment as ‘struck match’ which, in the modern chardonnay style, is seen as a virtue. This character is likely to be much more obvious in wines under screw cap rather than under cork closures because of the anaerobic environment in the bottle. So with the modern style virtue is made from necessity.

All this can be quite frustrating for the winemaker. Should the winery continue with its traditional style at the risk of losing customers, or should it try to conform to the current ‘show’ style with a greater chance of winning an award? If the winemaker only partly embraces the new style, the wine runs the risk of being in a half-way land where it may be seen as neutral and without character. In any case it becomes a frustrating race if the temptation of trying to predict and keep up with the latest wine fashions, is followed.

I remember a Gippsland winery which, many years ago, won the admiration of the wine press with a big, buttery, rich chardonnay style which was scored 98 points out of 100, by one highly regarded wine writer – a rare score indeed. Today it is highly likely that this same wine would be pushed aside in a show line-up with not even a bronze medal to show.

One hears of wineries which employ a special task force whose job it is to prepare wines specifically for a particular wine show, knowing the style preferences of the Chaiman of Judges. On the other hand there are winemakers who continue with their traditional styles and who find show results irrelevant, never entering any wines into a show. Unfortunately this in turn tends to discredit the show system which, as Croser pointed out those many years ago, requires ‘a more consumer oriented judging fraternity operating in a more public environment’, but it appears to me that this ideal is yet to be reached and show results are relegated to a backwater, a quaint phenomenon to be wondered at by the rest of us.

All this makes it easy to agree with the highly regarded British wine writer, Andrew Jefford, who writes a regular column in Decanter magazine and who once stated that he believed it was not possible to judge a wine by allocating a numerical score because of the basic subjectivity of such an exercise.

Ken Eckersley

November 2011

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