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Wine: Don't forget your change

Written by Max Veenhuyzen 2nd May, 2006

Just some reflections after a spell of recent tastings... I love blind tastings – but I’m not as fond of having to score wines in them. From a romantic point of view, I’m not comfortable with the idea of taking 12-or-so-months’ worth of elbow grease put in by grape growers, vineyard managers, winemakers and umpteen other people and reducing it to a two-digit figure. However – and this is the practical side of me speaking – when it comes to making objective judgment on a bottle of wine, there is no leveler playing field than a blind tasting – and scoring is integral to measuring wines comparatively.

Make no mistake, blind tastings are all about pitting ones against each other. In an instant, high profile media darlings are stripped of their pseudo-celebrity status and known simply as “Number 13” or “Flight six, bottle three”; inexpensive drops get the chance to square off against national and sometimes even international icons; and individual prejudices for and against particular styles, varieties and brands are temporarily removed. All that matters is performance on the day and a wine’s showing in both the tasting glass and the mouth. And in the time it takes for a wine to be tasted, scores read and identity unmasked, heroes can fall, only to be replaced by previously unheard-of names who are tomorrow’s superstars-in-training.

These were the kind of thoughts swirling through my head during a recent tasting hosted by the amicable Peter H Forrestal. Taking their place in the lineup were some of the nation’s more respected names in cabernet-based wines: the kinds of wine you’d be chuffed to see mates bring around for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, the wines weren’t awful and there were quite a few impressive drops, but considering the prices being asked for some of them, there was some pretty average value for money on offer – and while I realise that cabernet does takes some time to open up (a few hours in a decanter does wonders), I also realise that most people aren’t looking for wine to cellar, but wine to get stuck into later that evening. While none of us at the tasting panel actually went on record and said it, there was certainly a feeling of disappointment among the tasters. If these wines were icons on any person’s drinking desktop, I dare say the recycle bin (or trashcan for you Apple users) would be pretty full.

The tasting got me thinking about the state of Western Australia’s wine industry. You often hear about people saying there are too many producers in the marketplace; that too much wine is being made. Correction – there’s too much average, over-priced wine being made – if all the WA wine was great, you’d never have to buy plonk from outside of the state. The truth is this: There’s plenty of average, uninspiring wine in the market – wine that has more money invested in its marketing than its making, wine that is being made from vines that are far too young, wine that is being made for the wrong reasons. It’s this lack of quality control that is tarring so many new producers with the same dirty brush. Remember, bad wine equals a bad reputation – and not just for the winery in question, but newcomers in general, I believe.

However it’s not all bad news and if you’re willing to put in the effort, there are some gems out there waiting to be unearthed – treasures like the tightly knit and focused 2004 Moombaki Chardonnay, limited to just a hundred cases; Celestial Bay’s impressive cabernet-merlot; or the unbelievable value of the 2005 Bellarmine Sauvignon Blanc – practical daylight robbery at $15 a bottle. Its quality-focused new producers like these that make the state’s booming wine industry so exciting and ensuring established names don’t even think about resting on their laurels. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should ignore the pioneers who’ve done so much for establishing the state’s wine industry – could anyone ever forget names such as Cullen, Moss Wood, Howard Park and Plantagenet? God no, but I think it’s important to be open to change and not fear it – starting with coming to accept alternative closures to cork. It’s a debate as old as the hills, but as far as I’m concerned, screw cap for PM.

As I write this, the memory of a tasting last week is fresh in my head: Out of three Henschke wines tasted, two were under screw cap and one was under cork. The couple under Stelvin were drinking beautifully while the other had been struck down by dreaded cork taint. What was the wine you ask? Oh, just the 2001 Hill of Grace, a snip at $430 a bottle. The defence rests its case. Yes, the market place has gotten a little more crowded and finding that bottle of Plantagenet shiraz or Houghton White Burgundy (now known as White Classic) may be a little harder, but moments of adversity like this are no reason to get alarmed. Instead, embrace your chance to get off the straight and narrow and explore those uncharted regions of your palate.

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