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The Storm in a Wine Glass
  • Event Melbourne Food & Wine Festival
  • Date 02.03.2014

Of course what is in the glass counts and is important. But it’s not just about what’s in the glass that counts. If we only are looking at wine quality as something divorced from everything else that goes into the production of that wine, that is where madness lies. Unfortunately we have lead down that path recently. Reinforcing the human character of wine is important.”
— Max Allen

‘Storm in a Wine Glass’ formed part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Global Wine Experience weekend and provided a forum for some of the more divisive issues in wine journalism.

Complete with four wine glasses, one stubby of Coopers original pale ale and a terracotta bowl for ‘optional use’, the tasting format for Storm in a Wine Glass aimed to open minds and prompt conversation. Guiding attendees through the wines, the panel consisted of; Master of Ceremonies Mike Bennie, fellow wine writers Sophie Otton, Tim White, international guest Tim Atkin MW and winemaker Steve Webber (De Bortoli). The tasting consisted of three brackets of wines, each of which had been thoughtfully curated to address a controversial topic.

Alcohol Levels—Bracket One, Part A
Eric Texier Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc “Vieilles Vignes” — Rhone Valley, France 2010
Chateau Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc — Rhone Valley, France 2010

For all the complexities of fermentation, there remains a fundamental tenant by which all wine abides; to greater or lesser amounts, grape sugar is converted into alcohol. Over the past 20 years, as Tim Atkin points out, “wine critic Robert Parker and wine consultant Michel Rolland have held the dominant view and the late picking [of grapes] is something that both of them have advocated.” The resultant wines are higher in alcohol content and impart a riper fruit expression than those wines produced from grapes that are picked earlier in the harvest period. This bracket exhibited four wines from warm climates of varying alcohol levels. Though the Eric Texier expression of Châteauneuf contained less alcohol by volume, than the Chateau Beaucastel, they were comprised of different varieties; a Clairette & Bourboulenc Blend as opposed to a Roussanne dominant blend. Nevertheless, both wines are representative of the warmer southerly region of the Rhone Valley. The wine of Eric Texier is medium bodied with citrus aromas and a nutty bitterness. In contrast, the wine of Chateau Beaucastel is richly textured with flavours of ripe apricot and orange blossom. On deciding a preference for these wines, the crowd was relatively split on their preferred style. Steve Webber, whom preferred the Texier expression, generally advocates lower alcohol in his wines; “I really like the first wine. There is a savoury nuttiness about it ... I’m generally a 12% abv person, I think that you get maximum terroir around that level.” With respect to achieving an optimum alcohol level, Tim White eloquently suggested that the best way to determine an optimal outcome would be defined by tests; “run trials on picked early versus late picked grapes.”

Part B
Torbreck “Runrig” Shiraz — Barossa Valley, Australia 2009

Speri Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG — Veneto, Italy 2009

As the first bracket progressed to the red wines, Sophie Otton spoke of the importance of experimentation; “in order to change, you need to experiment and push the boundaries and eventually it will come into balance.” Whilst both wines were high in alcohol content, they were of incredibly contrasting styles. The Runrig was opulently fruited and hedonistically spiced, gushing with fruit density whereas the Speri Amarone was a savoury wine with a muscular backbone that commanded food. Tim White proffered his opinion that the Runrig wine was part of a wave of Barossa Valley winemakers sharing a similar style; “the wines of Murray Street Vineyards, Dan Standish and [Torbreck’s] the Runrig all share a very similar winemaking philosophy. The winemaking generally stands out before the Barossa valley does.” Whilst there is a risk of such wines being considered as “Caricature wines” and ‘Parker Darlings” in the view of Tim Atkin, he goes on to suggest that both reds in the line-up display “balance and great structure.”

Low Intervention Winemaking—Bracket Two
Natural Selection Theory “Project Egg—Runway 3 Brokenback” Semillon — Hunter Valley, Australia 2010
Brokenwood ILR Reserve Semillon — Hunter Valley, Australia 2007
Jauma “Alessa” Shiraz — McLaren Vale, Australia 2013
SC Pannell Shiraz — McLaren Vale, Australia 2011

It was at this point of the tasting that bird sounds and the gentle hush of river streams entered the room. Matched to the wines of the Natural Selection Theory Collective, a vinyl record of nature sounds forms part of the branding and is included with the wine upon its sale. The wine itself is encased in a ceramic egg, from which the wine is to be ‘birthed’ upon consumption. The mantra of the organization, as notated on the packaging of their eggs, is as follows:

Blur your boundaries. Squint your eyes. Blow your brain. Let your soul go wild and let go. Get up. Walk out. Go. This world is what you make it. What you want. What you choose. We choose this. Project runway 3, the egg. We choose loose.  We choose smart. We choose culture and quiet. Chaos and peace. Everyday and eternity. Forget that. Feel this. Feel you. Remember that. So this is it folks. Over the top. A dance. A joke. A stance. Our stance. We stood in a shack. In a park. Metal birds screeching overhead. Our stance. We stood in a room. In a shack. With dreams and ideas busting out of our heads. Talk to yourself. Talk to others. To nature, for she talks.”

The Natural Selection Theory Collective was a creation of Sam Hughes, Tom Shobrook, James Erskine, Sam Hughes and Anton Von Klopper. A wine designed to break down the usual expectations of what wine ‘should be’ the panel enjoyed the conceptual basis of the project. As per Tim Atkin; “They are extreme wines and I quite like them. They are not something I’d want to drink everyday of the week … I think the thing that is great about the Aussie approach to this style of wine is that there is a bit of tongue and cheek. They are fun guys.” The wine inside the egg is made with minimal intervention during the winemaking process and with the exception of a small amount of sulphur dioxide, generally avoids the inclusion of additives. Considered to be part of the nebulously defined ‘natural wine movement’ their politics are less important than their effect on wine drinkers. Steve Webber found the wines thought provoking; “As a producer I’m incredibly interested by the experiments that are going on and they make me think more about my processes. I’m looking a lot more for texture in wines. Particularly in white wines, I’m not a great fan of the egg in my circumstance … However, I am interested in the idea of fermenting in different vessels such as concrete, ceramic etc.” Sophie Otton quite aptly summarized the appeal of the project; “What surrounds these wines is the community and environment, conversation, energy and the exploration process of the natural wine movement that is most wonderful. The wines are hot and cold. What is going on behind it is interesting.”

Though many members of the crowd displayed a mixed reception to both white wines on display, the red wines were more openly received. The panel enjoyed the energy of the Jauma wine, as per Tim Atkin; “it shows herbal ‘Rhone-like’ characters and is very floral. I like the lightness of touch. There is very little oak and I like the expression of syrah in this wine. It is delicate and long.” In contrast, Steve Pannell’s wine was viewed to have “unresolved tannin” and a lack of depth that would otherwise usually be expected of the high quality producer. Perhaps more symptomatic of the vintage conditions than the winemaking. 

Skin Contact in White Wine – Bracket Three, Part A
Ducks in a Row “Pandora’s Amphora” — McLaren Vale Australia 2010
AA Denavolo “Dinavolino” Bianco — Emilia-Romagna, Italy 2010

The final bracket of wines was split between two emotive topics. The first, the use of the skins in the making of white wines and the second, the value of wine scores. The first topic was premised by a self confessed ‘diatribe’ by Mike Bennie who passionately, put a case for the usage of grape skins in white wine. “White and red grapes are grown the same way. They sit in the same vineyards, sometimes, side by side. The sun shines on them. The rain pours on them.  The mist comes through. The days are warm. The nights are cool. All that information of ‘terroir’, the thing that touches the atmosphere, the thing that touches the universe where lots of this information comes from, is the skins. [The skins] are thrown away immediately with a white wine and not with the red … At what time in winemaking, from ancient times from now, did people decide white grape skins would not be given the same rights of passage, just because they are white?” As a wine writer who has never concentrated on colour in wines as being a quality indicator, Tim White suggested that the skin contact white wines he has experienced in Slovenia have been excellent expressions of the style. Whether or not this style of white wine is in-fact better than wines without skin contact, would depend on a trial of like products; i.e. fruit from the same vineyard treated different ways. The wine from Ducks in a Row made a strong case for skin contact in white wines, delivering an end product that was balanced, gripping and complex. The wine from A.A. Denavolo was a little more difficult to love, with oxidative notes that detracted from the overall balance of the product. 

The Value of Wine Scores—Bracket Three (Part B)
Grosset Gaia Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc — Clare Valley, Australia 2010
Marchesi de Frescobaldi ‘Luce della Vite’ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG — Tuscany, Italy 2006

The final task of the tasting required the panel to provide scores on each wine, with a view of questioning the utility of the derived numerical figure. Though the panel were asked to complete the task, not all are comfortable with the process. As per Sophie Otton “I find it excruciating. I do partake because I think there is a rigor to [wine-judging] that is important in palate training. However, It is depressing to score wines. It is a very subjective exercise.” Tim White has adapted his own scoring system from his desire to separate the ‘technical’ and ‘empirical’ analysis of the wine from his own emotions towards it (hedonic scale). The empirical scale assesses the wine within its context of that particular style (a more objective viewpoint), whereas, the ‘hedonic’ scale expressed White’s own preference for the particular wine in question (more subjective inclinations). Of the two wines tastes, the average score of the judges was 90 points, a considerable disparity from the scores of Jeremy Oliver; 20/20 for the Grosset wine and James Suckling; 100 points for the wine of Frescobaldi. As the conversation to round out a dense and thoughtfully organized event, it was nice to remember that wine-judgment in any form, remains a largely subjective process. A 

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