Australian Wine Vintages 2010 - Robert Geddes MW
By Robyn Lewis
Like a maturing cabernet, some things in the world of wine change only slowly. However this year after 26 editions, founding author Robin Bradley has handed over the reins of his Australian Wine Vintages 2010 ('The Gold Book') to wine master Robert Geddes - and there are some big changes.
For the consumer, the largest of these is the increase in number of five-gold-star wines from 16 to a massive 94, probably not before time given the number and quality of high-end Australian wines now available.
But that’s not all. The Gold Book 2010 has put on girth – it’s over 520 pages compared with 333 in the 2009 edition. That’s nearly two hundred extra pages and about 50% more weight, although the volume will still ‘fit in the glovebox of the Lamborghini’ as Robin Bradley was advised when Australian Wine Vintages was first conceived back in 1979, and it's still very easy to use.
So, who and what is in and what will get wine drinkers buzzing?
The main section is 383 pages - on wine. Gone however is Bradley’s instantly recognisable winemakers’ vintage ratings from 1 to 7, replaced by Geddes’ own wine tasting scores on the 100 point American scale.
This is a significant change, as it means two things: firstly you can now compare wine x with wine y – previously they were the winemakers’ own assessments so that cross-comparisons were not possible – but it also means that readers are now totally reliant on Geddes’ personal assessments. It will be up to us to ascertain whether we agree with his palate or not.
But that’s not all – most of the wines reviewed now go back only about three vintages (some longer for well-known or significant producers where Geddes has tasted them over time), whereas previously Bradley might list over 20 sequential listings, and usually at least seven or eight.
Given that back vintages are rarely available commercially, this is probably very reasonable, although if you want to compare the current release to that great vintage you can vaguely remember from a few years back, you’ll need the 2009 Gold Book on hand to do it. If you have the 2010 and the 09 or an earlier edition, you’ll have your bases covered.
This change also allows Geddes to pack more wines in – and this year there are tasting notes for over 2030 of them, from over 300 wineries including some New Zealand wines readily available on the Australian market. Space dictates brevity of course but the wine reviews are a very valuable addition to Australian Wine Vintages 2010 indeed. The tasting notes are excellent and a great guide to each wine's style.
Geddes includes new vineyards and wineries as well as additional labels from the bigger winemakers – one of the deficiencies of the old format was that it might list one or two of a winemaker’s range, but not always that label that was sitting in the bargain bin in front of you, as you tried to decide if it was dross or liquid gold.
Look a bit closer too, and there are now five columns for most of the wines, not four – percentage alcohol has also been added. Not that too many consumers make their purchasing decision based on whether one wine might be 0.5% more or less than another, but % alcohol does give some clues as to the vintage conditions and what level of ripeness the grapes were at harvest. Each vintage retains its valuable ‘year to drink by’ estimates, handy for those with cellaring or investment in mind.
The 100 point scale
But before we give anything away, let’s look at the use of the 100 point scale. We asked Rob Geddes what prompted this change? ‘The move to points out of 100 was inevitable (I thought) at the time of making the decision. It was based on a survey of people in the Sydney wine trade and their view of the future of wine scores. My preference for scores out of 20 was disparaged by some, seen as old fashioned by others and I went with the flow.’
He must have had some converting to do. On page 7 he gives a table which attempts to correlate the 100 point score with the international 20 point system used by the Australian wine show system (and in the UK). It comes with the disclaimer that ‘the scale is not a perfect conversion ratio and is aimed at avoiding over-ranking of good wines’.
Although I am not an MW (there are only 13 or so in Australia and just under 250 worldwide), I do find it a little difficult to agree with Geddes that a gold medal (18.5 or above on the 20-point scale) should be awarded at 92 points or over, and that the ‘old’ score of 19 (wines described by wine judges as ‘outstanding’) is equivalent to the ‘new’ 94.
A hunt on Google reassures me that I am not alone – Winestate Magazine thinks likewise, giving gold medals to wines scoring 93 or above. Geddes’ scale thus gives gold medal status to wines that are (to our show system wine judges) a high silver. And his 94 is not the same as Halliday’s 94 … and so on.
Confused? You’re not alone. But points still matter, especially the 100 point scale, with which consumers are becoming more familiar. However these days it seems to take a score of 94 or more to lift the pulse of a ‘serious’ wine buyer, so jaded does the market seem to have become. Quite where that leaves all the excellent silver and bronze medal winning wines is hard to say, especially when value for money comes into the equation (although the Gold Book gives price indications, allowing from some ready reckoning).
One virtue of the 20 point scale is that it is reasonably standardized, and that gold medal status at say the Royal Melbourne Show can be considered equivalent to that in Perth, Hobart or Sydney, or by Jancis Robinson MW. However on the downside it perhaps does not allow for enough hair splitting at the very high end, unless decimal points are introduced for scores over 19.
The methods used to score a wine are personal to the critic however, and Geddes has obviously put a lot of thought into the selection of this system, backed by his considerable experience. To me it also highlights the good news that there are now more Australian wines of top quality that can stand proud on the world stage.
But whatever the pros and cons, Geddes' move from the winemakers' own vintage rankings to point scores for the wines immediately puts the Gold Book head to head with the likes of James Halliday's Australian Wine Companion, and gives the consumer an alternative - and more succinct - guide through the maze of wine labels from which to choose today.
Five gold stars
That Australia abounds in quality wines (at least outside UK supermarket shelves) is also reflected in Geddes increasing the Gold Book’s count of ‘five-gold-star’ wines from 16 to 94, described as ‘among the great wines of the world’. So, what are they? The list on pages 390–393 tells all, a huge improvement on previous editions of Australian Wine Vintages where the only way to find them was to leaf through the book and fill it with sticky note tabs.
There are some total newcomers, like Ashton Hill Sparking Red from the Clare Valley, and Ferngrove The Stirlings, a cabernet shiraz blend from Great Southern in WA.
Most are elevations from five red stars to five golds – and names like Balnaves and Bowens through to Yeringberg and Zema will already be familiar to most wine collectors - but some wines such as Warrenmang Grand Pyrenees have leapfrogged from four reds.
One of my favourites, Dalwhinnie scores gold with three of its wines, its South West Rocks and Eagle Series Shirazes joining their Moonambel Shiraz to prove just how excellent this fabulous site in Victoria’s Pyrenees really is, and is testament to the foresight and ability of vignerons David and Sally Jones.
Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon is the first Tasmanian wine to reach gold status; congratulations also to winegrower and maker Peter Althaus. There are five pinot noirs, all Victorian, two of which are from the Mornington Peninsula along with three excellent Peninsula chardonnays. Eldridge Estate deserves special mention for scoring with both varieties. Shiraz and shiraz blends predominate, however, as reflects the premium nature of wines made from this adaptable grape variety in many Australian wine regions.
Top 100 wines
There are plenty of lists in the new Gold Book – Geddes’ Top 100 wines on p 287-389, which gives ‘breathtakingly beautiful wines in varietal and style order’, which will give readers further insight into Geddes’ palate and preferences.
Again selecting one of my favourite grape varieties there are only three pinot noirs, one of which is Penfolds Cellar Reserve to which he awards five red stars but only scores an 86… (I wonder if anyone has even invited him to a Tasmanian pinot noir tasting?) Queensland wines seem to get pretty short shrift, too; I’d have thought that at least Boireann would have made it onto the radar by now. Maybe he's not yet on theirs - after this book hits the shelves, he should be - winemakers (and marketers) take note.
Another list is the useful selection of half bottles on p 384-395, which does include some Tasmanian as well as some other premium wines (Spring Vale must make a feature of them). Wines mature faster in smaller bottles, and more people are drinking them, so this is a very useful addition. Then follows by a quick guide to regional varietal classics and blends. The wine section is rounded off by a succinct glossary of tasting terms and a new guide to after-dinner drinks, including whiskies and a few Australian liqueurs as well as fortifieds, which will reward some exploration.
The text is slightly marred by more than the odd typo – the 2011 edition will no doubt correct some of these but in these days of spellcheckers it’s hard to see how they happen, and of course spellchecking doesn’t work on numerical errors.
Wine travel guide
The additional 200 pages in Australian Wine Vintages 2010 are not wines however but a guide to wine travel, ‘intended to suit the visitor headed to wine regions by giving an overview to that area’s wines, organized by individual wineries’.
Geddes says this is largely based on feedback from customers of local wineries, and states that ‘in doing so I have often unlocked places frequented by local winemakers that food reviewers have not found, such as The Long Table in the Mornington Peninsula’ – which must be news to The Age Good Food Guide and owners Andrew and Samantha Fitzgerald, who have received considerable critical acclaim since The Long Table was established in 2003. However, it is indeed a hidden gem.
Of course when there are 68 wine regions to cover across Australia, even 200 pages cannot include everything (which is the raison d'etre of VisitVineyards.com). Nevertheless there is a good selection of restaurants, two or three places to stay in each region, and a list of Geddes’ best wineries, with addresses and other details, which will give wine travelers reliant on print a good start.
Perhaps the most valuable part of this new section is the regional overview of ‘great wines’ and wine styles, although again a lot of this has been available online for some time. However this is Geddes' own take on each region's personality.
It’s in this section though that typos turn into larger errors – for example the restaurants listed in Hobart are actually in Launceston (and curiously are different to the Launceston list), and of course like every hard copy version it’s out of date even before it’s printed, with restaurants having closed or been superceded already.
However the Gold Book had to get back from the printers in time for Fathers’ Day – and the pluses in the 2010 edition far outweigh the minor negatives.
Like all changes, Gold Book devotees might take a while to get used to them, and whether Australian Wine Vintages 2010 proves of greater value than previous editions – and there are many wine collectors who have based their entire cellars around it over the past thirty years – remains to be seen.
However it certainly equals them, and I for one will sure have fun browsing through it and discovering yet more wines I’d like to try, although with over two thousand to choose from, I might need another lifetime of wine tasting.
Here's to many more great Australian Wine Vintages.
Australian Wine Vintages 2010 by Robert Geddes MW is published by Geddes a Drink (Sydney; Sept 2009) and retails for A$34.95, in all good book stores as well as leading wine retail outlets.
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