Len the Legend: Interview with Len Evans

  • Wednesday 11 February 2004

The quest for greatness led the doyen of Australian wine, Len Evans, to set up his own tutorials for aspiring wine judges. JAMES HALLIDAY introduces the school, while overleaf we give one member of the trade a chance to attend this year’s event

Leonard Paul Evans AO, OBE has always had the vision grand – a dogged, stubborn pursuit of the very best. Judge, taster, teacher, maker and promoter of wine, Evans is credited with contributing more than any other in advancing Australian wine. It was his vision that led the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia to move beyond five-year forecasts, and, in 1995, to prepare what already looks like being a highly successful 30-year plan.

At times it has nearly been his financial undoing, particularly when coupled with his blythe generosity, offered without any calculation of either the cost or likely benefit. Today he presides over the upmarket boutique Hunter Valley winery Tower Lodge, complete with luxury accommodation and 18-hole minigolf course.

It is fitting that the Len Evans Tutorial, an integral part of this, is so-named. Only Evans could have come up with the concept, and persuaded enough Australian wine companies to provide enough sponsorship to allow the concept to move from idea to reality in 2001.

The plan was to bring together 12 of Australia’s most promising young members of the wine industry – winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and so forth – and expose them to a week’s intensive tasting and discussion of the best wines in the world. The aim was to identify those with the best palates, and bring them into the wine show judging circle. While that remains a key objective, the emphasis has shifted slightly to also foster an ambition to make Australian wines of comparable quality to the best tasted during the week.

The original objective has been spectacularly successful, with all of the students (as they are called) gaining entry to either the Sydney, Adelaide and/or Canberra National wine shows. The shift has come about to counter suggestions that the Australian wine industry has become complacent after achieving such extraordinary success with exports (coming from nowhere 20 years ago to be the third largest by volume in the world). I am not persuaded that there is in fact much, if any, complacency; on the other hand, inspiring key younger players in the industry to strive to make ever better wine is wholly laudable.

Funding a one-week course in the art and science of wine tasting is a notable commitment. Even without taking into account the travel and living expenses of the students for the week, providing dinners suitable for a vertical tasting of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can’t be done on a budget. Most demanding, however, is the provision of an endless stream of great wines. Evans raided his own cellar to provide some of the wines, and other tutors did likewise. But the aspirations for better and older wines demanded more funding.

Basil Sellers, of the Tower Estate group, added to the Au$60,000 given by Australian supporters. He considers the work of the tutorial wholly appropriate: ‘The final objective is to promote the making of great Australian wines.’ The hope is that bequests, as well as sponsorships, will enable the Trust to improve year by year.

A glimpse of the wines for the 2002 programme shows that the bar has already been set high. Each morning is given over to the blind tasting and judging of 30 wines of the same variety, the afternoons to masterclasses, and the evenings to dinners, with a dazzling array of wines of every shape, hue and provenance.

Chardonnay was first up. The wines (placed in random order) came from Burgundy (including six grands crus), California, New Zealand and Australia. Then it was the turn of Shiraz, with the great names of the Rhône (Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas), sitting alongside those of Chile, Tuscany, California and Australia (Grange, d’Arenberg, Jasper Hill, Henschke Hill of Grace, Brokenwood Graveyard). Cabernets and Cabernet blends were represented via first-growth Bordeaux through Napa icons (Spottswoode, Opus One) to Tuscany, Waiheke Island and Hawke’s Bay. Pinot Noir came in the shape of Burgundy grands crus and premiers crus, plus the top Oregon Pinots, the best of New Zealand (Otago, Marlborough and Martinborough), and the leading Australian names. Each student gave his or her verdict on the wines blind.

The masterclasses featured the great wines of Europe: Champagne presented by Ian McKenzie; Italy (Barolo and its sub-regions) by David Ridge; Riesling (Brian Croser); Burgundy (20 red and white grand crus) by Gary Steel; Bordeaux (grands crus and super seconds) by myself; great sweet wines of the world (Iain Riggs); and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, by Len Evans. The tutors have the privilege of returning year after year, the students – successful or otherwise – have a one in a lifetime chance. Not surprisingly, the number of those seeking a place has grown exponentially each year, and will no doubt continue to do so.

James Halliday is a world-renowned wine expert, and author of more than 30 books and 2,000 newspaper and magazine articles.

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