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Jefford on Monday: Burying the Panel

Wine Australia’s abrupt decision to end its export approval panel tastings at the end of January was an intriguing sign of change in its wine culture.

Photo of: Julian Castagna and his son Adam

The system came into being as part of a package of legislative changes in 1929, and was an excellent idea at the time. Wine spoilage was once a chronic problem for Australia. That long journey through tropical latitudes, unprotected by refrigeration, was a trial which up to a third of the often sweet, rich, low-acid wines sliding away from Australian quaysides were doomed to fail.  

It was work by the distinguished wine scientist Ray Beckwith (who celebrated his 100th birthday on February 23rd this year) in the mid-1930s on the relationship between pH and bacterial growth which provided the key to overcoming what was called, with fatal resignation, ‘sweet wine disease’. Other, later challenges (like that of brett) were met no less effectively. The export panel provided a useful backstop throughout for what was to become the most adept exporting nation in wine history.

Times, though, change. I sat in on the panel at work one afternoon in December 2009 while I was living in Adelaide. I saw excellent tasters at work in a sincere endeavour to give every wine its best chance, and there were no rejections that day. By then, though, there had been some celebrated ‘stoushes’ (to use one of my favourite Australian words) with outstanding growers like, for example, Julian Castagna in Beechworth; other recent notable failures include wines from the innovative Gary Mills at Jamsheed and the Clare Valley stalwart Dave Palmer of Skillogalee.  

What I most vividly remember, though, were how unattractive some of the wines were which sailed through the panel tasting were. These low-cost, ‘overproduction’ specials may have been technically unimpeachable, but they were aesthetically feeble. No to Castagna, but yes to these? That was the point at which I thought the panel probably served no further purpose.

I was reminded of the sceptical discussions wine commentators used to have during the 1980s and 1990s, when European wine legislators were misguidedly trying to ‘guarantee’ quality (as in the Italian DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – or the partly but not wholly similar Spanish DOCa – Denominación de Origen Calificada).  

Guaranteeing origin is feasible, provided you police the paperwork: a wine either comes from a particular place or it doesn’t. Guaranteeing quality, by contrast, is a chimera, since the notion itself is a subjective one.  

In the wine world, that has never been truer than today, as those avid for sulphur-free wines made by true believers pay up and gulp down the consequences. The only guarantees worth having in the wine world are those which embrace the subjective nature of wine appreciation. Retailers sometimes take this plunge. An example is the refund guarantee offered by Adnams in the UK. “Not happy with your wine? 1. Return it within a month. 2. Receive a full refund.” (Yes, I do have friends who have put it to the test.)

The ending of the export approval process is, I suspect, another sign among many that Australian wine creators are questioning their long-held assumption (partly born of those historical traumas) that technical rectitude is the ideal which should trump all others. Many of Australia’s wine leading wine craftsmen and women now consider truth to place as being more important than ‘perfect figures’, and are prepared to bottle wines that their forbears and mentors would have unthinkingly adjusted. Much wine loveliness seems odd at first. If it is truly lovely, drinkers will soon acquire the taste.

Adieu, export tasting panels. Now for the biggest challenge of all. When and how will Australia’s mighty wine shows adapt to these changed priorities? When, for example, will we see a revision of national show classes away from genre and towards origin?


Written by Andrew Jefford

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