Exploring Australian Wines: Langton’s Classification VI

Over the past few years, Wine Australia has been beating the drum loudly for more restrained, elegant and terroir-driven wines, from thoughtful producers in traditional regions and from newer producers in cooler climates.This is in contrast to wines that I associate with Australia from the 2000s, which (at least as we saw too often in Ontario) followed an international trend towards wines with high alcohol, over-ripe and even raisined fruit, and sometimes excessive new oak. But Australia has a history of fine and balanced winemaking that has never gone away, though perhaps at times it has been a little hidden from sight. The clearest link between the renewed focus on restraint and elegance and the old traditions is nicely provided by the Langton’s Classification of Australian wine.

Langton's Wines_1_SIn early February, I was able to attend a tasting of twelve wines from the Lantgon’s Classification in Toronto, presented by Mark Davidson of Wine Australia, with some fascinating additional commentary from Wynn’s winemaker Sue Hodder. To my mind, the Langton’s Classification has become the most important and influential classification system outside of Bordeaux. Langton’s originated as a wine auction house in 1988, and conducts auctions of fine wines on a weekly basis. Their classification system attempts to rate wines in an objective manner: eligible wines must have a history of at least ten vintages, and have a successful track record in the secondary auction market.

While I had hoped to find more concrete details about how the classification system works, it seems that Langton’s does not disclose much information. A tiny elaboration on their website states that a wine’s performance on the secondary market is a function of “the volume of demand it attracts and the prices it realizes”. It certainly makes good sense that relatively high volumes of buying and selling, combined with stable or perhaps rising prices, together provide an excellent indication that a wine has a good and ongoing reputation — although the devil is in the details.[Note 1] Despite the lack of complete disclosure of its methodology, the classification is well respected, and its reputation for objectivity is widely endorsed.

The first classification was presented in 1991 with 39 wines, followed by updates in 1996, 2000, 2005 and 2010. The sixth edition of the classification was released in May 2014, featuring 139 wines in three classifications. From top to bottom these are Exceptional (21 wines), Outstanding (53 wines) and Excellent (65 wines).

Our tasting included twelve wines: seven from the top Exceptional category, three Outstanding, and two Excellent. They were very fine overall, and their high quality reflects very well on the long-term excellence of Australian wine. The wines displayed both elegance and verve, and in some cases also the power that can be an important part of their heritage — the best from traditional Australia neatly dovetails with the most recent trends. I will highlight five of the wines, and list the rest. All are worthy of extended comment.

bottles1-3_SThose who are less familiar with Australian wines tend to think only about red wine — Shiraz for sure, possibly Cabernet Sauvignon, and just maybe Grenache and blends. In our local market that view is almost inevitable, given the lack of representative Aussie whites. But the first three wines, a Riesling, a Semillon, and a Chardonnay, were a welcome reminder of their potential brilliance.They are full of life, truly elegant, and are unencumbered by intrusive winemaking: new Australia indeed!

  • 2010 Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling, Eden Valley, SA. Agent B&W Wines, ~$24.95.
    • Classification: Excellent
    • Green apple, lime, steely minerality. Firm, high acid, very dry, a balancing texture that suggests a hint of sweetness, although the wine is very dry at 3.1 g/l residual sugar with a very low pH of 2.91. Delicious, showing just the beginnings of bottle age.
  • 2007 Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, Hunter Valley, NSW. Agent E&J Gallo, ~$59.00
    • Classification: Outstanding
    • Bone dry, high acidity, fairly neutral, light floral and lemon-lime nose and palate, slightly fleshy but backed by stony minerality. Just beginning to change, with a nuance of toast from bottle age. Lovely wine.
  • 2013 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River, WA. Agent Terra Firma, ~$99.00.
    • Classification: Exceptional
    • Fresh, crisp, lime, red apple and pear fruit, white flowers, saline minerality. A suggestion of toast and blanched almonds — oak is subtle and integrating. Very fine indeed.

Of the nine red wines, the first four were Shiraz, all from the top Exceptional category, the fifth was a Cabernet-Shiraz blend, while the last four were Cabernet Sauvignons.

Langtons 4I want to highlight the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, which I’ve had the privilege of tasting several times with Bruce Wallner at his SommFactory. The first vintage of the Shiraz Viognier was 1992, and by 2005 its reputation had risen to such an extent that entered the Langton’s classification at the Outstanding level. As of 2010 it was raised to Exceptional, where it remains today, entrenched as an iconic part of traditional or establishment Australia. But it also has everything (and more) that  I would hope for from new Australia as well.

  • 2013 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District. Agent Alta Vista, ~$95.00.
    • Classification: Exceptional
    • Both tart and ripe raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and cherry fruit, with perfumed violets and roses, savoury and peppery notes. Crisp acidity, slightly elevated alcohol that shows as body rather than heat, firm but fine-grained tannins, vibrant throughout and fresh on the finish. So enticing now, but it has everything in place for the very long term. Absolutely captivating.

Langtons5The second red wine that I want to highlight is Wynn’s “Black Label” Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, the second bottling of the estate, junior to their highly regarded John Riddick Cabernet listed below. This wine is available annually through Vintages at the LCBO, and is one of the great, long-standing Cabernet values available in Ontario. The first vintage was 1954, and it is a long-standing member of the Classification (I have found evidence that it was in the classification of 2000, and it may have appeared earlier.)

  • 2013 Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, SA. Agent Treasury Wine Estates, $27.95 (LCBO)
    • Classification: Excellent
    • Ripe blackberry, black currant and plum fruit, savoury black olive, dried herbs, mint, a suggestion of underbrush and earth. Brisk acidity, moderate alcohol, sinewy tannins, a deep, underlying graphite and iron minerality. A slightly roasted character shows the already-integrating oak. Truly expressive of the grape.

The remaining wines were:
Langtons 6to8_S

  • 2013 Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, Hunter Valley, NSW. Agent Lifford, ~$169.95
    • Classification: Exceptional
  • 2008 Rockford Broken Press Shiraz, Barossa Valley, SA. Agent B&W Wines, ~$95.00.
    • Classification: Exceptional
  • 2010 Torbreck RunRig Shiraz, Barossa Valley, SA. Agent Noble Estates, ~$220.00.
    • Classification Exceptional

Langtons 9 to 12_S

  • 2010 Majella The Mallea Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, Coonawarra, SA. Agent Halpern, ~$70.00
    • Classification: Outstanding
  • 2012 Moss Wood Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, WA. Agent Terra Firma, ~$120.00
    • Classification: Exceptional
  • 2012 Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, SA. Agent Treasury Wine Estates, ~$88.89.
    • Classification: Exceptional
  • 2010 Henschke Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon, Eden Valley, SA. Agent B&W Wines, ~$188.
    • Classification: Outstanding

Note

1. Langton’s points out that their database has “over a million auction price realizations”, presumably over the 28-year period from 1988 to 2016, and covering hundreds if not thousands of wines. While this is certainly an impressive database, my capital markets experience and trading background suggest that this is not nearly enough trading to guarantee robust price discovery. Nevertheless I haven’t heard or read of any serious complaints or issues, and apparently the opacity of the criteria does not raise vocal objections from the Australian wine community. It is worth stating that I have no problems with a significant subjective or judgemental component, as long as that judgement is made at arms length from the producers.

Santé

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