A corker debate

Numbers game: Whether a 20-point or a 100-point scale, rating wine is a complicated business. Photo: Graham TidyThe late Sir Kingsley Amis called it boozemanship: ”the art of coming out ahead when any question of drinking expertise or experience arises.” In a world awash with wine controversies, a crack team is about to wade into some of wine’s most hotly contested topics.

A session on March 2 at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival promises outspoken debating and debunking of everything from vintage variation to closures, natural winemaking and scoring systems. What do those terms actually mean?Varying vintages

Wine grapes are a once-a-year crop, and the weather in any year – hot, cold, dry, wet – at any given location affects how the grapes and resulting wines taste. This is ”vintage variation”. Conventional wisdom has it that this variation is most evident in Old World regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux; indeed, old-school, Old-Dart commentators have been known to contend it does not exist in sunny Or-Stralia.

Although most obvious in marginal, cooler climates, it occurs everywhere to some degree.

Is it desirable? Producers with trusted mass-market labels aim to deliver a consistent product and will minimise annual differences, often by blending grapes grown in different regions and conditions.

Premium winemakers aiming to express the character of a particular patch of land in an individual year are more likely to embrace these variations – up to a point, as they want their wines to be recognisable from year to year.We need closure

Wine-speak for the thing that keeps the wine in the bottle, a ”closure” is – in most of the world – a cylinder of bark taken from a cork tree in southern Europe. Since the 1980s there has been increasing concern about cork’s propensity to harbour and impart a chemical compound that makes otherwise good wine smell and taste like mouldy carpet – aka ”corked”. The cork industry has spent several zillion euros trying to counter this problem: through research; by changing industrial practices; and with international public relations campaigns. Cork remains the closure of choice in most countries, but most Australian producers regard corks with a vampire’s enthusiasm for garlic. Here, we prefer metal screwcaps. What’s not to like about screwcaps? Those who take the long view say we do not yet have a clear picture of how wines made to age for the long term will fare under screwcap. A criticism is that some wine sealed this way can be ”reductive”, a polite way of saying it smells like an egg sandwich in a warm lunchbox.Natural vs unnatural

Sound the klaxon and reach for your radiation suit – nothing generates explosive debate like the N-word. Natural practitioners advocate minimal intervention in the winemaking process and are often organic or biodynamic growers. They generally eschew additions (such as packet yeasts) used in conventional winemaking. The adventurous leave wines unfiltered; others use vessels such as clay amphorae or concrete ”eggs” for maturation; a few make ”orange” wines from white grapes fermented with the grape skins.

Supporters argue these wines are more exciting and a truer expression of the fruit than conventional, industrially produced wines. Detractors call it lazy, cowboy winemaking that results in unbalanced wines incapable of ageing well. In the demilitarised zone are those who applaud minimal intervention but believe it requires more skill and judgment than simply letting nature do her thing – and mutter that the word ”natural” is smug, divisive and undefined. This group includes makers who have worked for decades according to sustainable, minimal-intervention principles and methods, but neither use nor like the label ”natural”.

Some self-proclaimed natural wines show great character and finesse; some are proudly weird and – to their fans – wonderful; some simply seem off. Those without at least a little sulphur dioxide added at bottling can go from good to nasty quickly.Pssst, wanna score?

Wine is sunlight held together by water; bottled poetry; proof God wants us to be happy. So said Galileo, Robert Louis Stevenson and Benjamin Franklin. Can something so elusive be expressed in a number? To many wine buyers, an ostensibly objective score is easier to understand than a description.

So what’s the problem? Objectivity has its limits. One critic’s 90-point wine is not necessarily another’s.

Australia’s wine shows have traditionally used a 20-point scoring system, but the 100-point scale favoured by many critics is increasingly being adopted. Can you just multiply a 20-point score by five to get an equivalent 100-point score? Certainly not, say the critics. Although the 100-point scale appears more precise, it is generally applied in a narrower band between 80 and 100.

Acqua Panna Global Wine Experience – Storm in a Wine Glass, Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, March 2, with Tim Atkin MW, Sophie Otton, Steve Webber and Tim White, moderated by Mike Bennie.