IN EARLY NOVEMBER, I was fortunate to partake in the 12th Len Evans Tutorial. Held at the salubrious digs of Tower Lodge in Australia's Hunter Valley wine region, the tutorial comprises a series of tastings and dinners over the course of four-and-a-half days, astutely designed to pit Australia's iconic wines – past and present – against many of the very finest wines of the world. Each year, the non-Australian wines largely hail from France, but also from Italy, Spain, Germany and certain New World wineproducing countries. Australia's most well known statesman of wine, James Halliday, calls the Tutorial the “most elite wine school on Earth”.
The tutorial is not open to all and sundry, but to Australians (by proxy, or otherwise) who are seen as important cogs in the nurturing and future success of the country's wine industry. The selection process is rigorous and most applicants register a number of times before they are admitted, if they are admitted at all. Of the 12 “scholars” selected each year there are inevitably a number of winemakers, sommeliers, buyers and, this year, even a scion to one of the country's oldest and more famous wineries, in addition to a Master Sommelier and myself, the sole Master of Wine. The tutors over the course of the event were James Halliday, Iain Riggs of Brokenwood wines, and wine merchant Gary Steel, as well as Ian McKenzie and Tim James, two senior winemakers responsible for a great number of still-great Australian wines from the '60s.
The goal of the tutorial is not to gloat over the rapid ascendancy of the Australian idiom and the increasing transparency and poise of the country's wines (although this paradigm shift was certainly noticeable throughout its duration), but to draw stylistic, and thus contextual, lines among the various countries' wines and their respective regional voices. These are as reflective of traditional and cultural strictures, and their inextricable links with viticultural and vinification practices, as they are of climate, soil and other natural attributes that are relatively free from human tinkering.
Tutors and scholars gather in the spirit of Len Evans, after whom the tutorial is named. Evans hailed from the UK, but adopted Australia and Australian wines vociferously, championing their quality and ageability despite the pervasive “cultural cringe” of the '70s and '80s. A prickly personality and bellicose at times, Evans deplored mediocrity and laziness, while allowing Australian winemakers the confidence and belief to stride onto a path of future success. With his passing in 2006, young(ish) Australians at the tutorial continue to enjoy the great wines of the world in his name.
Indeed, the international perspective that participants gain during the tutorial serves as a guideline for the competent evaluation of wine quality across a litany of styles and expressions. This is consolidated with judging sessions of 30 wines (within a particular theme) served blind each morning; Masterclasses on, for example, Domaine de la Romanée Conti's crus, or Mösel Rieslings during the afternoon; and options games at dinner each evening, when wines are again served blind. For all of the students, a familiarity with the process of qualitative evaluation is the modus operandi.
Clearly, given the Australian fabric within which the tutorial is sown, the rubrics of this process, or the fashion in which wine quality is determined and perceived, are steeped in the Australian wine-show system. While this system has fielded criticism of late over its focus on technical perfection in a wine over personality, my recent experiences judging within the Australian show system – at both the Sydney Royal and National shows – indicated that there are strong endeavours at the roots level to liberate the qualitative paradigm from celebrating mere polish, to that of embracing wines that reflect whence they come, balance and drinkability. Either way, at least for me, quality is still firmly grounded in a wine's complexity, length of flavour and balance between fruitweight and a wine's structural attributes – its acidity, tannin (oak and grape) and alcohol – irrespective of whether the wine is a bit funky or immaculately clean. There was little doubt that the tutorial and its benefactors support this ideology.
And so it was that each morning I swam and rode an exercise bike, energising myself for the day ahead. The first day opened with 30 wines made from Rhône varieties. Students, as with the Australian show system, awarded each wine a score out of 20 points, with 15.5-16.5 being the equivalent of a bronze medal, 17-18 the equivalent of a silver and 18.5-20, a gold. The highlights included 2004 Jamet Côte Rôtie and 2009 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, although these wines merely set the tone for what can only be described as an onslaught of great wines.
Over the next few days, other great memories included the evocative 1945 Cos d'Estournel; the incredible polish and satin velour of the 2009 Château Palmer; the Pinotesque 1971 Château Rayas and its giddy sweet core of briary fruit; the fresh-as-adaisy and seemingly indestructible stature of the 1965 Lindemans HRB Bin 3100; the prodigious length and persistence of the 2007 François Raveneau Les Clos; 1999 Armand Rousseau Chambertin; the spiced fruitcake notes of the 1966 Seppelt Moyston Claret; the guile and skeletal lace of the 1966 Domaine de la Romanée Conti Echezeaux, and the icing on the cake, a line-up of all of the Domaine's 2009 crus on the final day, as well as the sublime 2005 and 2010 Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny.
However, let us remember that wine is not about mere lists. Wine is nothing without a context and it comes to little without the memories and stories that are interwoven within. These are made possible, of course, when wine is shared as it was at the Len Evans Tutorial. With this sentiment, let us not only toast great bottles, but also the ephemeral joy of drinking something delicious over the festive season.
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