Australian Wine Vintages 2005 - The Gold Book
Now in its 22nd edition, you no doubt have seen this book on the shelves of your local bookstore or wine shop. The Gold Book is a tall, narrow item, maybe a little taller and narrower than a standard paperback. At almost 400 pages, it isn't very thin, though. What the book contains is star ratings and winery-reported vintage information on most major wine labels produced and exported from Australia.
If you think of Australia as a small wine producing country, then this book should update you pretty quickly. The book leaves out quite a number of smaller wineries - and even so, those many-hundred pages of information are packed with data. Australia is, after all, an entire continent, and there are many different wine regions. While some smaller wine shops might only offer a few bottles from Australia as a sampler, the actual quantity of wines and vines in Australia is simply mind-boggling.
So, on to the information. Robin Bradley has been doing these reviews for almost a quarter century now, and knows a great deal about the wine industry in Australia. He gives each winery a 1-5 star rating. Like other reviewers, he has his own particular likes and dislikes. But all human beings do. Just as with other reviewers, you compare his ratings on some of your favorite wines with your own thoughts. If they generally seem in line, then you know that his palate is a good match for yours. If you find his reviews are completely different than what you thought, then it might be time to find another reviewer to follow, more in line with you taste buds.
In addition to those rating stars, there are also vintage charts, as reported by the winemaker. Each winemaker chooses a number from 1-7 representing how good that vintage was. I of course find it odd that one scale goes 1-5 and the other one goes 1-7. And even stranger, the intro explains that because "most wine writers now use 1 star as undrinkable", Robin is now only publishing entries with 2 stars or above. So you get 2-5 star winery rating, or 1-7 vintage rating. You'd think that could be a little easier with a straight 1-10 on both.
But back to the real question - "what winemaker would ever rate their own wine poorly?" And to be honest, I did see several winemakers who simply gave all of their wines "7" as a top score. The intro describes how some new winemakers would come in and immediately downgrade the previous winemaker's vintages in the next Gold Book report. A handful of wineries do show 7s with occasional 6s. And other wineries mix in 5s as well. However, you can't tell which wineries are being honest ("every single vintage came out wonderfully!") and which are being marketing-savvy ("please buy every single vintage of our wine! It's the best we could do, each year!"). Certainly over time you can learn which wineries tend to put out reliable products - but at that point you are working on your own knowledge.
The drink-when ratings are more helpful. A winemaker will tell you when a wine is past its prime. That's a normal life cycle of any wine. In fact most of the entries say Now Now Now (or nOW in one case). And then there's a price entry, which is fine for comparative values - but can fluctuate quite a bit from what your local wine shop offers a bottle for.
For many of the wines, you get a small image of the label, which can be great for a quick-reference. There are some very distinctive labels out there, and the book helps you match up the name with the picture you remember.
I feel torn with this book. I really think it's a great concept, to rate Australian wines and help people learn more about them. Australia creates immense volumes of wine each year and many wine drinkers are only just becoming aware of the options. It's been around for almost 25 years - so a lot of the odd idiosyncracies about it (size, rating scales) are now well known by the legions of fans who buy it each year. So changing something would mean re-training all of those loyal purchasers.
But looking at it as a new purchase for a wine user, there are a few issues.
First, while it's not a big "tome" on Australia, it certainly won't fit in a pocket or purse. So most of its value - as a quick way to make sure what you are buying is a good value, or will be drinkable tonight - is lost. You can't carry it along to trust more than those insidious shelf-talkers that are usually sent by the winemaker to push his or her wines. If they made it smaller, it could be carried and be a great asset in a shop. If it's not going to be carried, then why not make it a more full sized book, and include more information about the wines, to make it more useful?
Which leads us into the second point. Because it's set up as a quick-reference, all you get is those star ratings of the wineries. This isn't even of the actual wine vintages. As most of us know, a winery's wine can change *drastically* from year to year, based on the winemaker in charge, the weather, any disease issues, etc. Maybe they tried a new type of barrel and the experiment failed.
So let's say you're on a Merlot kick because you saw the movie Sideways and wanted to protest. You grab a bottle of Richmond Grove Cabernet Merlot - because, heck, the winemakers say the last 5 releases were all a 7/7 in quality. Bradley only gives the merlot line 3 stars. We know that Bradley doesn't actually drink every single wine in the book, every single year. So that 3 star could have been for this year's wine - or maybe it was how the winery was doing 5 years ago. Maybe 1998 ("7 quality") had a flavor Bradley didn't like - but the recent years would have rated a 5 star. And with all of that being said, just what DOES a 3-star taste like? There is no one single "merlot" flavor of the entire world that all Merlots everywhere should taste like. Merlots taste differently in different places. Maybe this merlot had a lot of cherry flavor. Maybe Bradley doesn't like that in a merlot and gave it a three star. But if he said "heavy cherry flavor, lots of peppermint on finish" then those who hate cherry and peppermint like Bradley would know to avoid it. Those who love cherry and peppermint would buy it by the caseloads.
I in general have an issue with reviewers who tell you what to buy. I feel strongly that reviewers should tell you what they taste, and then you should buy what you enjoy based on that. Some people hate sweet wines! That's fine. But some people love them, and some people find they don't go well with steak but go wonderfully with a shortbread dessert. That's what learning and reading about wine is all about - learning your favorite tastes, seeking out other wines you might enjoy, and expanding your horizons.
So I think this book has great basic information. It gives you the names and labels of the wineries, the different wines they make, an idea of price ranges, an idea of what the winemaker thinks about the drink-now ability of the vintages. You get Bradley's recommendations of which wine lines are better and worse, in his opinion. But for the book to be really useful, it needs to be an easy to carry size, and have just that bare-bones information - or it should be made larger, and have actual, verbal reviews of each vintage of wine - which in my opinion would be far more useful to the average wine drinker.
Author: Robin Bradley
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