Friday, October 8, 2010

Langton's Classification, Mark V

A number of reviewers have commented on the latest Langton's Classification, however, based on statistical analysis, a number of points can be made which I have not yet seen.

First of all, what does the Classification measure or reflect? It is a statistical analysis of the performance of wine at the Langton's auctions, the premier auction house in Australia. This means it is measured by wine consumers who like aged wine and by investors. As a result, it is inherently conservative, as both groups tend to favour proven names. The measure itself is performance against release price. It is therefore not an absolute measure of quality, and age-worthy wines which are not expensive can get in, as has happened with a number of cheaper Penfolds wines.

What are the trends against the last Classification, published in 2005? Let us look at three categories: which wines have dropped out, which are new and which have been upgraded (only two wines have been downgraded). Let us first look at grape varieties: Shiraz, which dominated the list in 2005, is the prime mover. Over half the new wines are Shiraz (18.5*), half of the upgrades are Shiraz (13.5*), and they also dominate the eliminated wines (6 out of 11). Cabernet Sauvignon has done well, with 8.5* new wines and 6.5* upgrades, and no elimination. Other varieties play minor roles: Pinot Noir (5 new, 3 out), Riesling (1 new, 3 upgrades), Chardonnay (1 new, 2 out), Semillon (2 upgrades). The result is clear, no major shift in grape varieties preference, except for a strong showing of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is contrary to the retail trade, where the focus is on immediate consumption.

What about regions? In the past, the Classification was dominated by wines from South Australia and Victoria. This has not changed, but the relative weight has shifted to South Australia. Victoria saw 7 out of 11 wines dropped, 4 Victorian wines were upgraded and 11 new wines added. South Australia saw 3 wines dropped, 13 upgraded and 19 added. The dominant region was the Barossa, with no wine dropped, 5.5* upgraded and 10.5* new wines. Coonawarra did pretty well, with no wine dropped, 2.5* upgraded and 5.5* new. McLaren Vale was almost as good. The other point to note is that NSW wines did better than Western Australia, thanks to Tyrells, McWilliams, Clonakilla and De Bortoli.

I find the regional results interesting. The most influential reviewers of newly released Australian wine, James Halliday and Jeremy Oliver, have a Victorian bias, and despising Robert Parker has become a bloodsport. However, in the secondary market, it is the big South Australian Shirazes which are valued most, even increasingly so. I must admit I like these wines, because they are uniquely Australian, although I am not keen on the excesses, for example Greenock Creek. Striving to make European wines here has always struck me as slightly odd. Having said this, I think we make some wonderful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

By the way, wines which have done well in my polls have scored well, with e.g. Clonakilla and Grosset Polish Hill being upgraded to the top 'exceptional' category.

Langton's does not publish the exact methodology, and I have no doubt a fudge factor is applied. What would be nice to have, though, is an auction barometer, say based on the top category, or a timeline of price realisation for Grange and Hill of Grace.

Some people who clearly did not like the outcome of this Classification have said it is irrelevant. Do we have some evidence here that maybe the most quoted review compendiums are irrelevant?

I am interested in your comments.

*the 0.5 results from a split with Coonawarra in Penfolds blended wines.


Chris Plummer said...

Admittedly I was a bit surprised to see South Australia do so well in the new classification Alontin. I would've thought that regional diversity amongst Australian drinkers might've increased across recent years, but obviously we have a bit more time to wait yet to see these results.

I can see that new varietals still continue to be on the outer, largely because they are so 'new' that few have had the time to genuinely asserted themselves as true cellaring wines, something which the secondary market always pursues.

Honestly, I can see a few Coonawarra wines on the list which should've dropped out (quality wise at least) so I can only assume it was secondary market popularity that kept them in.

I was pleased to see the likes of Polish Hill and Clonakilla make the top grade, but given some of the other promotions, I would've thought another wine which has performed well in recent years (and in your polls), Henschke's Mount Edelstone, might've also been promoted. I for one at least, believe it has performed to the standard of Clarendon Hills' Astralis and Brokenwood's Graveyard recently, and certainly it's as good as Torbreck's RunRig, at least in my mouth.

Interesting point you make about NSW vs WA, because if you look at the last 5 vintages few have done better than the Margaret River. But does this come down to the larger Sydney market?

Having attended some live wine auctions myself, I wonder how much a classification like this is defined by the wines that people are 'willing' to sell. I've always noticed that premier pinot noirs are fairly rare at auctions (as you mention) compared to shiraz/cabernet, which I've always assumed comes downs to the people who possess such wines having an unwillingness to sell them, hence; the true pinophile.

All-up I think the new classification has a lot of 'pluses' for Australian wine, which is certainly good news for Langton's/Woolworths.

Chris P

Alontin said...


thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Your point about 'willingness to sell' is an interesting one and rings true to me.

I was equally surprised and actually perplexed about the performance of Coonawarra wines, although some may have cut the corner now, but that would not have shown up in the auctions yet.

The issue about new varietals is a tricky one. Take Nebbiolo and Tempranillo. Australian wines based on these varieties have certainly improved, but they are still a long distance behind the 'originals' (certainly true for Nebbiolo).

I pretty much agree with all your comments, and I also think that by and large, this classification is a good and fairly objective barometer of Australian wine.