Somebody should give Rudy Kurniawan a job blending wine.
The great Ian Hickinbotham's honesty in labelling: Kaiser Stuhl Barossa Claret 1954, "with 30% 1957" ... honest winemakers admit that much better wine can frequently be made by cross-vintage blending ... this bottle was in top form when I drank it in 1984.
You can see one version of Rudy's story in the documentary Sour Grapes.
Australia has had a few winemakers busted for breaking wine law.
My first encounter with shady wine stuff was at Len Evans' Rothbury winery in the early 'eighties, when I witnessed the delivery of enough essence of oak chips to make a great volume of Chardonnay taste a bit like it was barrel-aged. Such essence was and is illegal in wine. I was fascinated that it wasn't labelled "essence of fine French oak" but "essence of oak chips". Ew.
The next major scam I walked into was during my investigation of a likely apple-juice substitution racket a few years later in 1989. By then, I had learned to care. A wine tanker driver showed me his log book in the top pub at Truro. He had fastidiously recorded deliveries, to some very famous wineries indeed, of apple juice from a hail-damaged Victorian crop. On the pop charts, a new thing called Sauvignon blanc looked as if it was overtaking the horrid Chardonnay of the day, and some suspected that in lieu of having actual vineyards planted with Savvy-b, they could emulate it with some green apple juice.
Eventually George called to say they'd found sorbitol in six of Murray Tyrrell's wines, and were proceeding against him. Tyrrell's Pty Ltd was fined $120 in their local Cessnock courthouse and withdrew and destroyed a vast amount of wine from the international marketplace. They claimed a $700,000 export loss.
Things have been fairly quiet on the Australian wine police front since then, perhaps because in both instances the authorities used their punishments as proof of the efficacy of Australia wine regulations. They did their job; nobody died. They did, and would continue to protect the marketplace - particularly the international one - from such scandal.
What fascinates me is that while it's hard to imagine an industry as large, as troubled, and involving so many people as Australian wine production, those busted weren't engaging in clever and extremely lucrative blending of wine to emulate greatness, but were simply adding chemicals.
In Murray Tyrrell's case, he denied adding apple juice, but admitted readily to adding sorbitol, a sweetening, viscous agent used commonly to keep tobacco moist and ball point ink runny. It is also the principal efficacious ingredient in enemas. Murray had been on the New South Wales committee which decided on the permitted additives list, yet he readily admitted to the illegal sorbitol additions and pleaded guilty.
He seemed to think that adding sorbitol was better than apple juice.
"All these things they're saying about me are completely unfalse," he told me.
Murray Tyrrell, left, at The Lodge with then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, whose turn it was to host Len Evans' Last Bottle Club. Mainly famous winemakers, this elite old blokey lot met regularly. Each member would bring the last bottle existing of a great wine, many ofwhich were worth enormous amounts of money.
At about the same time, Murray also told a gathering of wine writers that he'd admitted to Premier Neville Wran that local aluminium smelter pollution was so bad the grapes wouldn't ripen so he, and others, had been forced to chaptalise their wines, or add sugar, which was illegal.
Not one winery, just by the way, was ever convicted of substituting apple juice for wine. Neither did I ever see a bottle or bladder admitting to the inclusion of apple juice. I still wonder where it all went.
I'd love to have a play with a bucket of mains water, some sorbitol (to add viscosity, mouthfeel and the illusion of sweetness), some essence of oak chips (to emulate barrels) and some oenocyanin for colour. I'm sure I could find some cheap bulk pomegranate juice, blackcurrant essence, cherry and/or beetroot from inferior or damaged crops to use sparingly for the elusive fruit flavour, a splash of ethanol and bingo! A bargain grape-free red for the discount bins!
We need great blenders like Rudy, and much better marketers to work out how to honestly package and sell the superior product.
Call it non-vintage, like the majority of the expensive sparkling wine made in Champagne.
There's obviously a market out there.
Read here of the most recent scam DRINKSTER uncovered.