Cult wines are celebrity wines. Fanned by the hyperbole of influential wine writers,
these wines are slavishly followed by a relatively small circle of wine investors
with a near-religious zeal.
The cult wine movement emerged during the1980s, gathering pace with the development
of the super-premium Californian wine industry and the information technology boom
of the 1990s. The rise of wine names like Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family and Harlan
Estate – some selling at USD$1000 or more at the height of the boom – was the catalyst
to a movement that challenged the order of the fine wine market in almost every
serious winemaking country.
The current Australian cult wine market has largely been generated by the influential
American wine writer Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator. Driven by wealthy American
and Asian buyers, it arrived with a bang in 1999. However, it had arrived during
the international market’s Indian summer. By late 2001 the market in Australia slumped
as buyers pulled back from paying ever-increasing prices. At the same time blue-chip
Langton’s Classification and emerging wines showed resilience, either maintaining
or increasing their value.
Appearing in different guises, Australian cult wines have arguably been with us
for over 50 years. In the 1950s, before the dominance of the Wine Show system and
when most Australians were largely drinking fortified wines, a small group of Australian
buyers supported producers like Leo Buring, Woodley’s, Mount Pleasant and Penfolds.
During the 1960s Chateau Reynella, Hardy’s, Henschke, Lindemans, Orlando, Seppelt,
Tyrrell’s, Wynn’s and Yalumba became prominent.
In the 1970s and 1980s a number of new wine producers captured the hearts and minds
of wine buyers. Balgownie, Hickinbotham, Mitchell, Mount Mary, Mosswood, Petaluma,
Piper’s Brook, Redman, Taylor’s, Virgin Hills, Wirra Wirra and Yarra Yering are
examples. By the late 1980s the secondary wine market, as we know it today, began
to evolve. In 1991 Langton’s introduced its first Classification of Australian Wine
to bring order into this market.
Mergers, acquisitions, tragedy and triumph have all played a role in the evolution
of the current market. Some wines from the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s have
already fallen by the wayside. Others have become established classics, deserving
their place in Langton’s Classification.
The celebrity of Australian cult wines has had an enormous impact on the order of
the overall market. The sheer strength of the most recent wave has beneficially
changed the way many Australians regard their own wine, overturning an entrenched
view of wine quality. The Wine Show System, almost a closed shop in Australia, has
overseen the homogenisation of Australian wine style over many years. Australian
wine judges and reviewers have been far too technical and prescriptive about wine
style. The irresistible rise of Australian cult wines has been a very healthy phenomenon.
It has brought back a level of debate and passion which will ensure diversity of
wine style, highlight winemaking as a craft and show that the dream of creating
exceptional wine is not just a pursuit for the rich.
Not surprisingly many winemakers who felt they had something different to offer
looked beyond our borders for affirmation. The release of the 1995 Clarendon Hill
Astralis – bagged by local opinion leaders – was called “extraordinarily well-balanced
and pure” and given 96/100 points by powerful American wine critic Robert Parker
Jr. The Australian cult wine phenomenon was possibly a reaction to closed minds
as much as the skewed power of American taste. Certainly it caught many of us off
guard and challenged the whole order of the ultra fine Australian market.
The extraordinary secondary market values – driven by Robert Parker Jr.’s points
and initially led by American and South East Asian buyers – were actually a ‘flash
in the pan’. The cult wine scene lost its intensity during the winter of the dot.com
boom. However prices at or above Penfolds Grange and Hill of Grace piqued interest.
Much of the criticism leveled against these wines is reminiscent of the ‘dry port’
argument which hampered the early years of Grange. The early entrants – including
Burge Family, Three Rivers, Wild Duck Creek, Torbreck and Noon – have largely overcome
these barbs. Indeed some of their winemaking ideas are now borrowed by their detractors.
Not all of Robert Parker Jr.’s enthusiasms, however, hit the right nerve and some
wines have ended up as one vintage wonders. The most successful are limited release
single vineyard wines which articulate a uniqueness of place. The cult wine scene
continues to play an important role in showcasing fine Australian wine to a largely
American audience. Much of the groundwork has been laid by US market entrepreneurs
John Larchet, enigmatic American importer Dan Phillips and Californian retailers
Chuck Hayward, Kyle Meyer and Steve Zanotti.
Today the sheer price of cult wines can overwhelm quality issues. Three Rivers (now
called Chris Ringland) began as a wine enthusiast’s curio, a sought-after wine among
a small number of buyers who enjoyed something different. Robert Parker Jr.’s high
scores and rave reviews launched Three Rivers onto the international market, rocketing
up prices by 400% within a single year. Excessive demand on limited supply can have
an extraordinary effect on price. Clarendon Hills, Fox Creek, Torbreck, Noon, Greenock
Creek and Wild Duck Creek followed a similar path. The market slumped fairly dramatically
by 2001 as speculative buyers dropped out of the market. At one stage Three Rivers
Shiraz attracted AUD$1400 a bottle. More realistic prices and an appreciation of
these early cult wines gentrified some of these labels. Chris Ringland Shiraz, after
suffering from a post dot.com malaise, continues to achieve a remarkable level of
interest on the market.
Since 2005 there have been a number of cult wines which have straddled into the
mainstream secondary wine market. Chris Ringland Shiraz, Clarendon Hills Astralis
Shiraz, Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz, Greenock Creek Roennfeldt Road Shiraz, Greenock
Creek Roennfeldt Road Cabernet, Kay Brothers Amery Vineyards Block 6 Shiraz, Noon
Reserve Shiraz and Veritas Hanish Shiraz – all early cult wines – were included
in Langton’s 2005 Classification of Australian Wine (IV) illustrating the evolution
and dynamic nature of the market.
Glaetzer Amon Ra Shiraz is probably the cult wine of the moment, followed by Kalleske
Shiraz and the release of its Johan George Shiraz will no doubt up the ante. Aside
from the Langton’s classified (or is it gentrified?) cult wines, Burge Family Draycott
Reserve and G3, Henry’s Drive Reserve Shiraz, Mitolo G.A.M., Two Hands Ares and
Shirvington’s brace of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are noticeable performers.
Wild Duck Creek Duck Muck Shiraz Cabernet is also greatly admired by this market
sub-set. Penfolds futures release of 2004 Bin 60A – a homage to the great 1962 Bin
60A – is already attracting significant international interest and could well cross
over to this cult genre. Tokays and muscats – hugely favoured by Robert Parker Jr.
– attract little notice from Australian collectors.
Wine investors should be very careful investing in cult wines. Their market track
record is erratic. Some buy these wines simply to drink them, some for investment
and others to hold them as trophies. From an investor’s point of view the cult wine
market illustrates the maxim that the only certainty is change. The best advice
is to learn from the experience of the most recent wave and invest in wines that
could attract enthusiasm in the future. This means vintage year, size of wine make,
regional provenance – and a certain amount of luck.
Ultimately this is a very difficult corner of the investment market. Cult wines
are generally speculative stocks. The current market is essentially driven by a
single critic. While a score of 95+ can be a king hit on the secondary wine market
it does not mean that successive vintages will perform in the same way. Indeed the
cult wine scene is only able to accommodate very few champion wines. There are actually
very few wines which repeatedly attain high points. Clarendon Hills Astralis, Chris
Ringland (Three Rivers), Greenock Creek Roennfeldt Road Shiraz and Torbreck RunRig
Shiraz – all now in Langton’s Classification – are clearly Robert Parker Jr. favourites.
The following is a list of the leading Australian cult wines past and present as
Langton’s sees it. Caveat Emptor!