In 1987, I was a young aspiring auctioneer working in the wine department at Rushton Fine Arts in Macquarie Street, Sydney with pioneering wine auctioneer Colin McWilliam. At that time the secondary wine market for fine wine was extremely limited in Australia and wine auctioneers in New South Wales were required to have a real estate licence to practice. Penfolds Grange Hermitage and Seppelt Para Liqueur Port dominated the market and imported wine represented the bulk of value, especially Bordeaux. Wine auctions were “live” and absentee bids were taken by telephone or facsimile machine. I knew almost all of the wine collectors in Sydney, mostly lawyers, doctors and bankers seeking to buy wine at bargain-basement prices. It was in some respects a golden age for buyers but in comparison to the London-centric auction market dominated by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the fine wine market in Australia was a complete backwater. Having been brought up through the prism of an old South Australian wine family, albeit in England, I was proud of our winemaking heritage and the potential of Australian fine wine. Although boutique wineries, including Balgownie, Lake’s Folly, Henschke and others, had established themselves in the wine trade, they could be picked up cheaply if sold at auction, especially if it was a cold rainy day. A bottle of Hill of Grace could be picked up for under $20.
In 1989 I wrote an article in the Australian and New Zealand Wine Journal about the wine auction market and published a list of “performers.” Soon after I moved over to establish Langton’s in Sydney, we produced a book called Langton’s Wine Investment Guide and published an updated version of the performers and entitled it Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine. The idea behind it was to build confidence in Australia’s fledgling secondary fine wine market. At the very outset, the Langton’s wine auction business struggled with the low values of Australian wine, a pathetically small market and the highest interest rates in history. The turnover of the auction business was dominated by imported wine sales, especially Bordeaux, a smattering of Burgundy, vintage Port and Champagne. In 1990, Stewart Langton came up with the idea of a poster version which required further work on the Classification. This listing of 34 wines headed up by Penfolds Grange is now known as Classification I, (although it was actually a third version). The response from the wine media was predictably acerbic.
As the Classification, and the auction market grew in traction and reputation with wine collectors, it aggravated the traditional guardians of Australia’s fine wine scene, especially the key influencers of the time. But the argy-bargy created debate and propelled the Classification forward. By the fifth edition (2010), a Langton’s classified wine was regarded by most Australian wine producers as a more significant milestone than a wine trophy or a gold medal. And now it is arguably the most famous wine classification outside Europe.
In September 2018, the seventh edition of the Classification sees the first drop in numbers from 139 to 136 wines. A new ‘Heritage 5’ (within the Exceptional category) comprising Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, Mount Mary Quintet Cabernet Blend and Wendouree Shiraz, has been introduced to reflect their celebrated status and groundbreaking influence within Australia’s fine wine scene. Best’s Thomson Family Shiraz enters the Exceptional rating for the first time. Classification VII continues to acknowledge the predominance of shiraz and cabernet and the major classic regions. It also reflects the growing interest in single vineyard pinot noir and the increasing ascendancy of chardonnay. It will still take time for alternative varieties and emerging labels to make an impression, but the original rules of “a minimum of 10 vintages made and a track record on the auction market” remain. The sentiment of auction buyers and collectors, despite all the major changes in technology, will always play the key role in defining future Classifications. It is their belief in our winemakers and the beauty of their wine that drives the shape and currency of Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.
Andrew Caillard MW is a Fine Wine Principal at Woolworths, owners of Langton’s.