Andrew Caillard joined Stewart Langton in 1989, a year after Langton had founded a fine-wine auction house in Melbourne. Caillard came on as a director and partner, to open an office in Sydney. At that time, the market for collectible wines was beginning to heat up; Langton and Caillard needed a way to measure the relative value of the top Australian bottles, so they created their own system, launching Langton’s Classification in 1991. They based the classification on two parameters: At least ten vintages made, and a track record on the secondary market.
JG: How has the list changed since 1991?
AC: When we did the first classification, it was all analog data, and maybe some auctioneer’s discretion. As an auctioneer, you might have a reserve on a wine that’s 90 bucks; somebody puts in a bid at 85 and you use your discretion. Same thing with the classification; you use your experience. It was detailed, but it was an approximation. Now there’s no room for that. It’s all based on data and you have to work bloody hard to make sure it’s right. On the other hand, with all that data, it’s not overly difficult to redo it.
JG: What do the various levels of the classification mean—Exceptional, Outstanding and Excellent?
AC: The levels are reflective of their currency in the auction market. We don’t use First, Second and Third, as we thought that would be too close to copying the 1855 Bordeaux classification. The Exceptionals are like the firsts; the Outstanding wines are like the Super Seconds. The Excellent are the wines people trade a lot.
JG: What kinds or styles of wines have remained at or near the top?
AC: The wines that have remained on the classification in a meaningful way, they not only have a quality renown, but they also have a story behind them, a narrative that’s meaningful and, to some degree, inspirational. They provoke conversation.
For the seventh classification, we created the Heritage Five—all linked to the history of Australian wine. Classifications have to evolve; they have to have a purpose. Out of the 22 wines within the Exceptional level, there are wines that made a significant contribution to the history and the story of Australian wines. Penfolds’ Grange is the story of the industry redefining itself after World War II, using traditional resources and modern technology. Henschke’s Hill of Grace, from Eden Valley, with vines going back to the 1860s, commemorates the story of the Silesian settlers in Barossa and the value of single-vineyard sites. Wendouree Shiraz, from a working nineteenth-century winery, reflects the aspirations of nineteenth-century vignerons. Mount Mary tells the story of reestablishing Yarra Valley as a great wine region and the development of a modern Australian fine wine aesthetic. Leeuwin Art Series, based on the Gin Gin clone, shaped Margaret River Chardonnay as a collectible category, and reflects the generosity of spirit that underlies the whole character of Australian wine.
AC: Definitely. Single-vineyard wines have been one of the main drivers of the classification over the last twenty years. You can track it through the various classifications. Some highly influential winemakers thought it was not possible to make great Barossa red wines from single vineyards, even as late as the mid-1990s. That perspective was based on a technical view of wines, rather than an emotional view. That’s one of the key things that happens with single vineyards—it’s the emotional value of wine. I grew up alongside the Australian wine show system, this culture of quality and what quality was. People prided themselves on this attachment to the unemotional, technical side of wine—rather than what the wine is, what it represents, what it stands for, what people who make it believe in. We’ve come up with this aesthetic based on technical numbers. That well-meaning, but narrow-minded, rather arrogant way of looking at wine has been dismantled. Twenty years ago, senior wine judges like Len Evans, James Halliday, Brian Croser and others were dictating the quality aesthetic. Now things have changed: You have the natural-wine movement as well as sommeliers, who are bringing another element to Australian wine.
JG: You also mentioned the importance of old-vine assets to many of the wines on the list—Hill of Grace dating to the 1860s; Turkey Flat Barossa Shiraz, planted in the 1840s; Great Western’s 1868 Concongella shiraz plantings; the Hunter Valley’s 1867 planting at the Old Hillside Vineyard. Do you find collectors seek out wines from old vines, or is it that wineries tend to make their top selections from those old vines? Is there a financial model that sustains Australia’s remarkable patrimony of ancient vineyards, or is it an emotional attachment?
AC: I’ve done an enormous amount of research on the transmission of vine stock in Australia in the nineteenth century. One reason we have so much is because of quarantine laws. When South Australia adopted the Phylloxera Act in 1899, it immediately set about restricting the movement of vine material. That managed to protect the vineyards from devastation and stopped new material from coming in. Though a little bit came in during the 1970s, virtually nothing came in to South Australia for over a hundred years. People had to develop their vineyards with the stock that was in South Australia, which is unique in terms of its genetic material. We have this incredible pool of surviving old vines and genetic material that can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In terms of what that means, and what I find so moving, is that it’s symbolic of Australia’s early aspirations as a colony. When you’re drinking a bottle of Hill of Grace or Best’s Reserve, you’re drinking history. Beyond style—where people say, ‘I like this’ or ‘Not this, it’s too fruited’ or ‘The tannins are too present’—what makes these wines beyond fascinating is the human factor. It’s a story of ambition that I hadn’t appreciated in such an emotive way until recently.
For nearly three decades, Langton’s Classification has provided a data-driven reference for buyers of collectible Australian wine. Tamara Grischy has been running data for the classification since the second version, in 1996, when a lot of silent auction bids were coming in by phone, fax and mail. She moved the business online in 2001, and now heads up Langton’s Auctions. Grischy handled all the number crunching for the seventh classification, looking back over four years of data. Along with a minimum of ten vintages produced and a track record at auction, “We consider the currency of the wine,” she says, “looking at price, volume and supply.” She then reviewed the data with Caillard and Langton’s general manager, Jeremy Parham. The history of the classification itself involves a growing demand for fine wine in Australia; according to Grischy, participants in Langton’s Auctions have increased tenfold since the early 1990s; it now has more than 13,000 active buyers and sellers. She notes that the profile of the bidders has changed: Though still predominantly male, the age range, once mostly 45-to-50-plus, has widened to include more buyers in their late twenties and thirties. There has also been increased activity in the Asian market, both in Hong Kong and Singapore, “and we have a lot more Chinese clients who live here in Australia,” she says. At the same time, activity from the US has lessened over time; Grischy points to the difficulty of shipping wine to the US, and a fall-off in importers actively assisting collectors in buying Australian wines. Overall, the increased membership reflects a significantly larger market and, as that market has deepened, the number of wines has increased from 34 in the original classification to 136 in the latest. See the entire list.