Forget What You Think You Know About Australian Wine
Having just returned from an awesome two week trip hosted by Wine Australia, I want to share with you some of the things I learned while out there. It was truly an eye opening trip, packed with information, visits to a variety of different vineyards and wineries, and lots and lots of tastings! It’s hard a life, I know
So my first thought as a result of the trip is: Forget what you think you know about Australian wine. The days of high alcohol, simple, fruity ‘sunshine in a glass’ style wines are gone. Or at least on the way out. What are taking their place are structured, complex, balanced and thoughtful wines with a long history and a bright future!
And there are a few ways the traditional idea of Australian wines are being challenged, both in the vineyard and winery.
But before we get to the human influence, one thing that needs to be understood is the natural influence – the range of climates, temperatures, weather conditions, soil types. Think Australia is all warm? Try hanging out in the hillier parts of Yarra Valley on a cool spring morning. Most definitely cool climate! Don’t associate Australia with good soils? Chat to the guys who grow the grapes here, who can tell you that their soils are basically eroded mountains from over 650 million years ago! Think weather conditions are pretty stable? Turns out depending on the region you can have between 2 and 6 seasons of weather in a year. That’s a lot of variables. And so already it becomes clear that the possibility of different styles of wine available within this one huge country.
So back to some of the vineyard factors – the big one here has to be the concept of ‘New World’, the handy catch all label used to apply to Southern hemisphere wines, which doesn’t really indicate the history of wines produced in the region. Australia has the oldest Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre vines in the world, dating back to 1860. And these are not just ornamental vines, they are still producing fruit that goes into some of the most highly acclaimed wines from this country. Not all regions have vines as old of this of course, but even 'newer' vineyards have vines going back decades.
Another factor that is often misunderstood is the diversity of grape varieties – we tend to have a rather biased perspective that Australia is mostly Chardonnay and Shiraz, but you can also get outstanding wines made from Riesling, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. And there is also a growing trend for Mediterranean varietals such as Fiano, Vermentino, Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, Sangiovese… and so on. And then if you consider those Chardonnay and Shiraz wines, the diversity of styles within those two varieties is surprising. Chardonnay is no longer heavily oaked, but fresher, lighter, and more complex. Shiraz can vary from rich, full bodied spicy styles to delicate, fragrant, floral styles. And much more besides. The point here is really that you can’t describe ‘Australian wine’ neatly in a sentence. There is no single style, no homogeneity – and this is a good thing! What it does mean is that it will be more of a challenge for us wine drinkers to get to grips with the diversity of grapes and styles. So you know what this means? More drinking!
When it comes to winemaking, once again there are no rules, but there certainly are trends. Picking the grapes earlier to keep more acidity and less sugar, whole bunch or whole berry fermentation, gentle tannin extraction and more careful use of oak – typically in large format puncheon style barrels. The idea seems to be more to change tactics to suit what the grapes need each year, rather than using the same method regardless of ripeness or flavour. This not only creates wines that are fresher and more balanced in the short term, but also have the ability to age in bottle - another factor which is often overlooked for Aussie wines.
Hopefully this gives you some idea of what Australia is about and how it is changing. Over the next few weeks I will be adding some more detailed posts, including topics on Old Vines, new trends, phylloxera and a few others! So keep checking back.
In the mean time, I wanted to pick out a few highlights from the trip. Now, I don’t like picking favourites, and this by no means an exhaustive list, but here's just a few wines that left a particularly good impression!
1. Yeringberg Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Yarra Valley
Tasted in their winery which was also like a museum, this is a cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon from Yarra Valley that blew me away. Still fresh at 12 years old, with concentrated flavour and gently tannins.
2. Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2002, Canberra
Did you know they made good wine in Canberra? I didn’t! This wine was beautifully complex, rich and balanced.
3. Pewsey Vale Contours Riesling 2012, Eden Valley
From biodynamic vineyards this is a delicate style of Riesling (don’t say petrol!), with fresh citrus fruit and just a hint of maturity.
4. Sons of Eden Autumnus Shiraz 2012, Barossa
A powerful and intense single vineyard Shiraz with fragrant blueberry and white pepper notes. Not made every year so certainly one to look out for.
5. Brokenwood ‘ILR Reserve’ Hunter Valley Semillon 2011
Pure, unoaked Semillon showing bright acidity, mineral flavours and classic Semillon nuttiness.
6. Wirra Wirra Absconder Grenache 2016, McLaren Vale
Grenache is big news in South Australia, and this was one of my favourites. Frangrant and spicy supported by structure tannins. Plus they have a trebuchet in their vineyard. Nuff said.
7. Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2012, Macedon Ranges
The epitome of a well balanced Chardonnay. Fruit flavour but also a soft, rounded texture from oak. Lovely stuff.
8. Coldstream Hills Deer Farm Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Yarra Valley
Vibrant but well balanced, smooth tannins, and complexity of flavour. One of many excellent Pinot Noirs.
9. Hahndorf Hill GRU Gruner Veltliner 2017, Adelaide Hills
A variety not often associated with Australia, this was a Gruner with opulent texture, fresh acidity and variety of flavours.
10. Ochota Barrels ‘A Sense of Compression’ Grenache 2017, Basket Range
A natural philosophy on winemaking, a rock star collaboration, a gorgeous wine. What more could you want?
NB: Not all of these wines available in the UK… yet!