This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
The Australian wine industry is in flux. Supplies of inexpensive wine produced with maximum added water and minimum human hand that have underpinned Australia’s export effort have been drying up, quite literally. Thanks to the fierce drought that persists in southern Australia, the wine glut is now definitively over. Spot prices of bulk Australian wine rose from Aus$0.40 in 2006 to over Aus$1 a litre in 2007. This year more vine growers than last have been buying increasingly expensive water to grow grapes for the harvest currently underway. The 2008 Australian vintage may be slightly bigger than originally predicted, 1.4 m tonnes (same as in 2007) as opposed to 1.2m tonnes, but this is still much smaller than the 21st century average, and is certainly no cheaper to produce.
The biggest all-Australian wine company Foster’s started sourcing wine for their popular Lindemans brand in South Africa for the US market and Chile for the UK market (which seems geographically inconvenient) in 2006. This practice, which Troy Hey of Foster’s corrected me by calling “regional expressions of the Lindemans winemaking ethos and quality standards rather than bulk commercial wine exports”, is likely to be applied to other brands as supplies of basic Australian wine become scarcer and more expensive. The phenomenal Australian wine export success story is no longer quite so Australian.
There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine’s being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. Back in the mid 1990s I encountered a director of one of Australia’s biggest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile.
The upshot is likely to be, as those exporting Australian wine are at pains to tell us, that cheap Australian wine is a thing of the past. We must refashion our image of Australian wine and realise that it will increasingly be a connoisseur’s treasure rather than a commodity. We must all familiarise ourselves with the interesting nooks and crannies on Australia’s wine map and realise, as I feel I have been banging on about for ages, that Australia is just as capable of producing hand crafted, terroir-driven, small company wines as anywhere else.
It is certainly true that Australia has no shortage of distinctive wine, and that it has very much more to offer than the BOGOF brands that have dominated British supermarkets and the super-concentrated, high–alcohol Shiraz about which most fuss has been made in the US.
I have written here already about the delights that Tasmania, Australia’s most southerly wine region, has to offer. Andrew Pirie’s own label is a useful new addition to what’s on offer from this green island. Next coolest and greyest state is Victoria, which is surely set to benefit considerably from the generic focus on Australia’s cooler climate wine areas, if regions such as Gippsland on the eastern Victorian coast, famous for Bass Phillips’ earthy, surprisingly Burgundian Pinot Noir, manage to survive the current drought. On the far western coast of Victoria is Henty, neither a pretty nor a well known name, but it should be to judge from the superb quality of Crawford River’s Rieslings. Both 2005 and 2004 are in fine form and look likely to be for some years to come. Crawford River’s Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand suggests Henty is too cool for this late ripening variety.
Indeed Australians have fallen so madly in love with Shiraz that they have all but disowned the Bordeaux grape Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a great shame. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, in my Davos tastings two different vintages, 2001 and 1995, of Moss Wood Cabernet from Margaret River more than held their own when tasted with some of the world’s finest. Umamu and Hamelin Bay look interesting new names from Margaret River, now joined by an exciting range of other, even cooler Western Australian wine regions.
But back to the (relatively) cool Victorian coast. Geelong and, especially, the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne with its high density of ambitious vine growers such as Kooyong, Ten Minutes by Tractor and, the best-distributed, Stonier are surely precisely the sort of regions to send a shiver down a French spine in that they fly in the face of the stereotype of Australian wine as being a solely technical, big company product.
Australian wine writer Campbell Mattinson has hit on a great title for his latest book which attacks the notion of this sterotype. In Why the French Hate Us he demolishes the myth of corporate Wine Australia with all sorts of riveting tales of idiosyncratic individuals. It’s just a shame that, to judge from the book, he doesn’t seem to have met a Frenchman or been to France. Someone should fly him there – although I have a nasty feeling that this passionate wine lover might never return.
Tasmania and Victoria prove eloquently that Australia can produce fine, cool climate wines such as Pinot Noir – even if, as I say, drought is a constant threat. The quality of wine coming out of the Yarra Valley on Melbourne’s doorstep continues to soar, yielding not just delicate Pinots and Chardonnays from the likes of De Bortoli, Yering Station and Phil Sexton’s Giant Steps, but also some stunningly serious Sauvignon Blanc such as Phi’ s Lusatia Park Vineyard examples made in conjunction with Shelmerdine by Steve Webber of De Bortoli. These Sauvignons are not cheap (£17.95 at Noel Young, also from Oddbins Fine Wine) but nor should they be. This is (red basalt) terroir-driven wine if ever was one, as the strikingly similar Chardonnay from the same plot proves.
In inland Victoria are all sorts of isolated patches of vines producing unexpectedly quirky and unusual wines. Many of these such as Best’s, Craiglee and Giaconda have long-established reputations but more recent yet no less interesting inland Victorian producers whose wines can be found outside Australia include Castagna, Curly Flat, Greenstone and Sanguine Estate.
New South Wales also seems to be sprouting cooler wine regions at a rapid rate. Who could resist the region named Tumbarumba, for example? Certainly not the blenders of some of Australia’s most famous Chardonnays such as Penfolds Yattarna (“white Grange”) and Hardy’s Eileen, who, to judge from recently streamlined vintages, clearly value the freshness, almost austerity, of fruit from Tumbarumba’s high altitude vineyards.
Australian wine is evolving rapidly, in response not just to the vicissitudes of nature but to the caprices and changing fashions of a global market. Even the staple, cockle-warming reds of South Australia with their unusual dependence on old vines are becoming more refined. It would be a big mistake to pigeonhole what is still, just, the world’s most successful wine exporter.