Australian wine

Australian wine is very democratic – the best wines share the same genes as the crowd-pleasers, they’re made of the same stuff but the essence of many producers’ top wines such as Rosemount’s Show range , Hardy’s Eileen Hardy wines , Brown Brothers’ Patricia and many of Penfolds’ labels – at least as far as reds are concerned – is in their sheer concentration. Part of the impetus for making these dense, heavily extracted wines is the popularity of wine competitions. I once sat next to a leading Australian winemaker at a dinner to promote his multi-award-winning flagship range. After tasting through them, alongside his mid-range wines, our first course arrived and I noticed that he, like me, chose one of the latter to drink with it. After mustering a little Dutch courage I asked him if just possibly the showboaters might not be a fraction over-the-top? ‘Sure they are, but that’s what you’ve got to do if you want to win prizes,’ he smiled. ‘They’re not for drinking.’

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Australian viniculture began in 1788 with Captain Arthur Philip – founder of Sydney – and then abruptly stopped when his vines failed. Later, in the 1820s, commercial production got under way and the industrious James Busby did the first methodical work, trying out nearly 700 different vine varieties. Penfolds, founded in 1844, is the oldest winemaker, maker of the iconic Grange and arguably the best in Australia. Busby laid good foundations – Australia is the only southern hemisphere country with anything like a truly European diversity of established grape varieties and styles.

The Big Three of those varieties are Shiraz with thirty per cent of plantings, Chardonnay with twenty-five per cent, and Cabernet Sauvignon with twenty per cent, and the remaining twenty-five per cent comprises just about every grape you can think of. As people look more for subtlety and complexity rather than power, Rhône-style GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre) and Shiraz-Viognier blends are the new big things in reds. Some growers of cooler-climate Shiraz are beginning to label it Syrah to reflect its lighter, peppery Rhône-like qualities in contrast to the familiar booming, medicinal styles from the warmer areas.

Finding one’s way to the good stuff is difficult: there’s no up-itself cru system operating here, just regional and sub-regional Geographical Indication (GI). Supra-regional South-Eastern Australia is not exactly exclusive: it covers ninety-five per cent of the wine-growing areas’ output yet some solid wines – Banrock Station, McGuigan, Yellow Tail – do very good business under its designation, as do some tyros such as Andrew Peace , Brookford , One Chain Vineyards , and Runamok ,Some Young Punks (you should see the names of their wines), and Griffith Park for fizz. Finding some of the best stuff has been made easier by the formation in 2009 of Australia’s First Families of Wine, an alliance of some of the larger, high-quality independent firms.

Most of the biggest firms have bought up numerous companies, many of which offer good – even very good – value, depending on the waxing and waning madness of the discounting moon. Constellation Brands, for example, is more recognisable (in Australia) as Hardy’s and Banrock Station – all 4,000 acres of it; Fosters’ offspring include Penfolds , Lindemans , Wolf Blass and Rosemount ; Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek is the biggest French-owned wine brand (!); Lion Nathan has Petaluma , Stonier and Mitchelton ; Casella is better known as the phenomenon that is Yellow Tail ; busy Australian Vintage is resolving its identity crisis and, apart from its McGuigan brand, is a humungous provider of supermarket own- brands and ‘private brands’ as well as supplying millions of cases of wine made under contract for some of its biggest competitors – they’re all there, side by side, on the shelf.

The ‘consolidation’ process now appears to have peaked and Fosters and Constellation have sold some of their smaller subsidiaries. It seems a good omen that an old, established firm like Clare Valley’s Leasingham , gobbled up by Hardy’s, who were themselves then taken over by Constellation, is now back in the private hands of Tim Adams . The surviving mid-size independents (Brown Brothers , Peter Lehmann , Cranswick ) have long offered an excellent price/quality ratio and it seems too that the big firms’ mid-tier ranges (Hardy’s Oomoo , Penfolds’ Thomas Hyland and Jacob’s Creek’s Three Vines ) are intended to emulate (and compete with) them as they plot their path away the from heavyhanded, and heavily discounted, over-oaked Chardonnay and overly alcoholic, medicinal Shiraz.

Oz broke all the rules. It blew a gale of fresh air through the stuffy world of European winemaking. The Aussies grew what they wanted, they irrigated, they trucked grapes hundreds of miles to make the blends they wanted. It looks as if they’re now starting to break a few of their own rules to keep Matilda waltzing.

As the corporations ponder their future a new breed of highly trained, fleet-footed and – above all – cool winemakers are developing a new style of Aussie wine that is gaining ground at the viral speed of the internet. Mac Forbes, Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, Two Hands, Ben Glaetzer, Ten Minutes by Tractor are just a few of the names at the forefront. The country’s cool-climate winemaking areas – Heathcote, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania and Orange among them – are opening up at the speed of an out-of-control skateboarder. It seems that the new recipe for wine down-under may be: cool climate + cool winemakers = cool wine.

GET A HANDLE... THE PACE OF CHANGE DOWN-UNDER IS BREATHTAKING. THE ‘BIGHAIR’ WINES ARE BEING RAPIDLY REPLACED BY ALTOGETHER COOLER, MORE STYLISH WAYS OF DOING THINGS AND EVEN THE AUSSIES DRINK MORE SAUVIGNON BLANC THAN CHARDONNAY NOW.

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The Knowledge: Red Wine.


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