John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 28th 2013
I’m filing this week’s report from Adelaide, Australia, where hundreds of delegates from around the world have gathered to participate in the most comprehensive conference on Australian wine, and food, yet held. I’ll share a few observations on the event and the state of Australian wine. Thirsty readers can head straight to this week’s top ten picks from the VINTAGES September 28th release and a pair of smart wines from the Tuscany theme.
Savour Australia 2013
It’s only day two of the conference but the theme and purpose are clear: to re-position Australia as a premium producer of diverse wines that can compete at all levels internationally, and in the process, distance themselves from the specter of cheap and cheerful that still seems to dog Australian wine. Australia is re-introducing itself to the world as a first class tourism destination with superb, fresh local foods grown in its pristine environment, and as a producer of a deep, varied and rich wine scene.
But it takes time to make a second impression. In the 1980s when Australian wine began to flood international markets, the rallying battle cry was fun and friendly sunshine in a bottle, offered at prices that no one in the world could compete with at the time. As one panelist in a lead-off presentation entitled “Myth Busting” said: “everything in the UK from 2 to 9 quid a bottle was undrinkable”. Australia simply filled that gap with fruity, easy-going wines that were both technically flawless and widely appealing.
Success was swift and impressive. In a short time Australia became a leading exporter of wine to the world’s major markets including the UK, US and Canada, reaching and even surpassing their most aggressive predictions of export turnover, far earlier than anyone could have hoped. It was an amazing success story that countries like Chile and Argentina looked upon with envy.
Yet fast forward to the turn of the millennium, and dark storm clouds were already brewing. Australia had become synonymous with inexpensive branded wines spanning a very narrow stylistic spectrum. It appeared as if all of Australian wine could be summed up into jammy shiraz and oaky chardonnay. But the world was moving on. Consumers were becoming ever more educated and demanding, and other countries had been able to re-tool their industries to deliver the same types of wine at lower price points. Australia had lost its competitive advantage and sales were sliding fast. Today, Australia continues to lose market share internationally and it has become desperately important for the industry to get an image makeover and re-write the book on Australian wine.
Of course, this is a highly simplified version of the story. Already back in the late 1990s, Wine Australia, the industry’s marketing and promotional arm, along with forward thinking producers had already seen the writing on the wall. Marketing and promotional programs even back in the early 2000s were starting to re-focus on regionality and diversity. But consumer perception is nothing if not impervious to rapid change; first impressions are as tough to purge as an inky black shiraz stain on a white shirt.
The myth busting session that kicked off the conference aimed at addressing the old perceptions of Australian wines. Impressions such as Australia only produces homogeneous and inexpensive wine, or that all Australian wines are blends, or that there is no terroir and wines are designed in a laboratory rather than reflections of their origins, were taken on by a large panel of leading winemakers and debunked one by one.
To the largely highly informed trade audience, the session seemed unnecessarily apologetic (judging by some of the twitter comments posted on the spot), as though the industry were lying on a sofa and working through their demons in front of us onlookers, or confessing their past sins in the hopes that a few Hail Marys will abolish the past.
In reality, I’d speculate that most of the attendees have moved well beyond that early simplistic impression of the Aussie wine offering. Anyone who has being paying attention knows that Australia has a marvelously complex and diverse wine making landscape, complete with distinctive regional styles and a wide array of successful grape varieties. Australia’s wines also reflect the wonderfully indomitable Aussie spirit, the frontier land attitude that anything is possible. It was said repeatedly by several on the panel that one of Australia’s great advantages is that there are no rules, no established precepts or traditional baggage to hamstring innovation and evolution.
And at the same time, Australia has a winemaking history that spans over a hundred and fifty years. Some of the oldest living vinifera vines in the world can be found here, some of which have been producing single vineyard-designated wines for as long as Burgundy Domaines have been bottling their own wines. There are exceptional terroirs, dry-farmed vineyards, organic and biodynamically grown grapes, wines made with minimal intervention and zero added sulphur.
I’ve seen every colour of the spectrum from lime-green tinged whites to orange wines (whites made with skin contact) to pale red and inky black, oaked, unoaked or minimally oaked wines, low alcohol, high acid, to dense, plush and generously proportioned wines. In a single day I tasted wines made from fiano, nebbiolo, aglianico, barbera, sangiovese, marsanne, roussanne, viognier, vermentino, tempranillo, grüner veltliner, pinot noir, mourvedre, grenache, tinto cão, souzão, touriga nacional, riesling and others I’ve forgotten. And I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
In short, there’s a wine for everyone from the geekiest sommelier to the most casual of Saturday night dinner party drinkers. But while trade insiders know all of the this, I wonder about consumers, or even under-informed wine buyers and sommeliers who are still trapped in the 1990s paradigm of Australian wine. Are they aware of what’s going on here? My guess is no. The myths that were presented are not really myths. They’re based on true stories, ones that were told and retold in the early days of Australian exports. We didn’t invent the stories.
But it’s time to move on. That’s why the world’s wine communicators, importers and buyers have been invited down to Savour Australia. We’ll share the stories on the ‘new Australia’, the one that has always been there but that was trampled by a marketing juggernaut. Let’s hope the wine importers and Liquor Board buyers get the message – I know the LCBO has already planned a January 2014 promotion of Aussie wine that will highlight its diversity, and has already rolled out a highly successful campaign in 2011 focusing on new, cool Australia. Restaurants are not yet back on board, and consumers also lag behind, but with time and education the pendulum will swing again as inevitably as a wine matures in bottle. It’s time for Australia to stop apologizing and for us to get on with discovering.
Top Ten Smart Buys
This week’s top ten features a range of whites with above average quality and character. Worth highlighting is the juicy, lively, authentic 2012 Matetic Corralillo Sauvignon Blanc, San Antonio Valley ($13.95) that’s as good as many $20 examples, and the 2012 Dreyer Family Lion’s Lair Family Reserve White, Swartland ($13.95), an intriguing blend of 50% chenin blanc with grenache blanc, roussanne, verdelho and clairette blanche with marked minerality, very light wood influence, and honeyed, creamy, orange blossom and white orchard fruit flavours that deliver well above average complexity for the price category.
Fans of idiosyncratic, unique regional whites should consider the 2010 Lionel Osmin & Cie Cami Salié Jurançon Sec ($18.95). It’s full of nutty, walnut, dried apple, grapefruit, old wood and honey-hay flavours, with a rich, full and structured palate – a white for the table. Decant (and keep chilled but not iced) and serve with white meats like veal, chicken and similar.
Smart buys on the red side include 2008 Lacroix-Vanel Fine Amor Pézenas ($19.95), a fine and elegant expression of Midi wine. I appreciate the well-integrated wood spice, perfectly ripe red, black and blue fruit, generous garrigue spice, while the palate delivers firm grip and juicy acids, with an appropriate measure of tannins and superior length.
Classic Bordeaux drinkers should take note of the 2009 Château Du Cèdre ($21.95). It’s the equivalent of the quality you’ll find at $40+ range. A classy, complex, elegant and well crafted wine that effortlessly blends modern-leaning characteristics (softer tannins, more black fruit-forward flavours) with the typical firmness and structure one expects from classic Cahors.
The 2010 Maria Alvarez Serrano Abadía De Gomariz ($20.95) is a superbly food friendly wine, made from an authentically regional blend of sousón, ferrol, brancellao and mencía, bottled, according to the label “in fruit day” – the first time I’ve seen this (presumably referring to the biodynamic calendar). In any case, the nose is fresh and engaging, floral and zesty-fruity, with wonderfully lively, fresh acids and marked mineral character. It’s a wine you can drink all evening without tiring.
Two From Tuscany
2007 Carpineto Farnito Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.95) is solid, flavourful and very Tuscan expression of cabernet sauvignon at a fair price considering the depth and complexity on offer. It mixes red and black fruit with some dried fruit, resinous herb and earthy-leafy components, extending the complexity into the outer field. This could give several much higher priced super Tuscans a run for the money to be sure.
2010 Capezzana Barco Reale Di Carmignano ($16.95) is a well-priced, friendly wine that blends tradition and modernity to good effect, offering solid fruit intensity alongside a good measure of Tuscan earthiness. Tannins are light and acids bright but balanced.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
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From the Sept 28, 2013 Vintages release: