Lawrason’s Take – Australia 2014
Ten Trends in Australia Right Now & Ten Great Wines
by David Lawrason
An eight day trip to Australia in January, as co-host of a Fine Vintage Ltd tour, has changed many of my perceptions of Australian wine – as travel should. There is a lot going on! From afar here in Canada we get broad marketing messages from the larger wineries and associations focused on the Canadian market. They are not inaccurate, but so generalized and softly spun that they don’t have much traction. So I thought I would jot down some more pithy and specific perceptions, based on personal observations and those gleaned from conversations and writings with other who are deeply engaged. So here we go, in no particular order. And don’t miss the Top Ten Wines I tasted in Australia following this article.
#1 – Shiraz may not be the best grape for much of Australia, and it is over-planted in hot regions and under-planted in cooler regions. I frequently heard that syrah/shiraz was doing very well in the moderate climate of the Yarra Valley, and in higher elevations of Victoria like the Pyrenees and Macedon Ranges. And it is also very fine in Coonawarra and Margaret River in West Australia. Within South Australia it seems to make its finest wines in the higher altitudes of the Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley (i.e Hill of Grace). When you look globally at where shiraz excels solo the list includes moderate to cool northern Rhone, eastern Washington and the Okanagan, Stellenbosch and, in my view, Chile. And if it is true that hot Barossa in particular is actually not ideal for shiraz what of the massive tracks of shiraz planted in the even hotter, interior Riverland regions that churn out oceans of the stuff for the lower priced market? Was this a huge miscalculation by the big companies?
#2 – South Australia is a Mediterranean region best suited varieties like grenache, mourvedre and other varieties of Spain and southern Italy. Again and again in the Barossa Valley and in McLaren Vale winemakers talked of old vine grenache grown in sandy soils being their hidden treasure and secret weapon. In Barossa I also tasted a few excellent mataros or mourvedres (Langmeil and Tuesner) or blends thereof that include grenache and shiraz. Italian varieties like vermentino, fiano, dolcetto, nero d’avola and primitivo; plus Spanish and Portuguese varieties like tempranillo, graciano and touriga nacional are all ascending.
#3 – McLaren Vale is the most progressive, edgy region in Australia. The medium sized region south of Adelaide on the coast of the Gulf of St. Vincent seems to be attracting its share of inquiring and passionate winemakers. There are an inordinately large number of small wineries for its size. It boasts the largest percentage of sustainably kept vineyards in Australia (over 70%) with 7% being biodynamic (led by the surprisingly large Gemtree. There are a handful of “natural wines”, as well. And a rash alternative white and red varieties have broken out of the experimental phase and can be readily found on restaurant lists and bottle shop shelves. Pockets of Victoria and certain producers are also pushing new boundaries.
# 4 – Medium and lighter bodied wines are hot. Overly alcoholic, soupy, jammy big reds are on their deathbed, at least among the more expensive wines of Australia. I suspect there are many big brand, medium priced alcohol grenades still being produced, but winemakers of conscience continually talked about the lighter wines, lower alcohol and balance. “You won’t’ find heavy wines anywhere in the restaurants of Melbourne” said Steve Weber of De Bortoli, in neighbouring Yarra Valley.
# 5 – Australia is Old World too! Barossa in particular (along with McLaren Vale, Coonawarra and Hunter Valley) has a deep history, heritage and old vine viticulture that must be preserved and utilized. With vineyards like Langmeil’s Freedom and Penfolds Block 42 counting among the oldest vineyards in the world; with Seppeltsfield still selling incredible 100 year old fortified wine; with countless grower families counting back generations to the mid 19th Century when hard-working Prussians broke this hard land – one must give Australia the respect it deserves as an old world country. And it was interesting to see adherence to and reversion to more historical wine-making techniques (open top wood fermentors, concrete – even dabblings with amphora) and respect for other European grapes.
# 6 – Australia is making outstanding pinot noirs. There are still jammy, hot pinots out there but several enclaves are cool enough to make pinot that Burgundy lovers will enjoy. One is Tasmania, the other a circle of sites around that spoke outward from Pt Philip Bay and Melbourne on Victoria’s south coast. These include clockwise Geelong, Macedon Ranges, Upper Yarra, Gippsland and the Mornington Peninsula. There are also pinot cool spots in the Adelaide Hills and out west in Great Southern.
# 7 – Terroir driven chardonnay could be Australia’s next great white. One local enthusiast – and a Master of Wine – went as far as to claim Australia may be the most exciting chardonnay region outside of Burgundy. I kept interjecting that Ontario can/will rank there too, but I must admit being very impressed with the energy, depth and minerality of many that I tasted, again largely from cooler Victoria and Tasmania (ie. Penfold’s Yattarna). And everybody, almost, claimed the era of over-oaked, high alcohol, soupy chardonnays to be dead in the water.
# 8 – Riesling is broadening its appeal. The general perception of Aussie riesling is of powerful, petrol and lime driven examples from the Clare Valley and Eden Valley. And yes I had some great examples. But what I most enjoyed were those with some age on them. And I glimpsed the kinder, gentler but still fresh, vital and more stone fruit driven examples from outposts in Victoria, Tasmania and Great Southern in WA (this may be the one place that will most surprise us in the near future)
#9 – The Australian industry is at a crossroads. All this positive news is set against a backdrop of great anxiety, being felt most by the largest producers. Aussie exports have dropped over 40% since 2007 – and competition in volume and quality increasing from other nations in Europe and the New World is intense. Even from neighbouring New Zealand. James Haliday’s 2014 Australian Wine Companion reviews and rates 1369 properties, with that many again relegated to listing on his website. There is a lot of wine in Australia, and believe me, they would love to export a lot more to Canada
#10 – But Canada’s liquor boards continue to befuddle, bemuse and aggravate Australian winemakers. This is not new, nor specific to Australia, but I suspect the outspoken, impatient Aussie’s find our closed system particularly irritating. Eyeballs often rolled when the monopolies were mentioned; which should make Canadian wine lovers angry. We are not seeing a lot of Australia’s best wines as a result.
Ten Great Australian Wines
Here is a straightforward list of my top ten favourite Australian wines tasted on this tour. Full notes are on the WineAlign database, whether or not the wines are currently listed in Canada. All deserve to be here.
Editors Note: You can find David’s complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the wine names highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!