Savour Australia’s Evolution
Wine Australia: A Lesson in Evolution
By John Szabo, MS
Change is a constant in the wine business, even if the opportunity for a major shift happens only once a year. Even the most established wine producing regions reinvent themselves from time to time – witness Chianti Classico, or Soave, or even most of Germany over the last half dozen years. So, although it can be said that all countries experience some degree of evolution and upheaval, I’d argue that Australia has had the deepest re-think of its entire industry, and the most impressive evolution, of any country worldwide in the last decade.
The reasons are several. For one, they had to. After spectacular success that surprised no one more than the Australians themselves in the 1990s, achieving the industry-established export goals decades before anyone thought it possible, came an almost equally spectacular commercial crash. The world had moved on, Australia had not. But the Aussie wine industry is also particularly resilient. They’ve experienced, and survived, crashes before – the collapse of the sweet/fortified market on which the original, mid-19th century industry was founded, for example.
And they’re also particularly well-organized and cohesive, operating on a national level with awe-inspiring efficiency, rather than, as most established wine producing countries do, on a divisive regional, or even sub-regional or individual basis. This makes wholesale change possible, and much more rapid than, say a country in which it’s every winemaker for himself. That’s not to say that Aussies don’t have individual character, as anyone who’s met more than a stereotyped Crocodile Dundee understands. But they also seem to get the sensible notion that the rising tide lifts all boats.
So when things started to go south in the early 2000s, the industry collectively rolled up its sleeves and set about fixing the problems. The national marketing message was quickly re-tooled to match the modern Zeitgeist of drinkers. It shifted away from celebrating reliable sunshine in a bottle, fun but not serious, to instead focusing on unique regional expressions, positing the potential of the myriad terroirs of a country into which, after all, all of Europe comfortably fits with plenty of acreage left to spare.
For this reality to be reflected in the bottle of course took more time; radical stylistic changes require at least a few vintages to get right. But don’t forget that the Aussie industry is one of the most technologically savvy and advanced, and the understanding of how to achieve a more authentic regional expression (or avoid homogenized ones) was hardly lacking. A little canopy management alteration, different (often fewer) interventions in the winery, and voilà, regional Australia was (re-)born.
“The last 10 years have seen a dramatic shift in attitude and approach”, confirms Mark Davidson, Global Education Manager for the trade association Wine Australia, which represents the industry worldwide. Davidson has been on the front line for years re-shaping Australia’s story, and has witnessed all of the changes up close and personal. “Chardonnay and pinot noir have never looked better and regional differentiation is more transparent than ever before. Shiraz is grown in virtually every region in Australia and recognition of that geographic diversity is being expressed more clearly. There is also an increased interest in new varieties and styles which is not being led by fad and fashion but by environmental suitability,” he continues, listing just some of the most obvious changes.
Whereas once you might have been able to get away with saying “Aussie Shiraz”, as though they were all made from the same vat, now the blanket moniker is all but meaningless. Instead you talk about Clare Valley, or Barossa, or Heathcoat or Hunter Valley shiraz, to call out but a few. And now you talk about the relative merits of fiano or vermentino or aglianico or nero d’Avola, and not just chardonnay and shiraz.
So what does this mean for the consumer? The landscape of Australian wine has never looked more diverse and exciting. The evolution has been nothing short of spectacular.
Here are a few currently available wines that neatly encapsulate the Australian revolution.
Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2014, Margaret River, Western Australia
Chardonnay in Australia has undergone perhaps the biggest makeover in the last ten year. From reliably thick, soupy, tropical and wood infused, to fresh, flinty and balanced, the transformation has been remarkable. The first winery to plant in the Margaret River, in 1967, Vasse Felix has always been on the more elegant, cool-leaning side abetted by the maritime-influenced climate of Margaret River, but recent vintages have really tuned chardonnay to a fine quiver. Filius is the excellent “entry level”, open and refreshing. For the maximum expression try top-of-the-line Heytesbury Chardonnay, a strikingly flinty, tightly wound expression.
Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay 2014, Adelaide Hills
Yes, from the extremely successful man who is more than partly responsible for putting Australia on the world wine map since the early eighties, the radical turn-around for Wolf Blass’ chardonnay is perhaps the most emblematic, high profile evidence of change. Once fashionably oaky and jammed with tropical fruit, made from chardonnay sourced throughout Southeastern Australia, the Gold Label (and even more so the step-up White Label) has been transformed into a model of balance and refinement. It’s now sourced entirely from the relatively cool Adelaide Hills, the fruit is crunchier, wood dialed back, and pleasure ramped up. It doesn’t shy away from the sunshine of South Australia, it’s just painted in a more early morning/late afternoon portrait.
Wynns is another classic producer that has always marched to a delicate beat, so no radical evolution was required to bring this into line with modern tastes. It’s just that much more appreciated now. The classic Black Label is a brilliant (and brilliant value) representation of Coonawarra and its special little patch of red terra rossa soil, and capable of ageing magnificently.
Josef Chromy Sparkling 2010, Tasmania
Tasmania has been a big part of the Evolution Australia story, charging onto the scene with terrific sparkling wines as well as stylishly lean chardonnay and pinot noir. Much fruit is now sourced from the cool island to blend into some of Australia’s most iconic chardonnays, for example, unheard of in the ‘90s. Czech immigrant Joseph Chromy’s tale is a heartwarming rags to riches sort of story, now as reliable a producer as they come. Winemaker Jeremy Dineen crafts one of the finer, more consistent Tassie bubblies.
Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2013, Clare Valley
Jim Barry is one of the old guard who has managed to adapt to the times – not that radical change was needed here either, but this latest expression of shiraz is particularly fragrant and well-chiseled. It’s not the most edgy new wave style, finding a lovely balance between ripe dark fruit and, more frequently these days, a fine, lifted medicinal-spicy-peppery note. Wood is as comfortably part of the ensemble as a pro surfer is at one with his board.
Alpha Box & Dice 2011 Xola Aglianico, McLaren Vale
Although not currently available, I thought this delicious wine worth a mention in the context of evolution Australia. It demonstrates the outside-of-the-commercial marketing-box thinking that is redefining the country. Aglianico is hardly a household name, but its region of greatest expression, southern Italy, is not dissimilar in climate to South Australia. So why not give it a try? Brothers Justin and Dylan Fairweather did just that, though found that a cash flow-punishing 4 years in old wood were necessary to tame the ferocious tannic nature of this first effort. But the results are so very promising indeed, their version leaning towards the more elegant and savoury versions from Mount Vulture in Basilicata. How’s that for an obscure reference. Check it out, along with the rest of the fine range (montepulciano, barbera, grenache, etc.), from these passionate young vintners. (www.AlphaBoxDice.com)
John Szabo, MS
The History, Evolution & Revolution of Australian Wine
This article is one of a three-part series taking a look at the history, evolution and revolution of Australian wine on the page and in the glass. Please link to the other two articles below:
Where have all the critters gone? by Anthony Gismondi
The Fire of Revolution, by Bradley Royale