Chardonnay? Buy Australian! (Decanter)
The BBC documentary that ran on the ABC last night charted the rise and fall of Australian wine in the UK from the early days, when it was known as Chateau Chunder from Down Under. If you missed it, you can watch it here on your computer http://www.abc.net.au/iview/#/program/27837
It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking story, and here are a few of my thoughts to fill in some of the blanks.
Blessed by Diversity
Ours is a country of extremes. We have more terroirs and climates than France and Italy together, yet we have fewer grape varieties, and fewer wine styles. Perhaps that is so because our winemakers all learned their craft in the same few places, and our wine judges and wine writers did as well. It may be a broad church, but the hymns are few and sound much the same.
That's changed in the naughties, a change driven by a new generation of winemakers with stubborn heads on young shoulders. The fancy winemaking of the nineties gave way to a sharper focus on terroir, the place and environment a wine comes from. Individual wines that reflect their origins are made with the minimum of handling and technical trickery, they said. Winemaking starts in the vineyard, in the vines and the soil.
Cursed by corporate greed
Today, Australia makes a range of bargain wines of real quality and character in regional wineries that crush 5,000 to 25,000 tons a year. Higher up the quality scale, some of our wines rival the best the French have to offer – from Kooyong, Bindi and Giaconda to Grosset, Cullen and Leeuwin Estate. Meanwhile, the Ives St. Laurent end of the market for luxury goods is well catered for by Penfolds, Henschke, Torbreck and Parawa Estate, at $500 and even $1000 a bottle.
On main street, it’s a different story: 4 huge wine conglomerates make almost 4 out of five bottles you see in the shops. Their refineries churn out vast quantities of wine under many labels. The wines should be of decent quality but aren’t. They’re clean, bland and boring ‘industrial autoplonk’, a term coined by Philip White.
From cock of the walk to feather duster
In the nineties, we could do no wrong, except that the wine fumes got to the captains of our wine industry and addled their brains. Spurred on by their export success with cheap, cheerful wines from Jacob’s gargantuan creek, they bought vineyards in France and installed young Aussie winemakers to show the French how it was done. We were the greatest. The French and the Italians were stuck in a time warp, and too arrogant to see it.
Since our export success was built mostly on mass-produced plonk sold at big discounts in large supermarkets, it collapsed as soon as Chile and Argentina offered cheaper wines with more flavour. Our rising dollar was merely the final kick in the ribs of a long collapsed body. By 2006, it seemed that nobody wanted Australian wines anymore.
‘Australia's fall from grace had a velocity I've never before seen,’ wrote Matt Kramer in Wine Spectator. ‘I can't think of another wine country that, Icarus-like, flew so high and fell so far in so short a time.’ Jancis Robinson agreed: ‘The sheer speed with which Australia has moved from being revered to being reviled is quite remarkable.’
The truth hurts
That got their attention, even though Robinson made the point that this plummeting from grace took place while ‘more and more truly fine Australian wine is being produced.’ Another pom got up the noses of our winemakers: Dan Jago from Tesco, the world largest wine retailer. Jago told them at a conference: ‘For too long you have been saying “This is good because it's Australian".’ He added insult to injury when he said we should make lighter, more refreshing wines like those of the Old World.
That was too much. 'He's a wanker,’ was Bruce Tyrrell’s swift response. ‘He should go back to selling dog food.’ Tyrrell added that we had been gracious enough to let the poms have some of our terrific wines, while the Europeans kept flogging them the same old crook wines that ‘tasted like cat's piss.' It’s a strange comment from a man whose winery churns out oceans of wine of no merit or character under labels like Old Winery and Lost Block.
Arrogance Aussie style
‘Australian producers are in grave danger of suffering from a fatal case of strategic amnesia,’ wrote Mark Ritson from the Melbourne Business School. ‘Only fifteen years ago, they were the beneficiary of French winemakers' arrogance and stupidity.’ The French had refused to clean up their act, preferring to blame the ignorance of Pommy punters for their dwindling sales in the UK. Now we were doing the same thing.
We were busy beating our chests while Yellowtail conquered America, and Jacobs Creek became a hit with the Brits. There was just one problem: Even at the peak of our export boom in 2003, the average price for Aussie wine in the UK was $4.74 per litre. Yes, per litre. That dropped to $2.69 in 2011. Quality wasn’t part of our export drive, nor was building consumer loyalty, and we wonder why our reputation lies in shreds.
Over the top Reds
I’ve long held the view that our reds are too big. It’s hard to find Cabernet blends even from cool Coonawarra, even in a coolish year like 2010, that aren’t 14.5% alcohol. Bottles of Barossa and McLaren Vale Shiraz from the same year often notch up 15% or more. I’m with Matt Kramer who wrote: ‘If you're thinking, “Great, just what we need: more syrupy, over-alcoholic Barossa-style Shiraz,” think again.’
Some blame Robert Parker for this trend. The American messiah fell in love with the big ripe reds of South Australia and Victoria, and some wineries made monumental reds in his image. Others blame the drought that lasted most of the naughties. Stressed vines needed to reach higher sugar levels to produce fruit of physiological ripeness, they said. If that was so, why did the alcohol levels not go down after the drought ended?
Not long ago, 13 – 13.5% was considered perfect for fine reds, 14 for robust ones. The Penfolds Granges and bin reds of the 80s or 90s were rarely over 13%; today they’re 14.5.
Winemaking begins in the vineyard
The march to bigger reds began in the eighties. Reds were hard to sell at the time, reds built for the long haul most of all. Riper reds were softer and had more immediate appeal, and lots of oak helped soften them up some more as Wolf Blass had shown. Jammy fruit and coconut American oak were the hallmarks of 1990s Aussie reds. In the next decade, winemakers wound back the oak but not the sugar.
Sugar level determines the alcohol and natural acidity of a wine. Phenolics determine a wine’s colour and flavour compounds, and its grape tannins. These compounds advance along a different maturing curve to phenolic or physiological ripeness. In hot climates like ours, phenolic ripeness tends to lag behind sugar ripeness. In cold climates like Germany’s, it’s the other way round. In perfect climates, the two curves intersect.
Mechanical beasts and cost accountants
Physiological maturity is more easily achieved at sensible sugar levels in vineyards that are optimised for row spacing, vine density, trellising, pruning, canopy height and density, fruit shading, and water use. This can't easily be done in vineyards set up for mechanical pruning and harvesting, since they impose their own rules on vineyard management.
In any case, these vineyards had different quality goals. As James Halliday recalls: ‘... the major wineries were hellbent on producing the maximum yield per hectare at the lowest possible price. Pruning was mechanised and reduced to a minimum, and the grapes were mechanically harvested … low-cost viticulture had become a drug of addiction, facilitating discounting of already low-priced wines, yet providing a return on the annual running cost.’
Back to nature
With mechanical pruning and harvesting, canopies tend to slow phenolic ripenening and that means later picking at higher sugar levels. Picking later also reduces the number of unripe berries that end up in the crusher, the ones that caused those strange green pea and capsicum flavours in the early days.
One way to achieve phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels is to use biodynamic or organic farming techniques. Early adopters include Henschke, Kalleske, Mitchell, Bass Philip, Bindi, Jasper Hill, Savaterre, Cullens and Howard Park. The Margaret River region has widely adopted biodynamic practices, and it’s interesting to ponder how it’s forged ahead in the last decade while Coonawarra has underperformed.
While the monster reds are still with us, there’s a growing trend to making lighter, more refreshing whites. Nothing wrong with that, except that I never thought our whites were too big. The exception was Chardonnay, a variety our winemakers clobbered with big red making techniques: riper fruit, more oak, producing big fat peachy, nutty, buttery wines. When people tired of these whites, the ABS movement was born: Anything But Chardonnay.
The rebound of the last decade saw a complete change in style, with peach giving way to grapefruit and alcohol pulled back to 12.5%. The fruit was picked earlier or sourced from places where grapes struggled to ripen – Orange, Tumbarumba, Henty, Drumbourg. Rieslings were pulled back as well, to 12%, to produce lean, mean, acid wines of artificial elegance. Hunter Semillons had long been picked at super low sugar levels, but now we saw green apple and pea shell characters in other whites as well.
Chardonnay? Choose Australia
As usual, the pendulum had swung too far in the opposite direction. When it came back, it started a Chardonnay revival. Oakridge, Kooyong, Yabby Lake, Hoddles Creek, Giaconda, Mountadam, Xanadu and Leeuwin Estate were some of the wineries hell-bent on making Chardonnays of refinement and balance, and the capacity to age without falling into a flabby heap.
The transformation was so complete that Decanter declared in January last year: ‘Chardonnay? Choose Australia.’ They meant in preference to Burgundy. The Decanter panel praised ‘the freshness and restraint of the wines, and their structural complexity, their handling of oak and alcohol, and the winemakers’ “conscious reining-back to show the quality of the fruit and terroir.”’
Verheyden, the editor of TONG magazine, agreed. ‘While white Burgundy
faces an identity crisis,' he wrote, 'Australian Chardonnay is finding its way back on
stage ... it is no longer in Burgundy that the most interesting Chardonnays are
produced these days - Australia rules.’ The identity crisis Verheyden refers to is most likely 'premature oxidation', a problem experts say has affected ‘at least a dozen recent [Burgundy] vintages [that] have a propensity to self-destruct.' It may not be the much-maligned cork that is to blame here, but it's good to know that we banished the wretched things a decade ago.
While our volume exports were in freefall, our strong headed young winemakers met their toughest challenge yet: Pinot Noir, the grape that makes the fabled Burgundies, a style that is a lottery even at home. It had taken two decades and a long search for the right terroir, along with careful vineyard and clone selection. Among the drivers were wineries like Paringa Estate, de Bortoli’s, Yabby Lake, Kooyong, Ashton Hills, by Farr and Farr Rising.
Aussie wine - uncommon value
The diversity in our markets has rarely been greater, despite the conglomerates making 80% of our wine. You could argue that 80% of drinkers wouldn’t know a good wine if they drowned in it, but let’s not blame consumers for the desultory practices of the big refineries who decided it was easier to make soft-drink-style plonk than to educate drinkers.
The other 20% is where real treasure lurks. In the March 2012 edition of The World of Fine Wine, Mountadam 2010 came out on top in a tasting of great Australian Chardonnays that included Cullen, Leeuwin Estate, Giaconda, Petaluma, Tapanappa, Coldstream Hills, By Farr, Pierro, Philip Shaw, Tyrrell's Vat 47, Oakridge 864 and Yattarna. Andrew Jefford, Anthony Rose and Jancis Robinson were the judges.
Here’s the good news: you can still buy the very same Mountadam 2010 Chardonnay for $25 a bottle and, yes, there’s still some left if you hurry (Winestar, Vintage Direct – Nicks). Back up the ute – it’s that good.
The lucky country
These days, you can even buy good
Pinot Noir for less than $25. In an exhaustive review I posted six months
ago, the surprise was not that most Pinots in that price group were rusty water
or lolly water, but that four or five of them were good wines of authentic
flavour. And one of the best Aussie Pinots I've had the pleasure to drink this year was a PHI 2010, which costs a bit over $40. Better wake up, Kiwi Pinot makers, you have competition.
We're still buying great Rieslings for less than $20. The 2012s from Clare are all great, from the $13 Jim Barry to the $18 O’Leary Walker, Mitchell and Pikes wines. Andrew Mitchell coined the phrase: 'The Clare Valley is blessed by the unpopularity of Riesling,' but we Riesling drinkers are the ones who're blessed here though we're not the only ones.
You could say the same about Cabernet Merlots from Margaret River, from Woodlands and Ashbrook and Credaro, or Chardonnays from the Yarra Valley such as Hoddles Creek and Tarrawarra, or Barossa reds from Teusner, Kalleske and Turkey Flat. 20 dollars a bottle, give or take a couple. I could go on, and on ...
How Fosters trashed Australia's greatest wine brands
Why the French Hate us