New styles, new varieties, more sensitivity, and less oak and alcohol are creating something magical in Australia’s wine scene. Julie Sheppard heads off to see the wizards
Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz? Dorothy arrives in a technicolour world, where everything is different and strange, looks at her dog and says, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…’
I’m not saying the Australian wine scene has transformed quite as dramatically as that, but a recent trip to Oz proved that the UK on-trade should be taking a fresh look at what’s going on there. Particularly if you think that sun-drenched Shiraz and oak-fuelled Chardonnays are still the country’s calling cards.
New-wave Aussie wines have already been trickling through to the UK; last September’s Artisans of Australian Wine tasting was a particular showcase for some of the new styles on offer, and was well received by somms who attended it.
But what’s been driving this change, what are the main trends – and what does it mean for your wine list?
Boom and bust
‘The 1980s was a boom time in Australian viticulture, the export market took off and plantings soared. It was all about supply and volume then,’ says Mike Brown, winemaker at Gemtree Vineyard in McLaren Vale. ‘The decline of cheap generic wine has created an opportunity. The industry at the moment has been through a lot of pain. But that’s good; it had to. The mediocrity had to be removed. We don’t want to see our wines floor-stacked in Tesco anymore.’
Gemtree’s vineyards were certified biodynamic in 2014 and around 27% of the fruit in McLaren Vale is now organically or biodynamically grown. The region also has a sustainability programme that recycles waste water from nearby towns for use on the vines. A reduction in bulk plantings has clearly led to more considered viticulture.
‘There’s a move in McLaren Vale back to cultivation, which of course is what we used to do in the 1970s,’ agrees Mark Lloyd of Coriole Vineyards. ‘Now the vineyards are greener, more lush. It’s been a trend in the last few years to do more work in the vineyard than in the winery.’
This trend isn’t limited to McLaren Vale either; it’s a nationwide shift of emphasis from winemaking to wine-growing. ‘There’s now more focus on site and on expressing site, rather than manipulating the juice,’ explains Kate McIntyre MW of Moorooduc Estate in the Mornington Peninsula. ‘The cult of the winemaker has shifted a lot,’ she adds.
The shift from winery to vineyard has, in turn, created new benchmarks for Australian wines. ‘There has been a change in perceptions within the Australian wine industry. Now Pinots are winning best in show instead of Shiraz or Cabernets,’ says Will Adkins of Tasmania’s Tamar Ridge Vineyard.
Tasmania is a prime example of the change. ‘When I studied winemaking at Roseworthy in Adelaide, Tasmania was the butt of the jokes. Experts said you couldn’t grow grapes here. But tastes change,’ points out Jeremy Dineen, winemaker at Josef Chromy. ‘In Australia we had a tendency for the last 30 years to drink big alcoholic reds. Now we’re drinking wines that are a lot more culturally appropriate, such as Pinot Noir. Domestically, tastes are going towards more freshness, which mirrors the development in restaurants and food too.’
Previously a sommelier in Sydney and now winemaker at Journey Wines in the Yarra Valley, Damian North thinks the on-trade has played a key role in shaping consumer tastes. ‘There’s been a huge change in the wine culture of Australia. Guys sit down for a business lunch and will order a bottle of Pinot. That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.’
Located near Melbourne’s vibrant restaurant scene, Yarra Valley in particular has been influenced by food and drink trends. ‘Restaurants will bring the whole team out to the winery to find wines for the new season menu. Chefs, somms… it’s constant cooperation,’ says John Baxter of Punt Road.
The city’s sophisticated wine scene is also a factor. ‘Being so close to Melbourne, you get exposed to a lot of wines, so the Yarra Valley is a dynamic area,’ says winemaker Mac Forbes, who has even opened his own local wine bar and tasting room, Graceburn Wine Room. ‘People are now more willing to experiment and try something different. The same thing has happened with craft beer and craft spirits,’ adds Behn Payten of Payten & Jones.
If drinkers are willing to try something new, producers are certainly willing to let them. Although the Yarra is mainly planted with international varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cab Sauv – there’s a surprising number of Italian grapes here too. ‘Nebbiolo in Yarra is pretty exciting,’ says Forbes, while Payten & Jones make a no-sulphur Sangiovese, and Goodman Wines produce a Vermentino.
‘I smashed a lot of Vermentino with seafood platters when I was backpacking in Italy,’ shrugs winemaker Kate Goodman. ‘I also make a Negroamaro. I’ve nicknamed it my “Wine Negroni” because it reminds me of a Negroni – dark and bitter with orange peel hints – it’s a smashing food wine.’
For Goodman, there’s a valid point to this experimentation. ‘These new alternative varieties that come from hot countries and don’t need much water are a really important part of the future of viticulture in our country,’ she explains. Winemakers elsewhere are exploring new grapes to suit their particular terroir, too.
Larry Jacobs of Hahndorf Hill Winery is pioneering Grüner Veltliner in the Adelaide Hills. ‘I was looking for a white variety that would suit our climate. I went to Austria and talked to winemakers who said it was key to have hot days and cold nights – and we have heaps of diurnal temperature variation here. We’re actually slightly cooler than the Kamptal, so the grape translates very similarly to a straight Austrian Grüner,’ he says.
Meanwhile in Tasmania, Steve Lubiana of Stefano Lubiana Wines has planted Blaufrankisch and Tempranillo. He makes a sparkling Nebbiolo and a Riesling fermented on skins in ceramic amphora for two weeks – a typical style of Friuli, where his family is originally from.
Peter Althaus of Domaine A arrived in Tasmania in 1990 from Switzerland. His Lady A Sauvignon Blanc is a Fumé style, Graves-like with notes of honeysuckle, smokiness, pineapple, citrus and nice oak.
In McLaren Vale, d’Arenberg, Wirra Wirra, Gemtree and Angove Family Wines have been achieving great results with single-varietal Grenache, making wines that are ideal for the on-trade: food-friendly and versatile, with fine tannins.
‘We all have a soft spot for Grenache in McLaren Vale even though it’s only about 8% of the plantings,’ confides Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg. ‘We’re halfway between Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie in terms of temperature. The vineyards are dry-grown; Grenache doesn’t really need irrigation. When you make it work really hard, you get amazing fragrance and bright, spicy tannins.’
Alongside offering a broader range of varietal wines now, Australia’s wine industry is also starting to embrace less conventional winemaking techniques. ‘There’s been a big jump in the last five years, with people not adding acid and so on,’ says Paul Smith, vineyard manager at boutique Pinot Noir producer Ashton Hills in the Adelaide Hills. ‘Thirty years ago someone who did that was labelled a hippy tree hugger!’
‘We don’t add anything except a bit of sulphur. We try to be holistic and make sure the vineyard is alive. I pick earlier than a lot of other winemakers to capture the acidity,’ says Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels, based in the Basket Ranges in the Adelaide Hills. The tiny sub-region has become home to a clutch of natural winemakers, who are finding increasing mainstream success.
‘In Australia natural wines are a relatively new thing. A lot of the people started doing it for philosophical reasons. The beauty of natural winemaking is the lawlessness,’ says Anton Van Klapper of Lucy Margaux Winery.
‘There was a lot of tension with the establishment at first,’ adds James Erskine of Jaume Winery. ‘Our wines were rejected by the Wine Export Board because they were cloudy, but they’d already been sold at a premium price, so we argued against it.’
Erskine has worked as a sommelier in Germany and Austria, while Ochota did a degree in hospitality management, so both are conscious of making bottles that can be paired with food. ‘For me it’s always about finding wines that work with our dining,’ confirms Erskine.
No doubt for the same reason, there’s also been a general move towards making more elegant styles of wine, with lower alcohol and less oak. ‘We’re really proud of what’s happening with Chardonnay now, compared to how it was 10 years ago,’ says Matt Harrop, winemaker at Shadowfax in Geelong. ‘We’re all hand-harvesting, very aware of phenolics and our canopies aren’t large. I also stopped buying barriques in 2006; they’re too oxidative, too oaky. I’ve moved to hogshead now.’
‘Boozy, oaked Cabernets are things of the past,’ confirms Charlie Seppelt of Hickinbotham Wines in McLaren Vale. ‘We want to produce wines you can drink more than one bottle of. It’s an unashamedly European approach,’ he adds. For Sam Temme of Wirra Wirra, this change is driven by consumers. ‘We’ve seen a real change at our cellar door with customers preferring a fresher, lower-alcohol style,’ he says.
David Bicknell of Oak Ridge in Yarra Valley sums it up neatly: ‘We’re keen on making fruit-flavoured wines here, not tree-flavoured wines.’
Approachable, elegant wines, that tap into current dining trends with words like ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’? Wines made from unusual grape varieties that young wine-drinkers will love?
It sounds like someone in Australia has used a crystal ball to predict exactly what the UK on-trade needs. Maybe there are some wizards in Oz after all…
New-wave Aussie wines for your list
Arras Grand Vintage 2007, Tasmania
Winemaker Ed Carr has made the Aussie wine trade acknowledge Tasmania’s potential for world-class sparklers. This complex and layered blend of 78% Chardonnay and 22% Pinot Noir swept the board at wine shows. Pure class.
£26.50, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
Journey Wines, Pinot Noir 2015, Yarra Valley, Victoria
Made by a former sommelier, no surprise this is an exemplary food wine: elegant with restrained raspberry and blackberry, bright cherry and a base tone of undergrowth. Silky tannins and a long finish.
£17.85, ABS Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
Ochota Barrels, The Fugazi Vineyard Grenache 2015, Adelaide Hills, South Australia
This natural wine made from old vines kicks off with an explosion of aromas: strawberries, redcurrants, peppery spice and a touch of cool mint. Juicy and vibrant red fruit is wrapped in soft tannins. Supremely drinkable and a versatile food match.
£19.95, Indigo Wines, 020 7733 8391
Shaw + Smith Lenswood Chardonnay 2015, Adelaide Hills, South Australia
A brilliant example of why Australia’s new-wave cool-climate Chardonnays are perfect for UK lists. A characteristic struck flint note on the nose, with a complex palate: stony minerality and lovely tropical fruit that opens up on the finish.
£33.75, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
‘Now Pinots are winning best in show instead of Shiraz or Cabernets.’ Will Adkins, Tamar Ridge Vineyard
‘I stopped buying barriques in 2006; they’re too oxidative, too oaky. I’ve moved to hogshead now.’ Matt Harrop, Shadowfax
‘Boozy, oaked Cabernets are things of the past.’ Charlie Seppelt, Hickinbotham Wines
‘The beauty of natural winemaking is the lawlessness.’ Anton Van Klopper, Lucy Margaux Winery
‘We’re actually slightly cooler than the Kamptal [in the Adelaide Hills], so the grape translates very similarly to an Austrian Grüner.’ Larry Jacobs, Hahndorf Hill Winery
‘Nebbiolo in Yarra is pretty exciting.’ Mac Forbes, Mac Forbes Winery