Australian Wine: A Change Has Done It Good…
By Evan Goldstein
It’s said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Except when they don’t. Take the case of the evolution of Australian wine. Only recently (and erroneously) a colleague dismissively described it to me as all things red and dusty, cheap and cheerful. The truth couldn’t be further away. Though the wine category has experienced some tough times in recent years, contemporary Australian wine, Australian 3.0 if you will, has never been more exciting.
Australian Wine’s Golden Age 3.0
According to Impact Databank, total Australian wine shipments to the U.S. slipped 12% to 16 million nine-liter cases in 2016, down from 22 million cases in 2010. However, helped by an improved exchange rate and a focus on premiumization, the more important value metric grew by 3%, with wines above $15 growing by 23%. Cutting to the big ‘Aha’, according to Wine Australia, the $15-plus Australia category has expanded by close to 60% in the U.S. since 2012. And that, my friends, is very significant.
The underlying message is that Australia, and her reputation in wine, are amid a sea change. While the aforementioned ‘red and dusty/cheap and cheerful’ wines still exist, the palpable upsurge in premium bottles is real and driven by a new American trade and consumer confidence and an evolution of Australian wine’s reputation. There are several factors at play and it’s worth exploring a few of them.
(R)Evolution in Australian Wine
First is the emergence of new, so-called ‘alternative’ grapes. Australia’s variety portfolio was built on her generous reds, led by Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and, of late, Grenache, and underappreciated whites, Riesling, Sémillon and, of course, Chardonnay. Add to that some intriguing Pinot Noir in cool climate spots like Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania and you have a solid, albeit classic, mix. So, enter the new wave.
‘I think these varieties play an important role in reinventing Australian wines moving away from the cookie-cutter Shiraz that we are famous for,’ says Brendon Keys, owner and winemaker of BK Wines in the super-innovative Basket Range, South Australia. He notes as an example locally ‘…(where) a heap of Gamay has gone in, Darren Golding (from Golding Wines) has jumped in head first and planted five different clones which I’m excited about, as a Gamay lover. I am so excited that I have done a Gamay pét nat this year from Darren’s first crop.’
Still in South Australia, Louisa Rose, head of Winemaking at Yalumba, is often referred to as the ‘Queen of Viognier’ due to her pioneering work with the variety, itself a leading ‘alt-edge’ in the time-honored Aussie mix. She works with many new (to Australia) varieties including Viognier, of course, Roussanne, Tempranillo, Vermentino, Fiano, Verdejo and Albariño. Rose points out ‘…how many wineries and individual people are doing interesting things that are either new varieties, new takes on existing varieties or some combination of the two. Some are new names, and others are much more traditional names that you would know and may think of as being more ‘old fashioned’ until you looked a bit more deeply.’ Amongst others, she singles out Yarra Valley’s Oakridge Pinot Meunier and Luke Lambert’s Nebbiolo, New England’s Toppers Mountain (which has been making excellent wines from Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Gewürztraminer, Tannat, Barbera and Petit Manseng) and Mike Hayes at Symphony Hill in the Granite Belt who been working with about 50 different varieties in the vineyard and winery.
Moreover, it’s gratifying that this is not simply a case of ‘different for different’s sake’ with unicorn-chasing egos that are driving these wines; it’s a combination of passion, enthusiasm, and pushing the pragmatic boundaries of what makes sense.
Brad Hickey of Brash Higgins Wine Co. is an American sommelier turned amphora-juggling small-batch winemaker in McLaren Vale. He notes that, ‘Alternative varieties, or as we say, ‘appropriate varieties’, do well in climates that are similar from whence they came. Thus, Nero d’Avola, which we grow and make, works like magic in McLaren Vale, which has a virtually identical climate to Sicily. Transplanting like to like is the key. McLaren Vale is also a hot bed for many Southern Italian, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese varieties because they not only suit the climate, but they have good natural acidity, can handle the heat and drought and tend to be made with a lighter hand and less oak than the usual suspects Shiraz and Cabernet. Frankly, everything grows in coastal McLaren Vale, our job is to figure out what performs best.’
Old Meets New
Old tech helps. Yalumba’s Rose cites sustainable farming and winemaking and the use of low intervention and wild fermentation, while Hickey advocates his locally crafted amphoras and letting wines age on skins for 6 months before pressing ‘…an old technique, but one pretty new to modern school of Australia winemaking…. it’s about taking your foot off the oak and alcohol pedal and letting the grapes speak for themselves, picking earlier and using inert fermenters.’ Clearly, this new wave is swelling and the Australian horizon of new grapes is exciting. But where does that leave us with the tried and true? Surely, Yarra Valley Nebbiolo will not be kicking Coonawara Cabernet off the shelves any time soon?
It’s critical to keep the established fresh and contemporary and not rest on one’s laurels. And yes, winemakers are working with traditional varieties like Shiraz in innovative ways. Hickey poignantly remarks ‘Innovation runs deep in traditional varieties’. Whether, as Rose adds, ‘it’s longer skin time in reds such as Grenache or fermenting whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier on skins, there’s lots of room. Terroir only becomes more important as we look at place and varietal combinations, as well as understanding more about the link between microbiology of the place and the wine (through wild yeast).’
An Exciting Future
Today’s Australia is more exciting than ever as evidenced by the dizzying array of premium offerings available. And coming in all shapes and flavors, she is delivering very good wines. As Hickey smiled, ‘Making good wine is only the beginning and most everyone should be doing that, or it’s time to go home.’ And no, Brad, it’s not time to be going home any time soon.
Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein is President and Chief Education Officer of Full Circle Wine Solutions, a Bay Area-based wine education, event, and marketing company