Innovation and Exploration: My Voyage Into Australian Wine
By Rachael Ryan
To be honest, I never dreamt of Australia. The country had always seemed so far away, so remote, and the number of Australian wines I had opened could have been counted on both hands. The year was 2009, and I was working in the wine trade in New York City – selling, talking about, and of course drinking a lot of wine. I was in many ways a typical wine snob. I could discuss in great detail the obscure varieties of the Valle d’Aosta, but I couldn’t place the Hunter Valley on a map if my life depended upon it.
But I was tired of New York – of the hustle and busy city streets – so when an acquaintance in the wine business mentioned a M.A. program in gastronomy at the University of Adelaide, my ears pricked up. What did it matter that I knew nothing of the city? The chance to study food and wine in a faraway place? Dreamy. I’d always wanted to continue my education and, one successful application later, I found myself wiring a deposit to secure my place. I sold most of my belongings, packed what little remained into a small storage unit and flew halfway around the world to Adelaide, a city I knew only through late night YouTube viewings of other people’s poorly filmed vacation videos.
A Shock to the System: A Delight to the Palate
The transition from New York City to Adelaide was a bit of a shock to the system. In Adelaide, I drank mostly Australian wines, because, well, that’s what the Australians did. Coming from a country where selling domestic wines could be a challenge, I was quite surprised to observe such national pride. A backyard gathering in Adelaide usually consisted of a cornucopia of South Australian wines: Clare Valley Riesling to start, Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir to warm up, followed by a selection of McLaren Vale Grenache, Barossa Valley Shiraz and Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons that would stretch into the wee small hours. Regions and vineyards that were once just names on a wine list suddenly sprang vividly to life in the most enjoyable way.
Later, after graduating, I moved to Sydney to follow up on an opportunity to work as a sommelier at the Rockpool Bar and Grill; a restaurant with an impressive wine list, deep with selections from around the world and, of course, Australia. This was a challenge to say the least. I still considered myself an outsider, but now I was expected to speak with authority on some of Australia’s greatest wines.
A greater appreciation for Australian wine crept in day by day as I tasted my way through nearly every region, old vintages and new vintages, from established classics to young upstarts. I browsed bottle shops on my days off and attended several excellent industry tastings organized by Sommeliers Australia. When it was time to return home, and begin a new sommelier job in San Francisco, I looked forward to spreading my newfound knowledge and championing these misunderstood wines.
A Lifetime of Learning
You might think my education in the world of Australian wine ended there. But no. Now based in California, I found a few of my old snobbish misconceptions resurfacing, only this time they were pointed towards the wines of California. As a newcomer to the state I was struck by how much the Northern California landscape looks like Australia. Rolling hills with winter grasses slowly turning from green to gold. Boundless sunshine and eucalyptus trees swaying in the wind. This new place felt so familiar. Could it be possible that I was mistaken about Californian wines in the same way I had once been wrong about Australian wines?
Eager to understand the scope of Californian wine in the same way I was once eager to learn about Australian wine, I hung up my suit and signed up for my first harvest internship. A few vintages passed, winemaking became an increasingly large part of my life, and a thought occurred to me: Why not return to Australia to work a harvest there? If I had learned so much as a sommelier then, surely, I could learn just as much on the winemaking side.
Partially at the suggestion of Sophie Otton, the former wine director at Rockpool, last year I became connected to a small winemaker working in, Heathcote, Victoria, Jarad Curwood of Chapter Wine. Just a few short months later following an email introduction, I was in Jarad’s truck, headed north from Melbourne, chatting about the wine business in our respective countries.
Over the following weeks, Jarad and I would go to the winery in the morning to work – checking on and tasting fermentations, receiving fruit, punching down, pressing and so on. On the quieter days, we’d often drive to other small wineries nearby to taste and visit. Inevitably these visits would stretch out into extended conversations with the winemaker about everything wine-related. A distinct feeling of camaraderie permeated these long afternoons.
At some point in each visit, usually when the winemaker was pouring us samples from the barrels or fermenters, my eyes would widen in surprise. Of course, I expected to taste great wines; this much I had learned from my previous time in Australia. What I didn’t expect was the level of innovation and creativity in some of these tucked-away sheds in various corners of the country. There were interesting expressions of single varieties from single vineyards, but I also found myself drawn to more experimental wines; wines that were wildly untraditional and unrestrained. Skin contact, carbonic maceration, oxidative ageing, unusual co-fermentations. Again, and again, I would listen and taste and think: this is the future of winemaking.
Before I returned home, I was able to visit several other small wineries in South Australia as well, and I’m pleased to report that the community of like-minded winemakers, all striving to create the best possible wine, stretches across the entire country. And it’s a gorgeous community, one that continues to inspire me from the other side of the planet as I begin my own winemaking journey.
It’s exciting to see many of the inspirational producers I met and tasted with making their way to the US market and available to rediscover at home. When I think about the kinds of wines I want to make, I certainly find stimulus in the wines I tasted in Australia, but even more so, when I envision what the future looks like. I just hope it involves a community as thoughtful, creative and interconnected as the one I was lucky enough to encounter in Australia.
Rachael Ryan is a sommelier at High Treason in San Francisco