The art of Australian wine
If you’ve started to see more Australian wines in restaurants and fine wine shops across the country, don’t be surprised if the winemaker is nearby.
As premium Aussie wine continues to grow in the US – exports above $US15 a bottle surged 35 percent in the first three months of 2017 – more and more winemakers are finding their way to the States, eager to share their wines and individual winemaking stories and personalities.
This growing demand is also drawing some smaller producers to the US. We call them artisans – winemakers who manage small parcels of fruit, sometimes resulting in as little as one barrel of wine. Some are experimenting with alternative varieties, either wines not traditionally grown in the region, or offbeat varieties such as Fiano, Vermentino and Nero d’Avola. Others are utilizing natural winemaking techniques or minimal winery intervention, such as organic and biodynamic growing, allowing the soils and vines to speak for themselves. Others are terroir hunters who search for the best vineyard sites across Australia’s 65 wine regions to produce world class wines. All are producing delicious wines that showcase the diverse regions, varieties and styles, made possible from Australia’s long history of quality winemaking and wide range of climate and soil types, which provide the ideal conditions for experimental winemaking.
For many winemakers, this movement towards experimentation is nothing new. Sam Middleton, third-generation winemaker at Mount Mary in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, oversees his family’s 45-year tradition of small production, handmade wines. Does tradition limit innovation? Not for the Middletons, who after making some of Australia’s top Bordeaux blends, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for nearly half a century, are experimenting with Rhone varieties in their 40- acre single vineyard. “It’s about testing out the site and seeing what’s possible,” says Sam. “And we’re also adjusting our viticultural practices to suit these new varieties.” He characterizes placement of the vineyard site matched with the most appropriate varieties as key. “When you’re not having to manipulate the wines too much, that’s a sign that something’s planted in the right spot.”
Like Sam Middleton and many other winemakers, former New York sommelier Brad Hickey takes advantage of Australia’s lack of strict appellation laws, which don’t require wine regions to grow specific varieties.
“Australia, with its less stringent appellation laws, invites creativity and exploration,” says Hickey, whose McLaren Vale winery, Brash Higgins, is known for producing offbeat varieties like Nero d’Avola, Zibibbo and Cabernet Franc. “And the winemaking community rewards innovation, which I think is very positive.” Hickey works with local amphora makers to find aging vessels beyond traditional oak barrels and stainless steel tanks. Here, technique plays a major role in the resulting wines including long aging on skins and unusual blends of grapes. “It’s the faith, almost religious, that the quality of the fruit we grow on our vineyard will transform into something delicious and authentic to share with friends and punters,” says Hickey.
Similarly, in the cool-climate Adelaide Hills, 32-year-old Michael Downer is the thirdgeneration winemaker at his family’s Murdoch Hill winery and farm and is taking innovation in his stride. His grandfather bought the land in the 1930s, and Michael has sharpened the family business’s focus on winemaking, putting to work his oenology degree and stints making wine in France and Italy.
“We as an industry have been very proactive with the economics of winemaking and viticulture,” Downer explains. “But the next generation coming through is very much about quality, hand-picked wines, smaller batches of things. We’re doing the little things to create premium wine. It’ll take time for people to understand what we do in the vineyard and in the winery. But they’ll get it. It’s by breaking that mold of industrial winemaking; the more you get into small batches, the more you can break rules.”
Australia has a plethora of diverse fine wines, many made by artisanal winemakers who are not afraid to break from the norm to produce wines that are a testament to the land, vines and techniques they utilize. Whether they have a passion for natural winemaking, utilize new techniques, or emphasize the best vineyard sites, all have an affinity for experimentation and innovation. Australia’s artisans are producing wines that provide an exciting opportunity for discovery and are increasingly available in the US. Keep your eye out for an Australian winemaker nearby…