A Two-Century Australian Tradition

Melbourne, Australia, 1870 AD. Despite the fact that you drink wine regularly at your large and stately home and that wine grapes had been planted here since the arrival of the first European settlers in 1788, none of what you drink is Australian. You are simply too snobbish to drink Australian wine in these colonial times, even if they are beating famous French names in competitions all over Europe. Your wine made its way to you from France in the hold of a sailing ship. So even if Penfolds were making Grange back then, it’s doubtful you would even have considered it.

Despite that, Australia did indeed have a vibrant wine industry back then, selling large volumes from South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria to England. Australia was actually known as ‘John Bull’s Vineyard.’

Sydney, 1955 AD. You drink Australian wine regularly, but that’s because you have just arrived from Europe after the Second World War. Good wine is hard to find, and you buy most of what you drink by the barrel, not the bottle. The industry has shrunk from its former size and mainly produces fortified wines resembling sherry and port. Penfolds was just about to cease making their failed shiraz flagship, Grange, because nobody liked it.

Melbourne, 1975. After two big decades of planting cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, riesling and semillon, table wines have taken off. Furthermore, you’re right in the middle of the cool climate revolution which saw the reawakening of cool regions such as the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula (Victoria), the Adelaide Hills (South Australia), Margaret River and the Great Southern (Western Australia), plus a widespread planting across northern and southern Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost and coolest state.

Prior to this, Australian wine tended to come from warmer regions like the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley (all in South Australia), while the Hunter Valley (New South Wales) was an important source of shiraz and semillon for the nearby Sydney market.

So most of your friends are now familiar with wine, even if they don’t drink it every day. You’re a member of a wine club, and have just dug a cellar beneath your living room. And you have just become very excited at the idea of buying good cheap wine in a tap-pack, instead of a bottle. In fact, Australian wine is so cheap that Penfolds Grange, which is back in favor, looks expensive at $13 a bottle!

Perth, 1995. Everyone is drinking wine. Your corridor at home resembles a warehouse; you lunch monthly at the Beefsteak and Burgundy Club; and go away to the countryside on weekends, just to go to wineries. You frequent wine bars and tastings after work, and there is so much wine stored under your bed that your mattress has risen up in the middle, completely separating you from your wife. Robert Parker discovered Grange, so its price increased by 1000%. The prices of other rich and ripe Australian reds have been dragged up with it.

Anywhere, Australia, 2007. Most Australians now experience wine at some time or other. Many are obsessed by it. They sniff it, sip it, collect it, catalogue it, talk it, post and blog on the internet about it and read everything about it. They follow new regions, new trends and new makers. They’re happy to pay $500 (A) for an ordinary vintage of Grange. Wine, not beer, has become Australia’s national beverage, which is just as well since the Australian wine industry has expanded out of control. Wine is on sale everywhere, from giant mega wine stores to small boutique shops and delicatessens. It’s wherever you look in restaurants, hotels and at sporting fixtures; even on the beach.

Australia is today the world’s fourth largest wine exporter, while back in 1996 it was exporting just $390 million (U.S.) per year. Its present exports are worth $2.2 billion (U.S.), with only France, Italy, and Spain selling more. In that time Australia has risen from the world’s 9th largest wine producer to become the 5th largest.

What Australians are drinking today

Two of the hottest segments within the Australian wine retail market are sauvignon blanc and rosé. Often blended with semillon, Australian sauvignon blanc can be tightly focused, refreshing and minerally, delivering intense flavors of gooseberries, citrus and tropical fruit backed by racy acids. Led by wines from Cullen, Cape Mentelle, and Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River in Western Australia produces the largest number of outstanding sauvignon blanc-semillon blends, while the Yarra Valley in Victoria is also responsible for several from wineries like Yering Station, De Bortoli, and Mount Mary.

One of Australia’s largest wine companies recently exhibited a number of its wines at a public food and wine show in Melbourne. Its most popular wine, by far, was a slightly sweet and very effervescent rosé. They ran out of it. For years, it was a mystery why rosé was not hugely popular in Australia, whose climate and relaxed style of dining lends itself so easily to the enjoyment of this vibrant and refreshing wine. Today rosé is an industry all its own. Hundreds are made across Australia and sales are skyrocketing. Old grenache vineyards in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale lend themselves to the more sumptuous and juicy style of makers like Charles Melton and Turkey Flat, while many pinot noir growers also ‘bleed off’ a small amount of lightly pink juice for the fine and drier style of rosé exemplified by Yering Station’s ED Rosé.

The other fad sweeping Australia today is pinot gris, or grigio. Initially inspired by some provocatively made and labeled pinots gris and grigio from T’gallant in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, growers and makers alike have fallen for the dual expressions of this variety. Some fine examples are made by Piper’s Brook (Tasmania) and Mount Langi Ghiran (Western Victoria).

While it’s no longer a fashionable wine in Australia, chardonnay actually remains the country’s most widely consumed wine. It would be entirely fair to criticize Australian chardonnay makers for having produced a decade and a half of over-oaked and excessively brassy chardonnay that lacks freshness and focus, but the truth is that they have responded to the challenge to make better wine. By and large, winemakers are using oak so deftly with their chardonnay today that the extreme expression of unoaked chardonnay wine has largely lost its raison d’être. Modern chardonnays of tightness and freshness are made by Coldstream Hills (Yarra Valley), Houghton (Pemberton), and Starvedog Lane (Adelaide Hills).

The extraordinary impact of Clonakilla’s perfumed and savory Shiraz Viognier blend has inspired hundreds of wineries to create their own example. While makers are still learning how to use viognier without it looking too obvious in a finished wine, the species has certainly improved over the past 12 months.

Dominated for so long by traditional French grape varieties, the Australian wine landscape is being made more colorful and varied with the introduction of varieties from different European wine cultures like sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera, tempranillo, graciano, garganega, arneis, and petit manseng. While it’s not realistic to expect miracles overnight, some makers have done the research, are using the best clones, and are beginning to make some startling wine. Many of these varieties come from European regions where they produce dry and savory wines that are better equipped to handle various expressions of Australia’s widely diverse cuisine. No wines go better with traditional Italian cuisine, for instance, than Italian wines — or fine Australian examples made from the same grape varieties.

The best expressions of these varieties include the Castagna’s La Chiave Sangiovese (Beechworth, Victoria), Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Nebbiolo (Heathcote, Victoria), Primo Estate’s Joseph Nebbiolo (McLaren Vale, South Australia), Pizzini’s Sangiovese (King Valley, Victoria), Coriole Sangiovese (McLaren Vale, South Australia), Montrose Barbera (Mudgee, New South Wales), Yalumba Tempranillo Grenache Viognier (Barossa Valley, South Australia), d’Arenberg The Sticks & Stones Tempranillo Grenache Souzao (McLaren Vale, South Australia), and Heartland’s Dolcetto Lagrein 2004 (Langhorne Creek, South Australia).