UK wine drinkers are much in the debt of Australian wine. If we think back to the ‘pre-Australian’ period of UK wine retailing we were limited to French classics, German hock and what we fairly politely referred to as Spanish plonk. I’m sure it wasn’t quite as bad as that but that’s what it feels like. Australia’s contribution was to produce huge volumes of easy-to-drink wine which was full of flavour and at great prices. And they labelled them with varietal names which wine drinkers could understand: Shiraz, Chardonnay and so on. Producers in the old world could complain that it was a simplistic approach but it really challenged them to do better.
But there was a downside to the Australian wine revolution. A combination of factors led to a difficult decade: over-planting, increasingly scarce water for irrigation, adverse exchange rates and, latterly, being undercut by countries like Chile and South Africa with lower labour costs. As a result Australia is having to rethink its strategy in an increasingly competitive world. It has begun to understand that it can’t just focus on easy drinking and low price. And what is the new card it can play? The best answer would be regionality. Because of cheap Australian imports we tend to forget that there are vast differences in soils, terrain and climates across its far flung regions. Margaret River influenced by the cold southern ocean is very different from the hot, dry interior of South East Australia where the volume grapes are grown. Coastal Victoria, hot and humid Hunter Valley and of course cool Tasmania are very diverse regions. Andrew Jefford, perhaps our most insightful wine writer, is currently working on a major book on Australian terroir – not a combination of words you used to hear!
This theme was beautifully demonstrated at a recent Caviste event which contrasted the wines of Yarra Yerring with those of Spinnifex. These are both artisan wineries with the very highest standards but there is a marked difference in the style of the wines. A large part of this is down to the different climate in coastal Victoria and the Barossa Valley. Yarra Yerring is in the hills outside Melbourne and thus is situated on the relatively cool coast of Victoria. Summer average maximum temperature is around 25° centigrade. To make a European comparison it is cooler than Bordeaux but warmer than Burgundy. By contrast the Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide, has a hot continental climate (with some cooler spots) and a summer average maximum five degrees higher which is very significant in terms of ripening grapes.
But the character of a wine is not entirely down to the climate. It is also in the hands of the winemaker. Here these two companies share some characteristics, especially restraint, if to varying degrees. Yarra Yerring is very restrained and distinctly French in style. If the generally tendency in the new world is to move back from opulent, fruit-expressive styles, the irony here is that Yarra Yering’s wines have always been like that. They are fashionable now by the old fashioned virtue of staying true to their original, restrained style. Tasted blind you might well think that their Pinot Noir was Burgundy or, at a push, from Oregon. The Dry Red Wine number 1 is a wonderfully savoury, classy Bordeaux blend to which much Claret could aspire. It is only when you get to Dry Red Wine number 2 that you get some powerful fruit, mostly Shiraz, and that is even more the case with Underhill’s Shiraz, from the oldest vines.
Spinnifex’s wines are more typical of warm climate Australia but even are far from being simple fruit bombs. You can put this down to a number of factors but there is undoubtedly an element of what Caviste manager Mark Bedford called ‘French restraint’. This could be just a preferred style or the influenced of the owners, an Australian and French couple. Either way, the Rhône blend Esprit has real depth of fruit which is held together with acidity and tannins, while La Maline (Shiraz with a hint of Marsanne) and especially Bête Noir (single varietal Shiraz) are powerful wines with some structural tension.
Let’s look forward to a future where Australian regionality becomes better defined and is properly celebrated!