The word ‘Australia’ conjures up any number of mental images, some better than others (last minute drop-kick? Ashes? 6 foot tanned blondes?), but it is one of the most devisive words when it comes to wine. The Australian wine trade has a reputation for over-oaked, high alcohol wines that are straightforward and fruity, good fare for barbeques and parties. Well there certainly are plenty of wines like that out there, all of them affordable and all of them hugely popular with the UK public at large. In fact Australia is now our favourite country for wine production according to the latest trade figures. I’m not here to tell you about the relative merits of Hardys stamp vs. Jacob’s Creek , these have their place but are not, broadly speaking, very interesting. Instead I’m going to look at regional Australia and suggest some wines that you might never consider.
Ten years ago, if you were to suggest to a French wine-maker that he might learn something from the Aussies, you would receive a gallic shrug and a withering look of contempt, possibly followed by a steam of invective in rapid French, accompanied by lots of flying spittle. ‘Mais Non, it is the French who can teach the Australians’ and they have. Trouble is, the Aussies paid such close attention that they are doing just as good a job of grape selection and vinification techniques in some areas as the best French regions and a better job of marketing.
The main difference between European and Australian wine labels is the relative size of the words that tell you what the wine is made from and where it is made. Look at a bottle of Rioja for example, the Spanish Classic. It says RIOJA in big letters, then it might say ‘tempranillo’ in small text underneath. Now you might buy it because you like Rioja, but the ones you bought in the past may well have been Tempranillo/garnacha blends, which have a very different flavour. Contrast this with a bottle of Aussie wine, You get SHIRAZ CABERNET in big text, then South Eastern Australia underneath in small text. This makes life much easier if you cannot see your usual brand in the shops, it’s easy to pick up a similar wine. This simple approach has helped the Australian trade immeasurably.
So what’s good and where’s good? Australia has traditionally concentrated on two areas in terms of grape variety, mainstream international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay, but also really obscure things like Verdelho, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. The previous scatter-gun approach to planting these is due to the exceptionally rich soil found in the South East of the country. More recently we have started to see good examples of Sauvignon Blanc, un-oaked Semillon, dry Riesling and even some decent quality merlots appearing.
Most of the vineyards are concentrated in the south of the country and many of these are close to the coast, which in most countries would ensure a cooling, temperate influence on the vineyards. The biggest benefactor of this influence is Western Australia and in particular the Margaret River region. For years Australian winemakers struggled to try and produce decent Sauvignon blanc, but the heat of the major areas precluded the production of anything resembling a fine wine. By following both the European model of planting certain grapes in areas where the soil and climate are condusive to success and by employing the techniques used in the best wine regions around the world, Australia has finally come to the Sauvignon party.
The Heartland of Australian ‘blockbuster red’ production is in the central south, close to Melbourne in the areas of Coonawarra, Barossa and Mclaren Vale. It is from these regions that some of the greatest wines in the world hail, usually made either from Cabernet Sauvignon or more often from Shiraz.