John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Aug 18th, 2018

The New Australia
By John Szabo, MS, with notes by David Lawrason and Michael Godel

John Szabo, MSAustralia has worked hard over the last decade to re-shape its image from purveyor of inexpensive, fruity “sunshine in a bottle” to serious, regionally-focused fine wine producer and innovator. If you’re still stuck in the old paradigm, then the VINTAGES August 18th release is your opportunity to get caught up on what’s happening down under – the scene has changed radically. I’m happy to report that VINTAGES has done a great job assembling an admirable collection of new and improved Aussie wines for this feature. Yet not all experiments are successful, and nor are all of the wines offered here great, so David, Michael and I have highlighted our top picks, the bottles we feel tell the story. Give them a try; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The New Australia

The Australian wine industry has always been on the leading edge, be it with marketing, technology, or winemaking innovation. Led by institutions like the Australian Wine Research Institute, the grape and wine industry’s own research organisation established in 1955, and advanced viticulture and oenology programs like the one at the University of Adelaide, the industry has never been short of highly educated, thoughtful winegrowers nor solutions to current and looming challenges.

Yet perhaps the one challenge that the industry was not prepared for was the unprecedented commercial success it enjoyed in the late 1990s. The story is by now well-known: the industry plan known as “Strategy 2025”, published in 1996 and designed to chart the course and set goals for Australian wine exports through to 2025, ran into the awkward and unexpected outcome that the export target was reached by 2005, a full two decades ahead of schedule.

The momentum, impossible to sustain, naturally stalled. And at the same time, along with this stratospheric feat, a general impression became cemented that Aussie wines were fun, simple, inexpensive sunshine-in-a-bottle offerings, blended from vast areas for consistency. That was great for the short term, but disastrous in the long run, as the world moved inexorably upmarket, seeking wines of greater distinctiveness and sense of place.

For the last dozen years or so, the industry has thus scrambled to remake that image, and redefine Australia as a source of regionally expressive, nuanced wines. And they’ve done an excellent job of it. How have they managed? By re-emphasizing wines from single regions, planting alternative varieties, and radically re-thinking winemaking philosophy.

Certainly one of the most significant changes in Australia over the last 15 years has been the move away from multi-region blends for consistency, to bottling regional or individual vineyard expressions for originality. This is the most obvious and immediate way to transmit the message that not all wines from Australia taste the same. There are, of course, significant differences in climates and soils across a country that is, after, all, larger than all of Europe together. Today it’s not only possible, but required knowledge in the trade to comment on the differences between, say, Coonawarra and Margaret River Cabernet, or Shiraz from the Barossa and Yarra Valleys (and their sub-regions, too). This absolutely makes for a more interesting wine scene, providing “something for the thinkers among the drinkers”, as a savvy marketer once put to me.

The exploitation of micro terroirs has also opened the door to featuring one of Australia’s other great assets: old vines. Australia has more acreage of old vineyards (and I mean old, many over a century), especially red varieties, than any other country I know. Many of these national treasures were until recently lost in anonymous blends. But the resurgence in regionality has encouraged the individual bottling of old vine cuvées. These are vineyards that survived for a reason: they produce dependable yields of good wine, more naturally balanced than young vines, with greater flavour development at lower potential alcohol and higher acid.

And the change goes deeper. The industry has also been facing climate change head on, which has in turn forced innovation and experimentation. Australia is the driest continent on earth and drought has always been a problem for farmers. Yet water shortage has grown more acute since the turn of the century. One elegant and simple solution has been to plant more drought resistant varieties, especially Mediterranean grapes (think the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and Greece) that have developed a natural tolerance to arid conditions over centuries of natural selection and evolution. (Frankly, these so-called “alternative” varieties have always made more viticultural sense, as they do in countless other hot new world countries places that remain hooked on temperate French varieties.) And like old vines, the most suitable alternative grapes, even when young, offer greater flavour at lower alcohol and higher acids. That’s something we can all be excited about.

Referring to rising global temperatures, d’Arenberg winemaker Chester Osborn was recently quoted in Drinks Business magazine, saying: “The solution lies in different grape varieties. Grenache works well in Australia and Mencía [from the Iberian Peninsula] is a strong contender to replace Shiraz as they share similar characteristics,” he confirms. “We have 1.5 acres planted but I’m planting more. It’s working really well as it’s a very late ripening variety, which is what I want. It has a beautiful, spicy, herbal character that reminds me of Shiraz, red cherry fruit and a similar length to Shiraz.”

“As for whites”, Osborn continues, “I think Assyrtiko [from Greece], Fiano and Greco di Tufo [from southern Italy] have great potential in Australia and I’m experimenting with all three.”

And Osborn, of course, is not alone. Of all the new world wine producing countries, Australia is the furthest ahead with alternative varieties. Beyond the varieties mentioned above, you’ll find commercial production of dozens of grapes such as montepulciano, sangiovese, sagrantino, nero d’Avola, and vermentino from Italy, and tempranillo and touriga nacional from Iberia, to name but very few. In all there are some 150 varieties currently grown down under, and together they make for an excellent collection of different, unique wines to enjoy, now firmly part of the Australian wine offer.

Searching for cooler regions and moving to higher elevations is another long-term solution to excess heat and drought, and many new regions have been exploited or expanded. Though to be sure, there are precious few areas that can be rightly called cool in Australia.

Perhaps the biggest change of all has been the rethinking of winemaking philosophy. In the hey-days of commercial boom, the tendency was to figure out what the market wanted, then set about working backwards all the way to the vineyards to figure out how to achieve the desired style. The prevailing view today is the complete opposite: starting from the place, matching it to the most suitable varieties and the farming techniques that will yield the most balanced crop, and then doing as little as possible in the winery not to muck it up, in an effort to emphasize fruity purity and expression of place.

This last step, I imagine, was the toughest, considering the high level of technical winegrowing expertise that the vast majority of Aussie winemakers possess – it’s hard to take all that winemaking chemistry schooling and toss it out the window. Yet there’s an important cadre of winemakers doing just that: converting to organic or biodynamic viticulture, eschewing any chemical additions in the winery, including sulphur, employing a fleet of alternative, neutral vessels (concrete and clay, in addition to steel and old wood in all shapes and sizes), and generally shaking up the establishment.

The most notable victory of these new radicals came when the tasting panel for export approval was abolished a few years ago. Wines displaying any “deviations”, such as cloudiness or volatile acidity, were previously being denied the right to export, despite having eager customers waiting for delivery. The fear was that any international leakage of “defective” wines would ruin the reputation of the entire Australian wine industry. It may not seem that radical, but such a change from within an industry that was so keen to control absolutely everything related to wine is nothing short of revolutionary, and speaks volumes to the depth of the philosophical change that has occurred.

On the down side, it’s also in the style camp that the pendulum has swung to the greatest degree, sometimes to exaggerated excess, from hyper-tinkering to achieve that big and bold wine (late harvest, jammy fruit, high alcohol, masses of oak, etc.) to fanatical pursuit of the opposite: low alcohol, high acid, little to no oak, etc.). But this approach is no better than that of the early days. It often means imposing a style that’s simply not suitable for the material at hand. I’ve had all too many under-ripe, under-flavoured, under-oaked wines over the past several years. Simply moving up your harvest date in a hot region doesn’t mean you’ll make elegant wine. It means you’ll make underripe wine, like a couple in this release. That’s the frustrating part of the wine business, you can only give what you get. It’s part of the growing pains of any new region, or any old one redefining itself.

But as the pendulum inevitably seeks to reach its equilibrium position, and winegrowers grow more comfortable with their place in life (literally), we can increasingly look forward to enjoying the sheer breadth and depth of Australian wine, from Botticelli to Giacometti.

For those willing to make the journey, it’s certainly rewarding. Start with these paradigm shifting examples.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES Aug 18th

Australian Whites & Rosés

Brokenwood 2016 Semillon Hunter Valley, New South Wales ($22.95)
John Szabo – Well, hardly a radical new offering. Brokenwood has been making brilliant semillon for a couple of decades, but perhaps the world is more open to the uncompromising style. The 2016 is another brilliant wine, or at least it will be in about a decade, a classic Hunter semillon, deceptively powerful with just 10.5% alcohol, sharp acids and excellent length. It’s surprisingly good now, however, I can see the future clearly here with the hot butter and honey-drenched toast flavours that will emerge. Be patient, at least until the early ’20s. Best 2021-2030.…

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John Szabo, MS

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