Why doesn’t Australian wine kick my head in anymore?
The thought occurred to me last week at a tasting evening ín Liverpool’s Oddbins, presented to offer a picture of the current state of play with Australian wine. Every wine on show was delicious, and of unarguable quality, but none of them seemed likely to put hairs on my chest, a marked difference form ten years or so ago, when they felt like they were putting hairs on my tongue…
Australia’s first vines were planted by the earliest western settlers in the mid eighteenth century, and by the late nineteenth century wine was seeing huge scale production, largely fortified and quite disdained abroad. As immigration escalated after World War Two, it was clear that people seeking a new and better life didn’t want it to involve dog-rough Ports and Sherries, not even the British, and so developed the familiar style of generously full-fruited, alcohol-heavy, sweetly oak-enriched wines that dominated the country’s output until quite recently. But over the past decade, extremes of weather and a strengthening currency have had an economic impact on the wine trade. Moreover, the country’s more passionate winemakers have sought to keep abreast of changing tastes, and to craft wines that emphasise regionality, diversity and quality rather than simple bang for the buck.
Two of the winemakers under the spotlight illustrated differing approaches to this. Ben Glaetzer comes from a rightly respected and long-standing winemaking family, and his Heartland winery’s Dolcetto and Lagrein blend (£14.00 at time of writing) gave a fine illustration of the move towards Alternative Varieties. A wonderfully rich but medium-bodied red made from two native Italian grapes, it was juicy with hints of cherry and a slight twist of Dolcetto sweetness mixing with tasteful vanilla oak. Australia’s grape menu now lists any number of international side dishes, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and countless others, to such an extent that Pinot Gris was recently denied a prestigious Alternative Variety award on account of it not being alternative enough!
Robert Oatley, an esteemed sailor and one of the great characters of Australian wine, now seeks to make classically-styled wines from the country’s more celebrated grapes, and the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on show would give their European counterparts a pretty close run for their money. Bob himself, now in his 80s, made his name in the 1960s, by exporting coffee and cocoa beans from Papua New Guinea. As the owner of the Rosemount Estate winery in the 70s and 80s, his experience of international commodity training – unromantic but practical! – set him up nicely to spread the gospel of the country’s generously accommodating wines to the world at large. Bob’s family-run business now owns or controls a great variety of highly esteemed vineyard sites, from which his head winemaker, the much-garlanded Larry Cherubino, coaxes wines that totally reflect their origin and terroir. Two of them were up for grabs at the tasting – the Signature Chardonnay, from Margaret River in Western Australia, is a spry middleweight with fresh and fine citrus acidity, levelled off with a touch of gently unintrusive French oak. Its counterpoint Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, had a juicy strawberry character with a savoury edge, and a soft, mouthfilling acidity that kept afloat a seemingly endless finish. Both wines cost £13.25, and anybody wondering what happened to the Australian bargains of yore might do well to compare either of the Oatley wines to their similarly-priced Burgundy counterparts, or the Heartland blend to a Piedmont equivalent. The bargains are still there, they just cost more. And be honest, do you really want a bottle of wine to beat you up for six pound fifty?