In defence of Oz

People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 11 January 2006

Australian wines get a bad press, says Len Evans AO, OBE. But look beyond the big brands and you’ll find dozens of enduring greats from older vintages, and a new generation of talented winemakers who are keen to break out of the mould

Ho Hum, haven’t Australian wines become boring. It’s the

F-word all the way – fruity, faultless, fleshy, full of flavour – a constant stream of vinous invective. No wonder: Australia may account for only 7% of world wine exports, but it’s no longer the underdog.

‘Dull’, ‘brand’ and ‘repetitive’ are words used regularly by British wine writers, and one can’t really blame them – they can’t write about Jacob’s Creek all the time, splendid brand though it is. They’ve got to find something new or young, or both, or something classic that’s been remodelled.

Australia is a long way away so a lot of writers simply don’t visit often enough. This is a pity, for there are so many passionate young people around, and good things are happening. What’s more, it’s been going on for a long time.

Some years ago I got so fed up with the growing hostility that I put on a tasting lunch at The Capital in London, featuring 13 reds from 1962 or earlier. All the wines, which were on average 40 years old, opened very well. A 50-year-old Maurice O’Shea Mount Pleasant from the Hunter Valley was a knock-out, as were the 1959 Lindemans Bin 1590, 1955 Grange and 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A.

A few years later, Robert Hill Smith of Yalumba decided to hold a wine tasting in London. At this event, even older Australian wines were applauded. Even Michael Broadbent was impressed.

But the good memories of these events seem to have been swept away by the sheer volume of successful big-name Aussie brands: the ones the public love to buy and the writers love to scorn. So we did it all again. At a function in Maitland, Australia, only old Australian wines were featured. It was held at Aberglasslyn House, a wonderful Georgian pile built in 1844, which is very old for modern Australia.

The event was called ‘Legendary Wines of Australia’. After a glass or two of Champagne (nobody who’s anybody

drinks Aussie sparkling) we went on to a selection of Rieslings from 1971 to 1990. I don’t intend to discuss all the wines we tasted, but I’ll mention one or two, from different categories, to prove how unbranded Australian wines can be.

The Leo Buring Eden Valley 1979 was just incredible. It had a wonderful, pale green-gold colour and an intense, almost piercing nose. The flavours were floral and citrus, and beautifully delicate and fine. It was light yet penetrating. I don’t like to keep old Rieslings, disliking the kerosene character that often occurs, but I do like it when other people keep wines like this, so I can drink them. The Pewsey Vale 1971 was still drinkable and had both a cork and a screwcap. But it was slightly capped.

The next selection was all glory. At their best, Hunter Valley wines are among some of the greatest aged Semillons in the world. The star among stars that shone the brightest was a 1970 Lindemans Hunter Valley Chablis Bin 3875 (ye Gods!). Green-gold in colour again, it had an ethereal, light toast and vanilla nose (no wood), and was delicate and flavoursome with great length and a tight, flinty acid finish. Despite being 34 years old, it still had many more to go. I’ve known the wine since it was made and have helped give it all sorts of awards. What a tragedy that nobody keeps Semillon for more than two or three years (when it’s at its worst).

Coonawarra is having a bit of a rough trot at the moment. Its King Valley Cabernet has been usurped, and in many ways it has only itself to blame. The wine has too much flesh, too much oak and is too ready to drink. The great old- fashioned values of austerity, finesse and elegance, with a hint of lactic and great length, were exemplified by the Woodley 1959, from the Treasure Chest series created by Tony Nelson. The etched labels of old prints were said to have cost more than the wine. Intensity of flavour came through again, with line, length and finesse spilling over, rather than huge fruit and sunshine.

Then we went onto some of the most famous names, all from Penfolds. Perhaps surprisingly, the Bin 7 of 1967 shone. Always a great wine, one of endeavour and selection rather than site and terroir, it was impeccable. The bouquet was deliciously sweet, not sugary but perfume sweet, with an aroma of crushed roses and violets, and a hint of truffles. Rich and commanding, it was a joy to splosh around the mouth before releasing it down the back of the palate, all line and edge to a long, long finish and aftertaste. I can still taste it now.

The final reds were a battalion of old Hunters – the greatest from Franco-Irishman Maurice O’Shea. His 1939, bottled by God knows who and the first I’ve seen of that vintage, was simply stunning: totally harmonious and delicious. Yet the real fight was between his 1947 Bin RF11 and his 1954 Charles. The 1947 was accepted at first as the best, but as the conversation evolved, so did the 1954. I didn’t really give a damn. I just sat there and loved every second.

Virtually all the wines came from dry vineyards, giving low-yielding, often stressed, fruit. They were all hand-rammed, with some maceration – either pre- or post-fermentation.

They were all made in small quantities and, interestingly, that’s just what’s happening again today. Many producers, accused of modern, technical sameness, have reverted to the old ways. And many talented young winemakers are leaving the larger companies, fed up of putting together and bottling thousands of cases a day and never having time to do their own thing. There are scores of bright, dedicated professionals who have no wish to become commodities. They are hugely interesting individuals and are making – and will make – exciting new wines.

Interestingly, the three most famous wines featured in the tasting – 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A, 1971 Penfolds Grange and 1959 Lindemans Bin 1590 – still retained elements of their glory yet all suffered from oxidation caused by poor storage. They have now been put to auction by unscrupulous traders who have damaged the wine by poor storage.

Garagiste has an entirely different meaning in Australia.

Len Evans is a renowned wine educator, judge and critic.

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