Oz on Oz
- Tuesday 2 November 2004
My first visit to Australia was in the early 1970s, as a young actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thirsty, ignorant, I was immediately aware that here was a wine-drinking culture based on no-nonsense enthusiasm, flavour of the fruit and value for money that didn’t exist in Europe, and certainly not in Britain. And the country. I loved the country.
On my second trip, a mad scamper of five days organised by Jacob’s Creek, I was playing Peron in Evita in the West End, and we careered around Sydney’s Hunter Valley and Adelaide’s Barossa Valley. This was my first sight of the gaunt beauty of Australian vineyards – gashes of green against the parched, ancient soil. This was my first meeting with the jovial zealots who made Australian wine. And this was my first taste of ripeness as a natural flavour in wine. Sunshine in a bottle? These were bursting with it.
Later I became a wine writer and started doing my TV shows. I returned to the combative but welcoming and classless world of Australia whenever I could. And it’s not just Australia any more: New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and California all now offer us wines that are simply labelled, full of flavour and fairly priced. Just the kind of stuff we can confidently stash in our shopping baskets without a glance over our shoulder to see if we’ve made the right choice. In Britain we now have a wine culture without hang-ups, thanks to New World attitudes that are at last invading European winelands too, but without Australia’s brash ‘gotta have a go’ mentality, we might still be waiting.
If this sounds as if Australia is solely about easy-drinking grog, I’m not being fair. There is no question that the Aussies have flooded the wine world with attractive yet unchallenging wines. In fact, I think they’ve gone too far. By massively expanding their vineyards and then having to find a market, any market, while larger and larger crops keep coming in, some have resorted to dumbing down their wines, and there’s too much cynical manipulation of deep price discounting. They’ll only have themselves to blame if more and more people begin to think of Australia as merely the mass producer of cheap and cheerful booze.
But what a tragedy that would be. On every visit I make, I discover talented, committed producers desperate to show how brilliant the flavours and unique the personality of their wines can be. I see old vineyards revived in the Barossa and the Hunter, I see new vineyards planted on old sites across North-East Victoria, and even newer vineyards planted in areas of Australia where nothing existed before. And I taste wines that thrill me to the core.
Oz Clarke’s Australian Wine Companion is hot off the press (£14.99, Time Warner Books). For wine stockist codes see p170.