Australia's Best Buys

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  • Friday 16 January 2004

Big, brash and branded – and that’s just their wines. Or is it?
MAX ALLEN states the case for taking Australian wine more seriously.

'The Australian wine industry is standing on the edge of a cliff. And it’s about to drop off.’ The words come not from a rival exporter, but from Australia’s renowned veteran winemaker, industry leader and founder of one its top wineries, Brian Croser.

‘Australia has done too good a job of promoting itself as the New World’s commodity wine producer,’ the founder of Petaluma continues. ‘As a result, there aren’t enough Australian premium wines on the wine lists of restaurants in the great capitals of the world. Australian wine is in danger of becoming the Liebfraumilch of the 21st century.’

Ouch. Them’s fightin’ words. And while you could argue that Croser is overstating the case somewhat, you have to concede he has a point. After all, Blue Nun – the brand which introduced drinkers around the world to Liebfraumilch in the 1970s – has just expanded its range to include an Australian Shiraz.

Worryingly, though, Croser’s sentiments are shared by an increasing number of observers in the countries where Australia has established such a crucial presence. Wine-writing doyenne Jancis Robinson MW sent a wave of despondency rippling through the Australian winemaking community last year when she wrote: ‘The image of Australian wine is not as rosy as it was in the early 1990s. Consumers pride themselves on having ‘’grown out of’’ Australian wine, so long associated, rightly or wrongly, with oaky whites and alcoholic reds. And the mass of wine commentators have, in the past year or two, vied with each other to see who can sling the most insults at the Aussie wine establishment. The wines themselves are dismissed as technical constructs of big business, horrible things called brands, which lack the soul of ‘’real wine’’ made by Europeans in general and the French in particular.’

But how accurate is this view? Should Australia’s 1,700 producers be written off because of the sometimes less-than-enthralling drinking experience offered by a few large brands?

Of course not. Just as you can’t measure a fraction of the depth and diversity of America’s food culture by eating at McDonalds or KFC, so it is ludicrous to define ‘Australian Wine’ solely in terms of Creeks, Stamps, or Bin Numbers. Australia makes ‘real wine’ just as much as France boasts a bevy of brands (Piat d’Or, anyone?).

One person who believes passionately in Australia’s real wines is Melbourne-based sommelier and consultant, Lok Thornton. Late last year, Thornton presented a series of dinners at some of the world’s top restaurants (Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, The Fat Duck, just outside London, Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris…) showcasing the best wines from some of Australia’s top producers – among them Grosset Riesling, Leeuwin Chardonnay, Bass Phillip Pinot Noir, Jasper Hill Shiraz etc.

Called ‘Twelve Reasons to Drink Australian Wine’, the roadshow was devised by Thornton partly in response to what he was reading by critics such as Robinson, and partly to counter the complacency he was witnessing both in his own country and overseas. Thornton feels Australia has lost its way in terms of promotion and marketing.

‘Not enough people are making a big enough noise about the great wines we have here,’ he says. ‘I see Australians who think overtaking the French in sales to the UK is enough. But it’s not. The thing is, people who really understand wine are prepared to take you seriously when you offer them a serious wine.’

With this in mind, I have selected 10 wines to re-invigorate your faith in Australian wine. Importantly, the wines come from both very small and very large wine producers: it’s important to point out that big does not always equal bad (or that ‘brand’ does not always mean ‘soulless’) to Australians, and that some of Australia’s best ‘real wines’ are made by some of the biggest companies.

Keeping the following list down to just 10 wines was no easy task, believe me. But hopefully, in the not too distant future, narrowing the list down like this will be even harder as more and more great Australian wines become available.

Max Allen is the author of Crush: The New Australian Wine Book; £18.99, Mitchell Beazley.

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