Many Australian winemakers are forgoing the trademark big, ripe wines in favour of a more refined style. MAX ALLEN highlights the regions to choose for elegance
Big, sweet, strong, ripe, generous, upfront. This is how most people would describe Australian wines, especially those from the larger, warmer regions such as the Barossa Valley. After all, it’s these wines – big, ripe, upfront and great value – that have built an Australian export reputation over the last decade or so.
But this is just one face of Australia. Increasingly, winemakers down under are chasing styles that are light, savoury, delicate, restrained and reserved. Wines that are more, dare we say it, European.
They’re doing this in two ways: by planting grapes in cooler spots (either higher up or further south, where it’s cooler and wetter), or by picking grapes earlier, using less new oak, less American oak in the barrel store, and relying less on techniques such as malolactic in white wines and added tannin in reds. There’s nothing new, of course, about elegant Australian wines. A quick flick through the history books shows that legendary wines from the last century – such as the 1872 Craiglee Shiraz and 1912 Yeringberg Cabernet, both from Victoria, or the 1960s and early 1970s Lindemans Semillons from the Hunter Valley – were all relatively light in alcohol and body in their youth, yet drank well for 50 years or more.
But another quick flick through today’s the Australian posher wine lists, for example, shows that after a decade-long trend of big, beefed-up reds, more elegant styles are once again all the rage. If anything, there’s a cringe among some sommeliers and writers in reaction to the bigger, more ‘ocker’, even caricatured Aussie styles, and almost an inverse snobbery in favour of anything remotely European in style – Rhône-like Shiraz, Chablis-like Chardonnay – which can lead to rather excessive prices.
This view is contradicted by some international (US) tasters: if Australian winemakers do The Big Wine so well, argue critics such as Robert Parker, why should they bother with Euro-lookalikes? The answer is of course, that Australia does because Australia can. And besides, we like drinking more than one glass of wine with our food, thank you very much.
CENTRAL VICTORIAN HIGH COUNTRY
While Victoria’s established cool-climate regions such as the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley are still making some excellent elegant wines, attention has turned of late to the stony, hilly country further north. From the Yea Valley, through the Strathbogie Ranges and into the mountainous foothills of the Victorian Alps and Beechworth, a number of vineyards are producing wines with a juicy natural acidity and an austere, mineral backbone. Austerity and mineral backbone is the perfect description for the wonderful, long-lived Riesling and Gewurztraminer made by Ros Ritchie at the Delatite vineyard, heading up towards Victoria’s snowfields. ‘To be honest,’ says Ritchie, ‘I would love more weight in my reds, riper fruit, but we get what the vineyard gives us, and that’s delicate flavours and lower sugar levels.’ Hugh Cuthbertson from Cheviot Bridge Wines, whose Yea Valley vineyards are a few kilometres south of Delatite, is convinced that the more delicate styles are becoming increasingly sought-after.
‘We’re seeing our wines really starting to work in restaurants because people appreciate that they’re long flavoured and complex,’ says Cuthbertson. ‘I don’t know about you, but I want to enjoy wine, I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it.’
As if the run of stunning vintages for Pinot Noir in Tassie (from 1999 to 2002) wasn’t enough to convince people that the island is arguably the region par excellence for elegant styles, the magnificent sparkling wines Ed Carr makes for BRL Hardy should clinch the argument. Taste the fine, delicate 1998 Arras Chardonnay Pinot Noir (about $60 in Australia) and you see at once what a cold climate does for a wine’s finesse, natural acidity and persistence of flavour. This is hardly news to Andre Pirie, who has been singing the elegance song for almost 30 years at Pipers Brook Vineyard, and is convinced that elegant wines have a major role in the future development of the country’s exports. ‘Cooler regions like ours,’ says Pirie, ‘are helping extend Brand Australia into interesting places such as restaurants and fine wine stores in the US. We’re examples of the best in the world.’
For Steve and Monique Lubiana, the limitations of Tasmania’s cold climate were the main attraction. ‘The weather dictates that we keep the crop low,’ says Monique, ‘and that means you get that magical power and elegance in one hit.’
For Peter Althaus, who makes a refined, taut, underrated Cabernet Sauvignon at his Domaine A vineyard outside Hobart, there is hope for the future: ‘The older generation of drinkers are used to bigger styles,’ he says. ‘But the younger drinkers have acquired a palate for elegance.’
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
The vineyards surrounding Australia’s capital city benefit from the coolness that comes with altitude: at 400 metres above sea-level, the growing season is sufficiently slow and drawn-out to produce grapes with good natural acidity and fine flavours.
Tim Kirk, winemaker at Clonakilla, (established 30 years ago) augments this natural finesse in his Shiraz by blending in a little Viognier, as winemakers do in Côte-Rôtie. ‘I have nothing against the big, bruising styles of Shiraz loved by some American magazines,’ he says. ‘I like those wines occasionally… just not all the time.’
David Madew also augments the natural elegance of Riesling grapes grown on a wave of gravelly soil that runs through his vineyard with a ‘slow-acting yeast isolated in Austria, which increases the length of the ferment time, giving more elegance and palate weight without coarseness.’
Sue Carpenter, from the high-altitude vineyard, Lark Hill, says she endlessly thinks about elegance in her wines. ‘But I don’t like the way elegance has been hijacked to mean light and weak. For me, elegance means wines with length, balance, but a little surprise of savoury tannin, too, at the end – and the Pinot from our vineyard has this hook.’
ADELAIDE HILLS, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
The cool, moist hills to the east of Adelaide have been renowned for their elegant wines for more than two decades. Stephen George, from Ashton Hills vineyard, says he moved to the region chasing wines with ‘northern European elegance rather than wooden mallet richness’.
‘But elegance is an uncomfortable word,’ he says. ‘Your wine doesn’t want to be too elegant or too cool. A lot of people pay for flavour, so it’s difficult to convince them to pay more for the lighter flavour you get in more elegant wines.’
Nepenthe winemaker Peter Leske doesn’t agree: ‘I don’t think you need to sacrifice flavour to get structure. We can’t help our soils, our climate, the sun – even in our cooler region – and I think that’s fabulous.’
For Michael Hill Smith of Shaw & Smith vineyards, export markets are embracing the elegant ‘atypical’ Aussie styles. ‘The great strength of the Australian industry,’ says Hill Smith, ‘is that it’s constantly evolving. But this can be confusing for consumers, and it requires knowledge and effort to understand that our wine is every bit as complex and multi-layered as others.’
MOUNT BARKER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
As one of Australia’s most remote wine regions – four hours’ drive southwest of Perth, and a continent away from the populated east coast – Mount Barker is a great place to grow fine-tasting grapes.
Nicole Esdaile, winemaker at Capel Vale, south of Perth, says it’s her favourite region: ‘It’s one of those marginal places, that may not produce great fruit every year, but when they do, they deliver the goods.’ Not only that, but Esdaile says she is lucky to be working with vines that are close to 30 years old. Indeed, one patch of Riesling vines is so impressive that cuttings have been grafted onto other vines to increase the quality resource.
Gavin Berry, winemaker for the region’s pioneer producer, Plantagenet, known for ultra-peppery, cool-style Shiraz, is realistic about the climate: ‘The irony is, we try to make our wines as big as we can, but the climate and seasons give us no choice but to make more European styles.’
Max Allen is Australia’s most widely published wine writer, and author of Sniff, Swirl and Slurp – how to get more pleasure out of every glass of wine (Mitchell Beazley, £12.99).