Decanter's editor Guy Woodward spent three weeks in South and West Australia, visiting upwards of 30 wineries, tasting hundreds of wines and meeting anybody who is anybody in the world of Aussie wine. We catch him here in Margaret River...
Tuesday 3 November
Back at my desk, which is overflowing with magazines, press releases, correspondence and bottles. The downside of going away is the catching up that inevitably follows. Hopefully the wine will help ease the pain.
I return to find that the ‘Savalanche’ story has snowballed. Yesterday saw the New Zealand generic body hosting a tasting of new release 2009s, including a wealth of Sauvignon Blancs.
NZ SB is more popular than ever, yet the country still produced too much in 2008, leading some suppliers down the dreaded discounting path. Now, with consumers having got used to spending £3.99 on a bottle, it may well prove difficult to steer them back up.
It struck me as a mirror image of the trouble that Australian producers face. So successful were they at promoting Brand Australia in the early days that consumers typecast all Aussie wines as cheap and cheerful. Persuading them that the country has more to offer higher up the quality ladder is proving difficult.
All of which makes for a great story, and there’s no doubt that the UK press has taken the opportunity to indulge in a spot of Aussie-bashing in recent months. But Australia’s image problems are merely the culmination of a perfect storm of adverse conditions that have conspired against the country.
In the 1990s, when things were going so well, the industry, encouraged by tax incentives, grew at an alarming rate. Over-production became rife, leading to falling prices. More recently, just as producers were looking to promote their more premium offerings, the economy collapsed, the retail market consolidated, and suppliers were under strain to reduce prices just as the Australian dollar soared, further compromising exports.
So where does Australia go from here, I wonder. At the outset of my trip, I suggested that news of Australia’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. In retrospect, it probably hasn’t. Sales to the UK are down around 15%, sales to the US more like 70%. Vineyards are up for sale and many growers, notably those supplying the big corporations, are likely to go to the wall.
Harsh as it may sound, we shouldn’t cry over their demise. As this week’s announcement shows, the industry recognises it needs to downsize and the growers who go under will be the poorer growers, the ones growing the wrong varieties in the wrong places at the wrong yields.
But trampling on Australia’s grave is premature. In the long term, the future is bright, especially for consumers. As the industry finds its natural level, and those not committed to producing quality wine fall away (we are already seeing the big corporations cutting back on their budget offerings), so overall quality will increase.
Climate change means the middle of the country, source of so much of the commodity, branded wines, will become increasingly unviable. Cooler climate areas, of which Australia has several, are already being harnessed by innovative, savvy winemakers, of which Australia has many. And as the country as a whole further embraces regionality, so these nuances and sense of place will come to the fore.
Australia wants to compete with the nuances of the Old World classics. But Bordeaux and Burgundy, it cannot be overstated, have a few hundred years headstart when it comes to establishing sub-regionality. Winemakers there, though, have a pretty blinkered view of the world.
Talking to some Bordeaux winemakers about Burgundy or the Rhône often draws a blank, and their knowledge of New World wines can be non-existent. Aussie winemakers have a wider view, which can only benefit their long term progress.
In the £8-20 sector, Australia has a strong argument to be considered the most prolific producer of interesting, excellent, consistent wines out there – New or Old World. And encouragingly, most are moving to an increasingly elegant, subtle style.
It is not just Australia that is having trouble selling wines at this price point. There are very few New World spots which have moved beyond a country-wide identity. Australia, with Hunter Semillon, Coonawara Cabernet and Barossa Shiraz, is further ahead than most. And how much truly great wine does Bordeaux or Burgundy sell at £8-£20?
The immediate outlook for Australia is extremely bright – for wine lovers. Like most of the world, Australia is making better wine than ever, and still at reasonable prices. It may take longer for producers to reap the benefits, but they’re in it for the long haul.
My last visit was to Xanadu, in Margaret River. Previously under public ownership, it long had a reputation as a provider of commercial, consistent, but not overly characterful wines, aimed more at hitting the bottom line than pushing boundaries. Now in the same family ownership as Parker Estate, Yering Station and Mount Langi Ghiran, winemaker Glenn Goodall has a freer hand to pursue personality.
Among such wines is a 100% varietal Semillon. With Sauvignon Blanc all the rage, this is a wine that has little commercial penetration. But it is sold at cellar door, an outlet that many Aussie wineries use not just as a bridge to consumers, but as a window for experimental, off-beam wines that may eventually see a wider distribution.
You don’t get much more experimental than a Sagrantino-Cinsault blend. But that’s exactly what d’Arenberg has done with its Cenosilicaphobic Cat. This feline’s phobia, as I’m sure you know, is the fear of an empty glass, a condition which seems to afflict many of the people I met down under. What struck me most on this trip wasn’t the crisis, the regionality, the debate between big and bold vs cool and elegant… It was simply the enthusiasm of all the winemakers I met. These aren’t corporate puppets, they are wine enthusiasts, motivated by genuine passion for what they and their neighbours do. Alas we don’t always see their efforts. Ten produces make 95% of Australian wine; 2,300 make the rest. And it is these we need to focus on.
As I drove out of Margaret River for the last time, I passed a wine merchant, or as the Aussies call it, a bottle shop. It was called Winos. Outside, on the blackboard, was a quote. ‘I gave up sex for wine. Now I can’t even get into my own pants.’ For all the difficulties threatening their livelihoods, members of the Australia wine trade aren’t precious about their wine. But they do love it.
Monday 2 November
On the eve of my trip over to Margaret River, dining with Coonawarra winemakers, I asked Brian Lynn, the long time (moustached) face of Majella, how he defined the difference between the two regions. ‘Most producers over there don’t need to turn a profit,’ he said.
His point was that several of the most prominent producers in the region were founded by people who had made their fortune in other fields, and were able to fund their pursuit to a certain extent, rather than it being their livelihood. It’s certainly true that the likes of Cullen, Howard Park, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle and Voyager wouldn’t exist today were it not for the deep pockets of their founders.
But back in the 1960s, Margaret River had the highest rate of unemployment in Australia. The success of these producers since then means that today, many people here do earn their livelihood from wine.
Margaret River doesn’t have the grape-growing heritage of South Australia, that’s true. But this is not some Australian Napa Valley, where dotcom millionaires have set up wineries as playthings, selling bottles for hundreds of dollars to trophy hunters on the back of favourable Parker scores. (In fact Jeff Burch of Howard Park bemoaned to me the influence of Parker, claiming that his fondness for a certain type of wine – generally big Barossa Shiraz – had ultimately ‘done a huge amount of damage’ to the perception of Australian wine in the US, where Burch feels consumers view all high-end Aussie wines in this vein. Doubly frustrating for Margaret River, of course, which likes to portray its signature style as at the more elegant end of the Aussie spectrum, with some justification.)
McHenry Hohnen, where I spent today, is an interesting case in point. The Hohnen is David Hohnen, previously involved in the formation of Cape Mentelle before selling up to LVMH and then shipping out when he found corporate ownership not to his taste.
The McHenry is Murray McHenry, of fine wine importer Steves, and whose sister Sandy is married to Hohnen. I met Ryan Walsh, the winemaker here who, for good measure, is the partner of Hohnen’s daughter Freya, with whom he shares his duties.
I’ve always wondered about family set ups such as this – there must be fraught moments working with one’s partner and for one’s father-in-law – especially one with such an august CV. With Hohnen away, I felt sure Ryan would be keen to put on a good show.
I was somewhat surprised, then, by our first port of call – a pig sty (pictured).
The vines here share space with pig and sheep farming, with the animals even sent out into the vineyards, where they are ‘good on weeds’ according to Walsh. They made a horrible din as we approach, no doubt in the hope of food. They were to be disappointed.
It’s all part of an approach best summed up by Walsh’s claim that ‘monoculture doesn’t work’. The winery plays host to a farm shop, and there is a sense that the project is more about community than commodity, with agro-tourism high on the agenda. Of course Hohnen can probably afford to take a less rabidly commercial approach now that he no longer has shareholders to constantly satisfy.
But the wines here are certainly not made in a populist style: Walsh says they’re ‘looking for textured wines that aren’t squeaky clean’. The Three Amigos white blend (Chardonnay-Marsanne-Rousanne) fits the bill, with real individuality and character. It was made by Walsh and Freya Hohnen, who gave birth to the couple’s second child midway through the vintage.
The whole feel to the place couldn’t be further removed from the clinical, industrial image of Australian wine. The estate’s top wine is a Tempranillo-Petit Verdot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Walsh shows me the latest vintage which he says has ‘hopefully’ finished primary fermentation and ‘might have’ gone through malolactic.
As we drive to the estate’s sheep pastures, we are almost run off the road. The offender, Walsh tells me, is ‘spud’ a farmhand.
As I set out on my journey back to Perth, I ponder how Margaret River, as with the other regions I’ve visited, is a small, insular place. It produces only 4% of Australia’s wine, yet sells around 30% of its premium range. It has come a long way in its short history, to the extent that it is now talking about sub-regionality (in my view, way too early to have consumer resonance). All in all, it is doing everything that Australia as a whole should be – and largely is – aiming at.
I must have been pondering too intently though. You’re not going to believe this, after all my observations about Australia’s conscientious drivers. I got pulled over by the police on the new freeway. I was ‘nudging’ over the speed limit, they said. All very friendly, just a quiet warning. The funny thing was, though, it was a quiet road, with noone else around, in the middle of a long stretch of nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from a police patrol car. No wonder everyone sticks to the limit
Sunday 1 November
While I had the benefit, in South Australia, of being ferried around between visits by ever willing producers, in WA I am driving myself. On reflection, then, it probably wasn’t the cleverest idea to travel on a 6.50am flight from Adelaide to Perth the morning after my dinner with the Coonawarra guys, and then face a four-hour drive down to Margaret River.
My mission was further compromised by being given a Toyota Prius by the car rental company, who I noted were very keen to push its economic and ecologic benefits. Which is all well and good (and it certainly seemed to cost a hell of a lot less when I came to refuel) but it took me 20 minutes to get out of the car park, as I struggled to deduce the alien controls.
Luckily, once out of the airport, I discovered that the journey is closer to three hours than four – not through any speeding on my part, I hasten to add (again, I noticed how barely anyone exceeds the designated limit, even on the open road), but instead thanks to the opening of a new freeway.
Margaret River inhabitants are very excited about this freeway, and – together with the ‘Savalanche’ (see below) – it was to be the dominant topic of conversation over the next few days. A reminder that, as with many regions in South Australia, this is a provincial spot, a step removed from urban life, united by its landscape and community.
I felt sure my Prius would go down well with Vanya Cullen at the eponymous biodynamic estate. As I parked up, smack outside the cellar door, I sounded a muffled rev to announce my environmentally friendly arrival.
Though heralded as one of the founding names of the region, and a constant beacon for quality, today Cullen is equally as recognised for its biodynamic credentials. Trevor Kent, the vineyard manager, took me around the estate and showed me the ‘pit’ where manure is prepared in the famed cow horn for eventual application in the vineyard.
Biodynamics always raises a titter in some quarters and even Kent had a smile on his face as he explained the need for the horn to come from not just any old cow, but a lactating cow. There are many sceptics over such practices, but I’ve no firm views either way on the validity of biodynamics. Doubtless its success or otherwise varies greatly according to the site. What I do know is that the Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay (2007) was by far the most characterful, terroir-driven, minerally and complex example of the variety I tasted in my entire trip.
Over lunch with Vanya Cullen, I asked her about an aspect of the biodynamic mantra which I always struggle with. There are certain days of the lunar calendar on which certain tasks are meant to be best carried out, notably picking. But surely, this most crucial decision ought to be guided by what the winemaker thinks is right, rather than what the moon says? What happens, for example, if the grapes are at optimal ripeness, but the calendar says don’t pick for another week? ‘We pick,’ said Cullen. ‘It’s a recommendation, not an obligation.’
What about the current fad to taste wines on more wine-friendly days? Surely, by extension, if you’re saying that the wines will taste better at certain points in the calendar, you’re bringing into question the very essence of wine drinking? Cullen is a firm believer that wines taste better on, for example, fruit days than root days, but doesn’t fret over when people dirk her wines as this is ‘out of our control’. But if you really believe believe that such factors will alter the taste of your wine, surely you should be adding ‘best drink dates’ to the label??
The organic approach is becoming more and more widespread in Maragert River, a region whose maritime climate makes it more self-sufficient than most – neither water or climate change are expected to present immediate problems here. There is still some progress required though – Woodlands is charting a path down the organic route, but admitted that its occasional method of discouraging kangaroos from the vineyard – shooting them – ‘doesn’t quiet tally with the whole biodynamic thing’.
Which reminds me – I saw a great book on Kangaroo Island. ‘Roadkill Recpies’. And it’s not a joke. Such are the casualty rates (mainly wallabies) on the island, that locals occasionally benefit from some cheap meat. Just so long as it doesn’t encourage them to break out of that admirably cautious driving manner.
Saturday 31 October
I have come across a few new words on this trip, most of them unmentionable here. One, however, bears repeating. It is the ‘Savalanche’, and it is a term which, while it cropped up occasionally in South Australia, notably in Adelaide Hills, has dominated conversation in Margaret River, where it is the bane of producers. Today I visited Howard Park, Xanadu, Voyager and Stella Bella, and all my hosts made reference to this hazard.
As one famous Aussie might say, ‘can you tell what it is yet?’ Australian readers will no doubt be familiar with the phenomenon, but UK ones ought to be too. It is the flooding of the market with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, at increasingly knock-down prices.
NZSB is now Australia’s top selling white wine – much to domestic producers’ chagrin. Friendly trade agreements between the two countries mean that Kiwi producers benefit from a generous tax rebate when exporting to Oz. Their neighbour is the perfect place then, to dump the massive over-production of the ever-popular NZSB from the last two vintages.
Just as Tesco battered down prices of this once more exclusive category in the UK to an image-deflating £3.99, so Aussie retailers are now doing the same. Depressingly, the Australian wine market is also dictated by the power of the multiples. Most bottle shops are owned by one or other of the two big supermarket chains: Coles or Woolworths. Their dominance means they can dictate terms to suppliers; and, like Australia, New Zealand has its fair share of big brands willing to play the discounting game.
It’s a dangerous game though, as Australia knows only too well, through the image problems it is now suffering. Irrespective of the potential damage the Savalanche may inflict on the perception – and price – of New Zealand wines in the future, though, right now it is hurting Aussie producers, who are increasingly priced out of the market. Back in Adelaide Hills, Michael Hill Smith MW of Shaw + Smith told me it was a ‘sensitive’ topic, and that producers were worried that their Kiwi counterparts would ‘bugger things up’ by unleashing a flood of average, $10 Sauvignons on the market, making it even harder to sell the $15-20, more premium wines.
Jeff Burch, owner of Howard Park in Margaret River, has had enough. Burch is a powerful character, and you get the impression that when he puts his mind to something, he won’t take no for an answer. (He’s now making wine with noted Burgundian winemaker Pascal Marchand, both in Australia and Burgundy. All the wines are under screwcap, even the Chambertin Clos de Beze grand cru).
Rankled by the Savalanche, Burch rang 20 Margaret River producers in one day to see if they would split the costs of a fightback, in the form an advertising campaign around Western Australia urging consumers to ‘drink local’. Only one, better known for its Chardonnay, said no. Burch had the diplomacy not to enlist Cape Mentelle, sister company to Cloudy Bay, but even Constellation, owner of Houghton in WA and Kim Crawford in NW, is on board. Then he rang the editor of the local paper to tell him to get behind it to. Not ask, but tell. The paper’s in.
More disturbing than the producers’ plight, however – at least from a wine lover’s perspective – is the pressure on producers here to move away from their traditional Semillon-Sauvignon blends to a wine dominated by Sauvignon – or even to a single varietal ‘Savvy’. Glenn Goodall, chief winemaker at Xanadu, told me how his UK importer had suggested he produce such a wine. He refused, saying ‘we’re not Marlborough, and don’t make Marlborough-type wine’. But he recognises that many producers are upping their percentage of Sauvignon in blends, and highlighting its dominance on the label.
Xanadu does make a 100% Semillon, but sells it only at cellar door, such is its lack of widespread appeal. Cellar door sales, though depressing in this instance, are a welcome practice in Australia, particularly in the west, where tourism is more developed, and smoothly done. A decent influx of visitors to a property allows the estate to make wines that would have limited cut-through commercially – Nebbiolo, Mourvedre, Fiano, perhaps – which visitors can taste and buy, giving producers the necessary feedback and insight with which to launch them onto a wider market. It also provides them with a greater margin than those bullying multiples.
I’m not alone in preferring the Sem-Sauv blend to a 100% Sauvignon. The former, to my mind, offers greater weight, complexity, intrigue and balance. Yet, in the mass market, 100% Sauvignon is far more popular, so what do I know? Only that, in the premium wine market, you won’t find too many 100% Sauvignons. And, if you’re keen to underline a point of difference over the simpler, cheaper NZ versions, surely a pinch of Semillon is a way of doing so?
So which way should WA producers go? Knock out a river of simple, 100% Sauvignon wines at lower prices to suit the mass market; or stick to their guns, and their traditional strength of Sem-Sauv blends? The answer probably depends on whether you’re an accountant or a wine lover. But there is another perspective. Australians went against the grain when moving over to screwcaps. They did it because they thought it was best for the wine – and hence, in the long term, best for consumers. Let’s hope they do the same here…
Friday 30 October
The issue of ageability in Australian wine (see below) is part of the larger question of whether the country’s wines ought to be taken more seriously. I’ve long been a believer that they should, and the recent image problems they’re suffering in the UK only hardens this belief – the perception of the quality of the better wines has been tarnished by the big brands. As Claire Mugford, owner of leading Margaret River producer Moss Wood told me: ‘We’d really like people to see the whole picture, rather than tarring us all with the same brush.’
Moss Wood’s 1984 Cabernet, tasted at a dinner hosted by Leeuwin, provided elegant justification for the argument. Indeed, over the course of two nights – the second at Woodlands – I tasted several older Margaret River wines which bore comparison with the greats. The ’82 Woodlands was remarkably vibrant, while a 1977 Vasse Felix was simply spectacular, all pithy, cedarry fruit, but with chocolatey, plummy notes and a classic ‘dusty’ Bordeaux nose. There were disappointments too: a 79 Leeuwin Cabernet was perfectly quaffable, but a touch lifeless; a ’75 Vasse Felix somewhat charmless and angular; while an ’85 Cape Mentelle had lost its vigour.
One way of overcoming the challenges Mugford referenced is by putting your wines on a pedestal with the world greats. And where greater than Bordeaux, whose producers must be thoroughly sick of the nothing-to-gain nature of comparative tastings the world over.
I was party to one such, less formal, exercise when I visited Cape Mentelle. The winemaker here, Rob Mann, grandson of the revered Jack Mann, had set up a blind tasting of Margaret River and Pauillac wines. I wondered whether he’d been told to steer away from the Right Bank to avoid any potentially embarrassing slating of Moet Hennessey stablemate Cheval Blanc. To be fair, Pauillac is a more valid comparison – its firmness, lean fruit and those dusty tannins being something that the best Margaret River wines aspire to.
Aspire is the mot juste. When Australian winemakers argue that their wines merit comparison to the best of Bordeaux, they do so with complete admiration for their French counterparts. At Woodlands, Stuart Watson told me that they ‘aim for Pauillac-styles wines’. Though he later fished out two wines from a different commune – a 1978 Brane-Cantenac (completely gone) and a 1981 Château Margaux (restrained, on its embers) – his love of Bordeaux was evident. At one stage he took me to one side to tell me not to take any notice of Decanter readers who had recently written in to bemoan what they saw as too much coverage of claret in the magazine. ‘We don’t buy the magazine to read about Australian wines,’ he said. ‘We buy it to read about Bordeaux.’
The Cape Mentelle tasting, was, as always with these things, instructive. For all their similarities, it’s not strictly fair to compare wines from different regions and of different make-ups (most of the Margaret River wines were straight Cabernets). But if nothing else, it raised the question of how easy it is for less obvious, powerful wines to be overlooked.
I mistook two Margaret Rivers wines – Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2005 and Moss Wood 2004 – for Pauillac (though in my defence, I was under the impression that there were six of each – in fact there were 8 Margaret Rivers and 4 Pauillacs). The Bordeaux wines were all fairly obvious to discern, especially on the nose. The Lafite 2006 offered up a melange of flavours that were simply beguiling, and that even the most attractive Margaret River wines were incapable of replicating. Yet the Australian wines were more consistent, their fruit more exuberant, and more obviously attractive. The Mouton 2005 was muted in comparison, and typical of its counterparts in not offering up immediate appeal. Yet it became easier and easier to drink.
An interesting sidenote was provided by those ‘dusty’ noses of the clarets. What I was entranced by, Mann and Jim White, Cape Mentelle’s vineyard manager, classified as ‘Brett’ – or brettanomyces. Neither was overly critical of its presence, as some Australian winemakers can be, and appreciated its character. But the contrasting reaction was notable.
These remain very different wines, appealing to different tastes, to be drunk on different occasions. And at very different prices. It is this last point that is ultimately perhaps the most significant. My favourite Margaret River wine, the Cape Mentelle blend from 2007, costs roughly 1/50th the price of the Lafite.
All of which led me to one conclusion: for all the pressures on the Champagne market (excess stock has meant significant discounting over here too) the Moet Hennessey portfolio can’t be performing too badly. Not on the basis of the budget required to put this tasting together…
Thursday 29 October
Despite my driver’s unorthodox approach (see below) I made it to Adelaide in one piece, ready for a dinner with a handful of producers from Coonawarra. Four of them had made the effort to come to the city, which is a good four-hour drive, and not on my itinerary. I got the impression they were used to being left out, and were probably rather aggrieved about it.
Their humour wasn’t improved, then, when I did my usual of trick of plonking a couple of bottles on the table that I’d accumulated on my travels. Their provenance somewhat betrayed me, meaning my dining companions soon deduced that I’d managed to make the trip to Kangaroo Island, but not the famous terra rossa of Connawarra. In retrospect, it was a rather undiplomatic move.
The KI wines confirmed just how much work the island has to do – their simplicity was completely overshadowed by the complexity of the Coonawarra bottles on show. As one would expect. The real eye-opener, though, was the older vintages that were opened.
The ageability of Australian wines is sometimes overlooked, or even discounted. And it’s true that many of the simpler offerings don’t improve over time; even many Clare Rieslings are best drunk fresh – that petrolly character isn’t appreciated by everybody, and doesn’t always work out anyhow. Cabernets from Coonawarra – and Margaret River, it should be added – are a different matter.
Most astonishing was a 1954 Wynns ‘claret’, as it was called then, presented by today’s chief winemaker there, Sue Hodder. It was actually a Cabernet-Shiraz blend, though dominated by the former. Its freshness and brightness of fruit was astonishing, but it had also gained that dusty, savoury nose that I associate with great Bordeaux.
Also nicely matured, but on the way to further development, was a 1991 Katnook Odyssey, presented by its head winemaker Wayne Stehbens. This had an even stronger core of concentrated fruit, but dusted by that pithy character on the elegant nose and attack.
The comparison to aged Bordeaux is a valid one, and not just because of the amusing moniker that the Wynns wine used to bear. I am writing this from Margaret River, where I have also been exposed to some older vintages, tasted alongside some great clarets, of which I shall write more forthwith (see above). Suffice to say, though, that many (though not all) of them had aged magnificently.
I have been more impressed by the savoury elegance of the fruit on the older Aussie Cabernets than by the more maderised, and in some cases oxidised Chardonnays. (A Katnook 1990 had some of this character, and was on its way out, though its marmalade-on-toast notes revived it; a Woodlands ’91 Chardonnay lacked real life; but an ’87 Leeuwin was simply spellbinding in its vibrancy of zesty, creamy fruit. Which goes to show that Leeuwin’s stellar reputation with the grape is justified.)
Of course the question of ageability brought up Australian producers’ favourite topic: screwcaps. (When a 1987 Vasse Felix served at a dinner at Leeuwin was found to be corked, I half suspected it had been thrown in solely to raise the issue.) It is, of course, ridiculous that consumers are still sold a product which research shows has a 5% chance of being faulty. You wouldn’t sell a $1 pint of milk with such a caveat, so offering a $1,000 bottle of wine on such terms is criminal. But reliability aside, do wines age as well – or even better – under screwcap?
Several producers here, on tasting older wines which were past their best, lamented that they had been bottled under cork back in the 70s and 80s. Other wines from the era were magnificent, though. Equally, there were some wines of only 10 years age, where, to me, the development hadn’t been as significant as I expected. While I wondered whether the screwcap had slowed this down, others in the room marvelled at the wines’ freshness.
I still have reservations over the ability of screwcaps to allow wines to fully develop the complexity that Australian wines of certain provenance and variety are obviously capable. What is certain, though, is that there will be no turning back. Grange aside, almost the only Australian wines you’ll see under cork now are destined for the more conservative US and Asian markets.
One exception was provided by Kilikanoon, in the Clare Valley, where winemaker Kevin Mitchell puts ‘anything over Aus$50’ under cork. This suggests, I told him, that the decision is dictated by marketing sensitivities rather than what is best for the wine. He didn’t desist. Another winemaker, who would evidently love to bottle everything under screwcap, told me the only reason he couldn’t was ‘because of the bloody Asians’.
The Aussies are marvellously straight-talking when it comes to such topics. David Grieg, the ex-owner and winemaker of the offending ’77 Vasse Felix, was adamant that Australian producers used to receive substandard corks, or rather that ‘the frogs got all the best stuff’. He was happy that the Portuguese were now ‘getting their comeuppance’ in the lack of custom from Australia. He then regaled me with a story of how, in 1984, he had received a visit from the Portuguese ambassador, concerned at the onset of the move away from corks. During their discussions, Grieg was so vehement in his lambasting of corks that, after a stand-up row, the ambassador stormed out of the Vasse Felix cellars.
There is another reason to favour screwcaps. After a series of restaurant dinners, I fancied something a little more rustic on a rare night off tonight, so grabbed a pizza. I thought it would go well with Kilikanoon’s The Duke Grenache, a bottle of which Mitchell had left with me. Alas I never got to find out – my ‘serviced apartment’ doesn’t seem to contain a corkscrew…
Wednesday 28 October
Up to the Clare Valley. Riesling country, and I’ve always been a fan. I’ve been here once before, but years ago – long before I was the holder of the august position now accorded to me.
I was backpacking around Australia, and made the trek down from Alice Springs to Adelaide. There isn’t a lot to see on the way, so we stopped at pretty much the first wine region we came to. Plus my sister shares its name (and, unusually, its spelling).
Such is the basis on which many average consumers (as I was then) make their decisions on wine. I thought I liked Riesling, because I was a fan of Black Tower in my youth. I can remember going to parties as a 15-year-old, taking along the black, mottled bottle and thinking I was operating at the height of sophistication.
Encountering Clare Riesling, with its steely acidity, was a bit of a shock back then, though I’ve since come to love it. But it’s a sobering reminder of the fact that while most of the press, the trade and many dedicated wine lovers adore the grape, it has still to catch on with the mass market.
Jeffrey Grosset, my first port of call, is operating at a somewhat different end of the market. The creator of the renowned Polish Hill is in no small way responsible for the region’s stellar reputation with the grape, but even he’s not impervious to market conditions. He told me how he had been summoned to the UK by his agent David Gleave of importer Liberty Wines, which has a strong Australian list. Such is Gleave’s concern at the challenges faced in selling premium Australian wine, he wants as many winemakers as possible to get out and about in the trade next year.
Grosset is a compelling character. We drove around come of his sites, looking at the difference between Polish Hill and Watervale. He asked me what I wanted to talk about. I told him regionality, the Australian dilemma, the world market, Riesling around the world, etc. Too much detail about soil types and clones would be wasted on me, I said, and were more appropriate for Andrew Jefford, the Decanter columnist who is spending a year out here studying terroir.
Half an hour later, he finished his first stream of consciousness on geology, vine age and topography. I must admit that I have been known to glaze over on such topics. Not here. Grosset’s commitment to his craft is mindblowing, and it is easy to see why he is held in such awe by his Clare counterparts.
As has become the norm this week, I ended up being late for my next engagement, a lunch with a handful of producers at Skillogalee’s restaurant, apparently the only place worth eating at in the gastronomically bereft Clare. The conversation soon turned to the challenges of the UK market, and the group, including winemakers from the likes of Taylors, Pikes and Knappstein, asked the question, ‘Why does the UK suddenly hate us?’ There’s no doubt that Australia’s image has taken a battering in recent times, so much so that there is a noticeable lack of confidence around the country’s position in the UK market. But as I told my lunch partners, they aren’t the only ones struggling to sell wine above £10. It’s not as if Chilean, South African or Californian wines at this level are flying off the shelves. It’s just that the Aussies make a better story.
Skillogalee’s is a picturesque site, but owner David Palmer told me of the trouble caused by kangaroos in the vineyard, who can take up to 7% of the grapes. Apparently Malbec is their favourite. Palmer’s tools in countering what he says is his ‘biggets pest’ range from the air rifle; clanging, reflective metal posts; and loud speakers blasting out spoken radio stations, preferably current affairs. Their voices deter the roos from venturing too close. ‘It tends to work best in election time,’ said Palmer, as he gave one intruder a run for his money by chasing it through the vines in his 4×4. The kangaroo showed an impressive turn of foot before ducking through a row of Cabernet plantings.
I may have spoken too soon about the responsible nature of Australian drivers. After visits to O’Leary Walker and Jim Barry, I was driven back to Adelaide by a local winemaker who cracked open a beer for each of us as we stared our journey. He works for a winery which makes its own brew, and was understandably keen to promote it. And of course a single beer would have kept him within the legal limit. All the same, I would like to have seen the reaction of the policeman who stopped him, only to find him skulling a stubbie at the wheel…
Tuesday 27 October
Australian wine vernacular is perhaps richer than that employed in the UK. It took me a while to realise that when winemakers referred to their ‘garden’, they were in fact talking about the vineyard. Equally, for many of the younger generation, they don’t make wine, but ‘booze’.
An example: one winemaker who several people have mentioned to me on my trip up through the Barossa as being of note is Kerri Thomson, of the much admired KT and the Falcon label. She also consults for the lauded Crabtree wines.
‘Ah yeah, look mate, she used to make the booze at Leasingham. If you look at her garden it’s an awesome bit of dirt. It’s not BD [biodynamic], but that wine kicks ass.’
All is not totally well in the garden of Eden, though. Eden Valley that is. There is a KT and the Falcon Clare Riesling which has just a touch of residual sugar on it, and a very attractive wine it is too. But it sits on the edge of a worrying trend. There are very few Clare Rieslings that are in any way not dry (Knappstein is experimenting with another) and the region has made its name for its steely, austere, dry citric fruit. Traditionally, the same has been true of Eden, which perhaps just tends to a more tropical style. But the well-received 2009 vintage has seen several producers playing with an off-dry style here.
The wines may well prove to be delicious, but at a time when Australia is trying to cement regional typicity and styles, this is a dangerous road to follow. Speak to anyone in the wine trade or press, and they most likely love Riesling. But it’s a tiny part of the market, and for consumers, in the UK at least, the shadow of Germany looms large. Such was the extent that sweeter styles flooded the market in the 1980s and 90s, encapsulated in the ‘success’ of Blue Nun and Black Tower, that most people at the mass market level now equate German Riesling with being sweet, cheap and nasty, Even higher up the tree, students of Alsace and the Mosel sometimes struggle to predict the sweetness level of a wine. Clare and Eden have a clear identity in dry wines. Do they really want to endanger that by confusing consumers with off-dry styles?
Certainly some Clare producers weren’t backward in coming forward on the topic, and there is a certain amount of disquiet over the trend. That’s what’s great about Australia though – you can ask a producer their opinion on an issue and they’ll tell you. Diplomacy is not a practice I have encountered often over the last week. Take Paul Henry, head of Wine Australia and, as such, the man charged with refining Australia’s image on the world stage to that of a premium wine producer. I asked him about the idea of some Barossa producers labelling their wine ‘Syrah’ rather than ‘Shiraz’ in an effort to identify it as more Rhône-like and elegant in style. ‘In the Barossa? They’re having a laugh aren’t they?’ was his succinct response.
I think he was suggesting that, for all their qualities, most Barossa Shiraz would not be described as elegant. Or, as one winemaker so poetically put it, the wines are ‘like walnuts in a condom’.
Monday 26 October
Today provided a microcosm of Australian wine – three encounters that covered all bases. First up, I dropped in on stalwart Barossa family producer, Peter Lehmann, a name at the heart of the grower-supply model.
A whopping 98% of its fruit comes from growers, and Peter Lehmann himself is still revered by farmers who haven’t forgotten how he stood by them when the government was encouraging the vine pull scheme of the 1980s.
There’s no sign yet of another such scheme today, but a certain amount of natural de-selection would be no bad thing for the quality of Australian wine. The industry continues to produce too many grapes, and, more specifically, too many sub-standard grapes.
Lehmann does its bit to encourage quality through remunerative incentives. Growers who supply grapes for its standard Barossa Shiraz are paid Aus$1,600 per acre. Get your grapes into Lehmann’s Stonewall Shiraz, and you’ll receive Aus$8,000.
The greater vineyard work and lower yields required for the wine represent a risk if you don’t make the cut, but at least focus attention on quality.
Of course Jacob’s Creek, my next visit, and arguably Australia’s most penetrative name, buys in a huge quantity of grapes, though their quality is more questionable.
When you’re making 10m litres of a single wine, sourced from across half the country, the idea of attaining any sort of consistency is somewhat compromised.
Even just getting the grapes into the winery for a wine like its basic Chardonnay takes eight weeks.
‘It’s just a case of getting them in and whacking them through,’ said an honest Susan Mickan, one of the winemakers here, as Greg, the marketing and PR chap, shuddered in the background.
As a consequence, the entry level wines in the range are, as the Aussies would say, pretty ordinary.
They do, however, provide countless numbers of consumers with a first exposure to Australian wine, and, as such, play a crucial role.
The question is, can Jacob’s Creek – and Australia as a whole – then persuade consumers to ‘trade up’ to more nuanced offerings? The Pernod Ricard-owned company’s next line up, its Reserve wines, provide a certain jump in quality, having generally been sourced from closer to the company’s home in Rowland Flat, in the Barossa.
They are still far from memorable, but in a massively significant move, the company has committed, in future vintages, to labelling the Shiraz and Riesling as ‘Barossa’, and the Chardonnay as ‘Adelaide Hills’, thus tying itself to a more focused approach, highlighting regionality, and endorsing the idea of ‘regional heroes’.
The approach could be seen as symptomatic of where the country as a whole is heading. At the top of the Jacob’s Creek range – its St Hugo Cabernet (from Coonawarra) and its Johann Shiraz-Cabernet blend – are some very fine wines. But can consumers be persuaded to shell out to try them?
Jacob’s Creek performs a hugely important role for the Australian wine industry. Several winemakers have done their training here, receiving a thorough grounding in the technicalities of the craft before going on to refine this with more focused material elsewhere. Equally, countless consumers have come to wine through Jacob’s Creek. But do they then move on to drink Steingarten or St Hugo? I’m not sure.
What is certain is that 150,000 people visit the firm’s huge, impressive visitor centre each year, and leave knowing a little more about Australian wine.
I added another to the total, and Greg did a fine job of showing me round. But sometimes these experiences can be a little too slick. Why did the feel the need to give me a ‘gift’ on my departure?
A Jacob’s Creek wallet, no less. Do they really think I’m going to leave with warmer thoughts towards the brand as a result? Or that I would use it? No, if anything I leave with the impression that this is a producer that revolves more around its marketing than its wines – precisely the image Australia needs to get away from. And anyhow, I’d like to think that if my favour could be bought, the price would be a little higher than a wallet. It was empty, after all.
Far from slick, on the other hand, were two producers who I joined for lunch at the pub Ben Glaetzer had tried to drag me into the previous evening.
Matt Gant, previously winemaker at St Hallett, and now making wines under his First Drop label, and Colin McBryde, who runs the Adelina brand and has also joined up with two other producers to make a wine under the SomeYoungPunks label, are the antithesis of corporate choreography.
They love their wine though. So much so that they brought along a dozen wines from across Australia, not their own, but each smallscale producers showcasing the sort of character and invention that supermarket shoppers never see. A Heathcote Nebbiolo, anyone? A Yarra Valley Pinot Blanc? An Adelaide Hills Syrah? Yes, Syrah, not Shiraz. Part of an effort to highlight elegance and charm within Australia.
I’m not sure you’d describe either Gant or McBryde, with their baseball caps, tattoos and facial hair, as either elegant or charming. But they are passionate about wine, and specifically Australian wine. All the more notable when you stop to consider that Gant is English, and McBryde a Kiwi.
A typical Gant comment was that one wine displayed ‘a lovely note of shit on the nose’. It’s not a tasting note you see often in Decanter, but maybe Steven Spurrier will adopt it for those ‘farmyardy’ Pommards. He was right though – and all these wines showed wonderful character and individuality, a world away from the perception of identikit Aussie plonk.
The only trouble was that the pair’s enthusiasm and the wines’ intrigue meant lunch dragged on and I was, once more, behind schedule. Late for my lift up to the Clare Valley, I expected my driver to put his foot down. But I’ve noticed Australians are generally fastidious about sticking to the speed limits – particularly compared to London drivers.
Driving out of Barossa, home of sheep-shearing contests and German bakeries, a slower pace seemed appropriate. This trip continues to surprise…
Monday 26 October
My mind is telling me that I should be exhausted, yet I feel strangely energised. Must be the sunshine.
Another early start, leaving Adelaide for the Barossa. Once more I am struck by how green everything is.
There’s been a welcome spell of rain in the weeks leading up to my visit, and after three years of relentlessly hot conditions, producers are delighted.
The cows and sheep also look pretty content, a further reminder that this too is a traditional agricultural region, which has been farmed for decades. Undulating hills, green foliage and the odd creek make for an old-fashioned, unspoilt panorama, a million miles away from the popular image of factory-made, blockbusting Barossa Shiraz.
Again, many of the wines here are made from growers’ grapes, but, in tourist-mode, I want to see some of the notable single sites, so take a whistlestop tour of the most notable: Jacob’s Creek’s lauded Steingarten vineyard, source of its eponymous Riesling (though this fruit is augmented by a sizeable chunk from across Eden Valley); Penfolds’ Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes used in Grange, more often in its Bin 707, and very occasionally – three times in the last 50 years – a single vineyard wine; and Henschke’s Hill of Grace,
Penfolds’ approach encapsulates the dilemma Australia faces in defining its strengths.
Grange is the country’s most famous wine, and a true great. Yet it is a multi-regional blend, often drawn from sites hundreds of miles apart, and as such has been labelled as flawed by non other than industry giant and former Decanter Man of the Year Brian Croser.
Kalimna and Konunga Hill are named after sites in the Barossa, but are also made up of grapes from all over South Australia, which could be seen as a bit cynical, suggesting the wine is something it’s not.
Yet at the same time, a new wine is being added to the Penfolds range, from a specific sub-region of the Barossa, Maramanga. And it’s bloody good. But will anyone know what it is, or be willing to pay the Aus$50-60 for it?
The answer, with Penfolds’ and owner Foster’s marketing teams behind it, is probably yes. But spare a thought for the smaller producers, also trying to carve out a market for carefully made, regionally specific wines.
Several small producers making a wine from the Ebeneezer sub-region and detailing this on the label in an effort to highlight regionality are now being pursued by Constellation, which makes a cross-regional Barossa wine named Ebenezer.
It doesn’t actually come from Ebenezer, but Constellation liked the name, so took it. It’s coming to something when you can’t actually say where a wine comes from because someone else has trademarked it.
I went to lunch with The Artisans of Barossa, a group of 11 small producers, who have grouped together to share promotional and technical efforts and resources. Most are dealing primarily in single vineyard wines.
Their focus, according to Dan Standish, one of their number, is to ‘celebrate the sub-regionality of the Barossa… from Ebenezer to Bethany, Eden to Greenock’.
According to Standish, ‘corporate takeovers and international corporations have put the industry under pressure. It is more important than ever for groups such as ours to stand together and protect the values and qualities of the region.’
One snippet tells you all you need to know about the genuine passion these producers have for their mission. I left them at 4pm, having had each of them introduce their wine to me in various levels of detail. After a further drive around the region, a couple of hours with Yalumba, and another turnaround, I arrived for dinner at around 7.30 with – you’ve guessed it – a few more winemakers. I told one of them, Alistair Ashmead of Elderton, about my day, and my lunch with the Artisans. ‘Ah yeah,’ he said. ‘They were still there when I came past’.
The communal feel of Australia’s winemaking fraternity, heightened by the grower-based model of Barossa and its close geography is genuine and striking. And it’s not just limited to the small guys.
At dinner were winemakers from Yalumba, Turkey Flat, Glaetzer, Charles Melton and St Halletts. All just love talking about wine – and not just the ‘great’ wines. Having had a bottle of Hill of Grace (2005) and Block 42 (1996) opened for me earlier, I thought they ought to be appreciated by a wider audience, and their providers were happy for me to take them off for further contemplation.
I proudly plonked them on the table. The assembled evening gathering were certainly interested to try them, but by no means hushed into any sort of reverence for wines that generally fetch around $500.
Wine snobbery still has to catch on here. Indeed Ben Glaetzer was more interested it persuading me to head for a beer after dinner.
I had to disappoint him, or as he said, ‘wimp out’. Doesn’t he realise I’ve got to come home and write this?
Sunday 25 October
Amid all the furore over Australian wines’ position in the UK market, and the criticism of its mass-produced, more commercial offerings, it’s easy to forget that, as in most countries, there are plenty of small, independent, niche producers.
You don’t get more niche than Kangaroo Island, a 150km x 55km land mass a 25-minute flight off Adelaide’s coastline and home to a population of 4,000 people. It is also home to 28 grape growers, 14 producers, and just six functioning wineries.
A strong farming community with an increasing strain of tourism, this is not the place to come if you’re looking to party. Think New Zealand 30 years ago. But Marlborough this is not.
Most Australians haven’t even heard of KI, as the locals call it, let alone tasted the wine. When I mentioned my visit to winemakers in McLaren Vale, there was a certain amount of envy and interest, but more on account of the island’s rugged natural appeal than the wines.
My host for the day, Nick Dugmore of the Kangaroo Island Estate (which, in an encouraging signal of intent has resisted the urge to use an image of the eponymous marsupial on the label, though it has gone with a similarly populist postcard format) told me that on a recent trip to Sydney, he’d spoken to four wine shops.
Two had never heard of Kangaroo Island, one thought it was off the coast of Melbourne, and the sole geography student among them had no idea it produced wine.
Some work to be done then. But no new region is going to immediately gain a reputation and recognition just on the basis of having tourist appeal and an emotive name.
Bay of Shoals, owned by Adelaide’s premier eye surgeon, is casting its net pretty wide, via a host of varieties, but doesn’t have a permanent winemaker, and the resultant wines are pretty simple.
Yet Two Wheeler Creek’s range, notably a Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc, has decent varietal character and its 2004 Shiraz had even developed a hint of complexity and development – testament to the conditions as much as anything, given the grapes are shipped over to McLaren Vale to be vinified and the vineyards are on the site of a marron (think a big lobster) farm.
The property is up for sale, however, and any buyer will find a cellar with only a Sauvignon Blanc from the 2009 harvest, which was beset by frost, rain and heat stress. This is not a region likely to be added to Wines Australia’s Regional Heroes list just yet.
The most interesting producer is The Islander, owned by Jacques Lurton of the celebrated Bordeaux dynasty, son of Pessac-Leognan forefather André Lurton, who Jacques found so difficult to work with that he upped sticks with brother François to make wines in Argentina, Chile and Spain.
Having made a few wines in Australia as a ‘flying winemaker’, he came to Kangaroo Island in 1997 for his honeymoon and saw enough potential to buy and plant 11ha in 2000.
With concrete vats (shipped over from France), a nutty Semillon-Viognier blend and a mocha-ish Cabernet Franc-Sangiovese (under cork), this is a different approach, one which extends noticeably to its marketing.
The ‘Appointments Strictly Necessary’ sign is in marked contrast to the open cellar doors of its island counterparts – a throwback to the traditionally closed image of Bordeaux, perhaps.
Ironically, Lurton may well have more luck selling the wine in Europe than its local market, where the likes of Barossa, Coonawarra and McLaren Vale have a sizeable headstart.
By contrast, Kangaroo Island has a certain individuality and quirky appeal to non-Australians which appears lacking here. And funnily enough, Lurton has signed up Berry Bros’ wholesale division Fields Morris Verdin to sell the wine in the UK.
Meanwhile, poor old Nick is trying to engender a communal approach to promoting the island’s wines in Adelaide, setting up a wine club for mainlanders to benefit from offers on visiting the region when they buy any of its wines.
The label he’s having most difficult persuading to sign up? Lurton’s.
Saturday 24 October
When I said that McLaren Vale was a provincial spot, I meant it as a compliment.
Driving around here, you are reminded that this is essentially a farming community.
And nowhere is that sense more prominently displayed than at the farmers’ market at Willunga on a Saturday morning.
I strolled around it with Mike Brown of the biodynamic Gemtree Vineyards. It took a while – Mike appears to know most of the 4,000 population here. Gemtree is essentially a grower – it sells many of its grapes and though it also makes wine, it doesn’t have its own winery.
When Brown took over the helm having married into the family business, he faced the challenge of changing the focus from one of volume to one of quality.
Essentially, he had to tell his father-in-law that the way he’d been doing things for years would no longer work.
Other growers are facing similar dilemmas today, if devoid of the potential for marriage breakdowns.
As in most other regions, they have simply been producing too many grapes. With the international market more competitive than ever, there is less tolerance of mediocre wine, meaning growers face a choice.
The maths is pretty basic. Whereas a few years ago, growers could demand up to Aus$2,000 for a ton of fruit, today that price is as low as Aus$700. Even the greediest of growers can’t expect to push yields beyond four tonnes a hectare, meaning revenue of $2,800 from each acre.
The average cost of running an acre of vinyard? $3,600.
So, they can either sit it out and try to scrape by while selling at a loss; rip up under-performing vines (often Chardonnay here, which is increasingly seen as unviable), replant and accept that you won’t see any return for three or fours years; or sell up.
The upside, though, is that in the long term such a scenario, though painful, can only be good for quality of Aussie wine. After all, it will be the poorer, volume-focused sites and growers who fall by the wayside.
The mass-producing Fosters and Constellation (the owner of Hardy’s) both have significant tracts of land up for sale here, much of it the less interesting sites on the flat.
They are having difficulty finding buyers, meaning such under-performing sites may no longer be used for wine. Foster’s has reportedly sold a New South Wales vineyard to a mining company; that must be some terroir. Hence even these big, branded wines ought to improve as a result.
There is no doubt, though, that in the meantime, there is a certain amount of resentment at the damage done to Brand Australia by over-production of mass-market plonk sold at cheap prices.
It has not made it easy for the genuine, quality-oriented producers to position the likes of McLaren Vale at a more premium end of the market.
Such is the difficulty in moving from a grower-based region to competing as a producer. Unlike 20 years ago, though, the know-how, enthusiasm and focus is there, with D’Arenberg a shining light.
It established its name with quality-focused wines, notably its Shiraz and Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre blends, before moving on to sell other wines of the back of its reputation.
These varieties are undoubtedly McLaren Vale’s strongest suits, and a similar approach will hopefully see the better producers follow a similar rise in the coming years.
Over lunch, I met a group of producers making thoughtful wines. Shingleback, Geoff Merrill, Paxton, Battle of Bosworth… these are wines with a distinctive style, engaging character and no protruding alcohol.
All are made by a generation of producers coming from a winemaking rather than a grower mentality, and who are working as a group to further the progress of the region as a whole.
It’s a region with a strong communal feel grounded in an appreciation of local produce, be it food, wine or culture, the latter also prominent in this arty community.
I was pondering all this as I stood on the deck looking out to sea, when a sports car drove past and beeped its horn. We waved back; whereupon the female passenger lifted up her top to reveal what one winemaker described as ‘a magnificent sight’.
Not quite art, but appreciated by this thoughtful community nonetheless.
Friday 23 October
An overnight flight from Singapore to Adelaide, next to the loudest snorer in the world. He slept well, I didn’t, and I hit the ground not so much running as stumbling.
Within an hour of touching down, I’m at the top of Mount Lofty with Petaluma winemaker Peter Dredge, taking in the subregions of Adelaide Hills.
[‘Coffee, please…’ – Guy Woodward and Petaluma’s Peter Dredge overlook the Adelaide Hills]
The Hills are a gorgeous spot to drive through – green, lush, all layered on top of one another – and you’re instantly reminded that this is cool climate Australia.
I’ve always been a fan of Adelaide Hills’ understated Chardonnay, and there’s some pretty impressive Shiraz here too. The third most planted variety in the region is – to my mind – the less distinguished Sauvignon Blanc, yet it is this variety that Wine Australia chose as part of its controversial ‘Regional Heroes’ campaign, designed to showcase varieties that excel in particular spots.
These three varieties may all come from different spots in a region which plays host to myriad contours, soils and exposures, but that’s a trio you wouldn’t find next to each other in the same appellation back in France. So how can they all work?
Michael Hill Smith MW of Shaw + Smith, who was given the Order of Australia for his services to the industry gave a convincing response, pinpointing Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Sauvignon as sitting at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum – the Chardonnay here tends to a steelier, flinty style, whereas the Sauvignon is fruitier and less herbaceous than the typical New Zealand version.
It may make for an unlikely trio, but the wines I tried from Petaluma, Shaw + Smith and The Lane all had their own appeal while remaining true to their variety and region.
I’m not alone in finding the issue of Australian regionality a pertinent one, though. Wolf Blass recently sparked unrest by telling his fellow South Australia producers that they should be concentrating just on a handful of varieties, lest they create a ‘fruit salad’ of varieties that confuse the consumer.
God knows what he makes, then, of D’Arenberg in McLaren Vale, where I headed in the afternoon to see arguably its most celebrated winemaker, the increasingly celebrity-like Chester Osborn, he of the 1980s footballer’s haircut and technicolour fashion sense.
As well as his own impending clothing line, Osborn makes 40 different wines, incorporating countless different varieties. Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre are his signature styles, but he also has Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Cinsault, Sagrantino, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Rousanne, Marsanne… much of it old vine material.
Is there anything he wouldn’t plant? ‘I’m not a in a great rush to try Fiano,’ he says. ‘Or Arneis.’
The effervescent Osborn makes some distinctive, consistent and hugely popular wines, and is a winemaker of instinct as well as thorough viticultural handling and minimal intervention.
But despite his insistence that McLaren Vale is a versatile region where ‘most varieties work’, the most convincing testament I saw to regionality here was a kangaroo bounding through the vineyard.
In the evening, I headed to the McLaren Vale Trophy Evening, where the local association got together to celebrate its recent Wine Show and hand out the gongs for the top performers.
The wines had been judged by a panel headed by Louisa Rose, winemaker at Yalumba in the Barossa, and Decanter’s Rhône expert John Livingstone Learmonth, who was in attendance and gave a speech advising producers to use more ‘instinct’ in their efforts to raise the profile of the region.
I looked around at the assembled gathering, at this, its 45th Wine Show, and wondered how some of the older generation (identified by bow ties as opposed to the jeans of the younger mob) would take to being given advice by a Francophile Brit, new in town – particularly when John started dropping in references to French impressionist painting and German classical music.
But his words were warmly received. McLaren Vale is a relatively young region in terms of actual winemaking (as opposed to grape growing), still looking for a place at the top table. Could it be that the locals are suffering from a crisis of confidence?
The event was a curiously understated affair, with a warm sense of community, but lacking the ebullience one associates with the Aussies.
The venue had the feel of a 1950s town hall, only heightened by the bow-tied MC’s correct yet stilted approach and the intermittent entertainment provided by a musical duo whose attempt to whip up a fervour after the presentations was pretty embarrassing, hastening my departure. Maybe I’m just a party pooper – I was flagging by this stage.
So I could have done without finding my B&B all shut up and noone home. I ended up relying on the hospitality of D’Arenberg’s Nick James-Martin, who thought nothing of taking me in. But then this is essentially a provincial spot, with a warm sense of community.
Turned out the key was under the mat…
Thursday October 22
The notion that we should split the wine world into two markets – let’s call them commodity and fine wine – and their resonance within Australia was brought sharply into focus on my final day in Singapore.
Foster’s, owner of Wolf Blass, Beringer and Penfolds, was one of the main sponsors of the ICCCW, and its wines were put before the locals at a closing dinner.
Wolf Blass winemaker Matt O’Leary took to the stage to introduce the wines, which included a new release – a bizarre blend of Shiraz and Riesling, served chilled, like a rosé, but presented as a ‘fruity red wine’, and made with a touch of spritz. Fruity yes, elegant maybe not.
No doubt its sweetness will engage the mass market, however, and it will be a great commercial success.
O’Leary went on to talk about what he had learned during the congress, and how he would be going home to ‘work on wines made specifically to appeal to the Asian palate’.
His words made me wonder about the notion of winemaker influence over the natural conditions of the vineyard (he also spoke of how Wolf Blass wines are ‘all about consistency – we aim to make them as similar as possible from year to year, so that consumers can buy them with confidence’).
All very commendable, but it doesn’t say much for terroir or vintage characteristics.
Sister producer Penfolds, meanwhile, hosted a vertical tasting of its self-professed iconic wine Grange at the opening day of the Wines for Asia exhibition.
Here the debate was all about vintage variation, and the different fruit character yielded by the various sites which make up the blend in any particular year. The polar opposite of its more commercial cousin, then.
Which was is the more honest? Well, they both are, actually – in their own way.
Each approach makes perfect sense when you consider it in the context of our two markets.
Wolf Blass makes technically and varietally correct, consistent wines to appeal to the mass market, and they are priced within that bracket. Penfolds, notably via Grange, is aiming at another customer, one who is more willing to explore the complexity of terroir and vintage nuances. Again, the wines are priced accordingly.
Which brings me back to Australia’s great dilemma – which route to follow. I suspect there is room for both. Unfortunately, we hear more about the former, which is why so many critics have taken such delight at its recent demise. All the more reason, then, to explore the latter – which is exactly what I intend to do over the next ten days…
Wednesday October 21 (morning)
Singapore is without doubt the cleanest, most efficient place I’ve ever visited.
I remember coming here a few years ago as a tourist. I was waiting for a bus to take me to the airport.
In the UK, bus timetables are a mere indication that a certain bus route is running, and the actual times listed should be taken only to give a broad idea of how long you can expect to wait.
In Singapore, they are adhered to religiously. My bus arrived one minute before its specified time. On boarding, I noticed the driver had two alarms on his dashboard.
The first sounded 30 seconds before the assigned departure time. The second followed 30 seconds later, at which point he pulled away from the stop. More atuned to UK standards of public transport, I was two hours early for my flight.
I’m glad to report that standards haven’t slipped since my first visit.
The city itself is spotless – all the more impressive when you stop to consider that there don’t appear to be any litter bins anywhere. What does everyone do with their rubbish?
The people, too, are a delight, and supremely courteous. Asia is the only place where I have ever been asked to sign anything, or to have my photograph taken.
The same happened at Vinexpo in Hong Kong last year, and with Decanter having a strong presence here, consumers being keen to learn about wine, and me sitting up on a stage all day, the novelty has been repeated.
I have also run out of business cards already, such is the rigour with which attendees of the congress enter into an immediate exchange (doubled-handed, of course) upon introduction.
One guy did reveal himself as something of a charlatan, however. His card proclaimed him not just as a ‘fine wine consultant’ but as ‘Master of Wine Quality’. Not an actual Master of Wine, you understand, just of ‘Master of Wine Quality’.
He struck me as a bit of a chancer, and I couldn’t help but think he was preying on the natives’ trusting nature. I found out later he was Australian… [* See Addendum below]
I shouldn’t be too rude about Australians though, given that’s where I’m heading next. I’m going at an interesting time, a time when the Australian wine trade is beating itself up about the direction in which it should be heading in the UK, where the mass-market brands’ willingness to play ball with the supermarket’s deep-discounting has harmed the image of the Australian category as a whole.
It’s difficult for the generic body, Wine Australia, whose budget largely comes from the big corporations, but if I were in their shoes, I’d be pumping the premium message as much as I could.
Australia produces some superb wines between the £10-30 mark, as good as any country in the world, yet they often get overlooked in the rush to position the country as a source of ‘good value’.
I suspect, though, that news of Australia’s death as a wine producing country has been greatly exaggerated.
We just need to remember that there are two wine markets: wine as mass-market commodity; and decent wine that any sane person wants to drink (I’m leaving the extravagantly priced ‘A-list’ wines out of this, for the moment. I’m not sure of the sanity of some of the prices here).
In the second category, Australia has much to offer – if we let it.
*Addendum, 9 November
It transpires that I may have unwittingly misrepresented the true credentials of our ‘Master of Wine Quality’. Rather than this being a vacuous claim, it is, it transpires, an authentic qualification – namely a Masters in Wine Quality, in this case from the University of Western Sydney. And that is indeed what my previously alleged ‘chancer’ boasts. I’m glad now that I didn’t name him, but I shall take this opportunity, nonetheless, to send him my apologies, and to thank his fellow Master of Wine Quality for pointing out my oversight. To be fair, it looks like a pretty thorough grounding. I still think it’s a silly name for a degree though. GW
Tuesday October 20 (morning)
The importance of texture in Chinese food shouldn’t be underplayed.
Some of the dishes here, such as the prawn dim sum we kicked off with this morning, can be quite rubbery, for want of a better word (we’ve now moved on, as I’m sure you deduced, to Cantonese food).
Again, to me, this cries out for something more racy, zesty and fine in texture to tighten up the food. Certainly not the overly oaky Beringer and Wolf Blass Chardonnays on offer, their roundness only adding to the hollow feeling. On the other hand, Mumm’s 1999 Champagne was just the ticket.
Being quite familiar with dim sum, I vowed today to give the Bordeaux another go (the 1997 Figeac was going down a storm with the assembled throng). I had to battle my prejudices, not least because of the nature of this dish.
Dim sum is informal food, often eaten here for brunch, and even in the UK only really at lunch, and certainly never at dinner. So the idea of opening a classed growth claret as an accompaniment seems bizarre.
With someone else providing it, though, the least I could do was give it a try. I still wasn’t convinced, even if it again made inroads into the more vegetable-based dishes.
Yet the wine list at today’s host restaurant, the acclaimed Jade Palace, is fairly typical of Singapore in being made up 75% by Bordeaux, nearly all of which is cru classé (and very reasonably priced too, it should be said, if depressingly accompanied by Parker scores).
I asked Li de Mei about the Chinese approach to Bordeaux, and why it’s so popular. ‘It’s like sea cucumber,’ he said. ‘Not everyone likes it, but it’s expensive, it’s considered a delicacy, so people want to like it, and to be seen eating and drinking it.’
Monday October 19 (evening)
Last night the cuisine moved on from Teochew to Sichuan, which tends to a more spicy nature.
I’m not the most tolerant consumer of very spicy food, and am constantly ribbed by friends for choosing the mildest dish on the menu when we go to the local Indian. I like to think it’s simply because my palate is ultra-sensitive.
Tonight’s dishes weren’t overly aggressive, but some of them certainly had a kick to them, which made me reach for more clean, linear, pure wines – notably a Clare Valley Riesling, whose steeliness was a perfect counterpoint.
Bizarrely, I also felt drawn to Beringer’s white zinfandel, whose confected, bubblegum flavours I would normally give a wide berth.
In this instance, its simple sweetness performed a good balancing act, acting as a cleansing agent. It made me realise that with dishes that comprise a complex array of flavours, notably hot spiciness, a simple wine works best.
Certainly the classed growth claret on offer was totally overwhelmed, and just led to a bewildering melange of flavours in the mouth.
All this brought to mind the question of why Bordeaux is so popular in China when, to my mind, most of the food doesn’t complement it.
Much of the audience feedback thus far has suggested people are more tolerant of the mix than I am, and I suspect it’s because they are more used to the flavour of the dishes, which don’t seem as complex to their palates as they do to mine.
I asked Jeannie Cho Lee about this and she pointed out how the soft texture of aged Bordeaux often works well with Sichuan food – both she and Fuschia Dunlop were keen, whereas this must have been the only tasting I’ve been to where my glass of Domaine de Chevalier 1998 was still half full by the end.
The only dish I could stomach it with was green beans and chive dumpling, whose vegetal flavours provided a welcome familiarity and a more one-dimensional backdrop against which to set the complexity of this classic Pessac-Léognan.
[20/10/09] ‘I must admit, I struggled a touch with the sea cucumber, much to my hosts’ amusement…’ Woodward’s eyes are opened by the variety of texture in Chinese cuisine
Monday October 19
I’ve come to Singapore to appear as one of the panellists at the grandly titled International Congress of Chinese Cuisine and Wine (www.icccw.com), organised by Decanter columnist, Poh Tiong Ch’ng.
Poh Tiong publishes various magazines here, notably The Wine Review, and, frankly, he knows just about everybody who is anybody on the local wine scene.
The event is aimed at Singapore-based restaurateurs, sommeliers and hoteliers, keen to expand their wine offering but unsure as to how this will work with Chinese food.
Which is pretty much all of them. I’m here to provide a viewpoint on what works and doesn’t work, though as I told Poh Tiong, my knowledge of Chinese food is minimal.
‘That’s OK,’ he said, ‘You’ll provide a western perspective, and half their trade comes from western businessmen.’
My fellow panellists are Andrew Caillard MW, the publisher of Australia’s renowned Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine; Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Asia’s first MW, and a supremely active and well connected educator, writer and consultant based in Hong Kong; Fuchsia Dunlop, arguably the best-known western chronicler of Chinese cuisine, and a prolific author and commentator on the topic; Li De Mei, one of China’s best known winemakers, head of the Chinese Viticulture and Enology Assocation and also an educator and writer based at Beijing University; and Reva Singh, the founder and publisher of India’s main wine title, Sommelier India.
The first event was an eye-opener. In the UK, the description of most Chinese restaurants begins and ends there – Chinese.
But of course China is a vast place, and is home to several different strains of cuisine. Most of what we see in the UK in Cantonese, but today we kicked off by pairing typical Teochew dishes with various wines, some more successfully than others.
Teochew food generally involve steaming and boiling dishes, often seafood or vegetables, and it seems less involved than other Chinese cuisines, with less strong spicy flavours, and more emphasis on fresh produce. The flavours weren’t the problem here, but the texture of some of the dishes was.
Not so much with the rich cold crab that pretty much everyone in the room felt went superbly with the fine, linear quality of the Champagne (my biggest difficulty here was actually eating it – my chopstick skills are modest, and it fell apart under their thrust, while the plastic spoon offered was a touch clumsy. I eventually settled on a sort of skewer which a sympathetic waiter proffered).
More so, though, with dishes such as sea cucumber with minced pork. I must admit that I struggled a touch with the sea cucumber, much to my hosts’ amusement.
It was rather glutinous, which isn’t a texture I’m familiar with – or fond of. Told it was considered a delicacy, I battled manfully on, but I was certainly at a loss to find a wine to complement it.
Exercises like this make you consider what it is that makes a good food and wine ‘match’.
I generally find that I’m actually looking for more of a contrast than a match. Take the crab, which was rich in an almost lobster-type way. I certainly didn’t then want more of the same from the buttery, oaky California Chardonnay that was on offer. Instead I was looking for something to cut through that, and provide a counterpoint, so that you naturally go from one to the other, and back again.
As the first session progressed, though, I noticed that my preferences, while shared by Andrew Caillard (the other self-confessed Chinese cuisine novice on the panel) were often opposed by the choices of Jeannie Cho Lee and Fuchsia Dunlop, both of whom are more familiar with the dishes. I shall stick to my guns though…
After a 14-hour flight to a sweltering Singapore, some form of recuperation was required.
It came courtesy of Champagne Mumm, which was hosting a launch event for the en magnum version of the 1998 vintage of its prestige cuvee, R Lalou.
The Champagne houses have been getting more and more innovative when it comes to marking the release of a new vintage in the UK, and it’s no different in Asia.
Mumm opted for a food matching dinner at trendy, modern-Asian eatery Iggy’s, but with just one wine to play with, needed some way in which to engage our attention for the full duration of the evening.
The answer came in changing the temperature of the wine for each course, the idea being that we could gauge at which temperature the wine’s flavours were best expressed.
Although we were told the first glass was served at a precise 6.2˚C, the exercise was somewhat flawed when we were later advised to ‘warm the glass in your hands a bit’ because of difficulties in reaching the required 8˚, 11˚ and 14˚.
I can’t say my palate is capable of discerning such precise temperatures, but my overall conclusion was that most Champagne is generally served too cold – it certainly improves for being allowed to settle in the glass, and the flavours given chance to evolve.
The food was sublime though, notably the most astonishingly tender wagyu beef I’ve ever tasted, and the company – a mixture of local sommeliers and restaurateurs – a delight.
Conversation on our table revolved around Mumm’s sponsorship of Formula One, which has gained it a higher profile at a time when the brand owner, Pernod Ricard, is trying to emphasise improvements in quality at the house in recent years.
I’m not sure such an image is improved by the sight of Jenson Button spraying the drink around indiscriminately, but I’m told Mumm considers the deal very worthwhile…