Explore / Expertise

Australia: Injustice Down Under


Freddy Bulmer Freddy Bulmer / 13 May 2020

Our perceptions of Australian wine still need readjusting. The wines have moved on - why can't we?

I have been lucky enough to be The Society's buyer for Australia for almost exactly a year now and to say it's been a bit of a steep learning curve is an understatement. This is a fascinating country for so many reasons and experiencing just how varied and interesting the wine offering is here has been a privilege. Naturally I had a pretty decent idea of this before being handed the keys to our Australian cabinet, but it's only from having the good fortune to visit that I was able to really get a feel of how vast the range of opportunities are. I also discovered quite how disjointed the UK wine-drinking public's views and perceptions of the Aussie wine industry are, versus the reality of what's actually going on there.

Seemingly we are still stuck in the mentality of linking Australian wine to cheap, bulk, juice/butter-bombs (depending on whether red or white), unable to comprehend the diversity, nuance and detail available in abundance beyond belief. Why is this? I believe it's a legacy from when Australia flooded the UK market with cheap branded bulk wines back in the nineties. The UK public lapped it up (and why wouldn't we!?) because frankly there was bags of simple but generous flavour on offer for very little cash. £3 shiraz with a picture of a boomerang on it...that actually tastes of alcoholic Ribena… why wouldn't you pick it off the shelf of your local off-licence!? However, as happens to all things which offer upfront charm but lack inherent substance (we've all met someone like that) the fad passes and the public quite rightly have moved on to pastures new, for the most part anyway. Chile became the new home of so-called 'value' during this period (although Chile itself has seen a revolution in the quality and complexity of its wines in recent years) and stole a lot of Australia's consumers away from the bottom end. Unfavourable exchange rates meant it was becoming increasingly hard for Australia to offer us thirsty Brits dirt-cheap wine that tasted not-too-bad.

Australia has changed! Why can't we get that?

There is now something of an injustice facing the Australian wine industry, then. They have changed their ways but why haven't we? One of the many things that I love about Australian wine is that the industry has worked so hard to reinvent itself over the last decade or two, in particular. Yes, they were initially busy cashing in on the public's love for cheap booze with labels which screamed of aboriginal cultural appropriation, but when they were no longer able to continue to offer this, at what had been genuinely decent value, many winemakers decided that enough was enough. Instead there was a focus on quality winemaking first and foremost, the idea being, 'If it can't be cheap and good, it may as well be not cheap and bloody good!' Of course, many producers, particularly the boutique wineries had this mindset from the outset, but one thing the Australian wine industry is good at doing, is presenting a united front, especially when it comes to the export market. The industry has undergone a sea change: everyone has done wrong at some point, but the important thing is to learn and grow from it. The Aussies seem particularly adept at doing this.

The Clare Valley, one of Australia's oldest wine regions and a great source of some of the world's finest dry rieslings
The Clare Valley, one of Australia's oldest wine regions and a great source of some of the world's finest dry rieslings

A great, underappreciated source of fine wine

Australia, in my opinion, is one of the best countries in the world for fine wine. There are still options at the lower end of the price scale but it's harder now than ever to find really delicious wine at that end of the spectrum. The bulk of Australian wine sold in the UK is still cheap-cheap stuff sold through the supermarkets (not by us!) and that's now so out of touch with what's really going on that it's frankly painful to see. The quality really does not do the rest of the industry justice. It's an anachronistic travesty!

Due to the fun but distinctly dumbed-down message of Australia which has been used to sell its cheap wines in export markets around the world, and which was doubtless key to its extremely rapid growth and great success, there are now huge blind spots in the knowledge of your average wine consumer – this is nobody's fault but is an example of a very successful marketing campaign doing more damage than good in the long run. People see Australia as being hot, dry and full of shiraz made by people wearing Blundstone boots and cork hats. This is just not accurate (apart from the bit about the boots).

The Barossa Valley with its full-on and often fabulous wines is probably one of the better know regions, but there is so much more to this country and this region!
The Barossa Valley with its full-on and often fabulous wines is probably one of the better know regions, but there is so much more to this country and this region!

Variety and diversity

The Australian climate is hugely varied across the continent, with a vast amount of microclimates which differentiate one region from the next. This is a place which is, at the same time home to some of the best full-bodied reds in the world, from a some very hot winegrowing regions. But it is also home to some of the most finessed chardonnays and delicate pinot noirs, both of which need cool temperatures to retain their freshness and sympathetic viticultural work. Barossa is a great region for wine and is no doubt one of the most famous: for a lot of consumers who are familiar with the fact that Australia has a serious fine wine offering, this is often one of the first regions to come to mind – it's hot and makes shiraz so hardly breaks the stereotype. There is no denying that some of the best wines in Australia do come from here but the real tragedy is that there are so many other styles of wine made in Australia which are so under the radar it's not even fair!

Train track running through the Yarra Valley in Australia
Train track running through the Yarra Valley in Australia

If you look at Melbourne on the map (or even better, if you are able to visit!) and go north-east a little or south a little, you will find two great examples of Australia's cool-climate winemaking regions – Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula respectively – both home to some frankly awesome pinot noir and chardonnay in particular. Both regions benefit from the cooling influence of the ocean which helps to moderate the climate and ensure that temperatures rarely get too hot. Mornington Peninsula is a beautiful paradise-like strip of land which sticks out south of Melbourne into the ocean and the southern tip is home to the second homes of many of Melbourne's most affluent. The wines therefore don't often make their way to export to the same degree as many other Australian regions and this is for a number of reasons: production is small as the peninsula is not huge and it has a big market an hour to the north in Melbourne's restaurants, let alone with all the people who stop off at a winery to restock their holiday-home cellars on the way. I visited a few wineries in Mornington Peninsula in 2019 and the grey weather, tiny wineries and top-quality pinot and chardonnay was very reminiscent of Burgundy – aside from the Blundstone boots, naturally.

Beach Huts on the coast of Mornington Peninsula
Beach Huts on the coast of Mornington Peninsula

Getting the picture – Australia is big!

It's easy to forget the scale of Australia, but if you drove from Kooyong winery in the heart of Mornington Peninsula, to Torbreck winery in Barossa, it would take you circa nine hours non-stop. That's only 20 minutes less than driving from Burgundy to Rioja! So why we seem unable to appreciate the diversity of wine styles, regions and climates in Australia remains a mystery. Similarly, not necessarily a cool climate but rather a moderate and relatively consistent climate is that of Margaret River, Australia's furthest western wine region. A bit like Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River sticks out into the ocean and is surrounded on three sides by water. This helps to create one of the best climates in the world for producing silky, aromatic and restrained cabernet sauvignon. Not too hot, not too cold, rarely gets peaks in temperature like Barossa might and is a wholly different environment again, compared to Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula. If you fell asleep in Barossa and woke up in Margaret River you could be forgiven for opening your eyes and thinking you were in a different country: the flora and fauna are quite unique here, virtually cut off from the rest of Australia by desert. You would have to question your own intellect though, unless you're a heavy enough sleeper to potentially have not released that you were being loaded onto an aeroplane or ship in order to get to another country from Barossa. Also, the drive from Barossa to Margaret River is a non-stop 29-hour slog. That's the equivalent of getting off the channel tunnel in Calais and driving to Istanbul! Tasmania is another example of a totally unique climate. This is an island with a mountain range in the middle. The western side is too wet to make wine but because of the weather shadow caused by the mountains, the eastern side of Tasmania is perfect for making delicious, fresh and finessed wines (it's also one of the most beautiful places on the planet).

Overlooking the Vineyards in Margaret River
Overlooking the Vineyards in Margaret River

Winning hearts and changing minds

Australia's challenge when it comes to getting its message out there is that the reality is so far removed from the clichés of blockbuster shiraz, Home & Away and kangaroos that a whole re-education programme is required. In fact, the task now is that Australia is anything but a simple winemaking country to understand with a consistent hot climate and spiders which can gobble you up in one. It's such a complex place for so many reasons; there's a vast number of different grape varieties, grown in an awful lot of different climates, by winemakers who have so often now travelled the world and made wine in regions from Burgundy, to Bordeaux to Barolo to Rioja, bringing back influences from each.

There are very few boundaries and restrictions for making wine and the possibilities are endless; and that's not to mention that this country is home to some of the oldest vines on the planet! Wrapping this truth up into one simple message while giving an idea of the sheer scale is, frankly, impossible. I am a believer that all of the best commercial propositions can be summed up in one or two sentences, because it is then easy for anyone to feel like they understand it, but Australia can't do this. Frankly though this is to the benefit of wine lovers, enthusiasts and those who are willing to take their time to dip a toe into the water of Australian wine and give it a chance. Wine Society members, in other words!

Old vines in the Barossa Valley, Australia
Old vines in the Barossa Valley, Australia

I mentioned that there is something of an injustice with modern day Australian wine. The Aussies have moved on - they have grown and developed their offering to something really special, focusing on the top end and making some of the best fine wines in the world - so recalibrating the injustice lies with us. Why are we clinging onto the past so much here? It's taken me visiting Australia to fully appreciate what's going on and obviously that is something that not everyone has the luxury of doing, so all I can do is urge drinkers to take off their oaky-chardonnay-tinted glasses and open their eyes to all the wonderful things Australian wine has to offer. You really could spend the rest of your life drinking wines only from here and never have two which taste the same.

The quality has never been better, the offering has never been broader and it really is something that we should all make the effort to drink more of. Shed your preconceptions and prejudices and step inside the wonderful world of Australia's unique wine.

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