Acclaimed Australian winemaker Ben Glaetzer talks to Society News about how he is comfortable making both entry-level and top-end wines, and why Italian varieties are the way forward
Winning the Qantas Young Winemaker of the Year title in 2004, aged just 26, Ben Glaetzer did not take long to make his mark on the Australian wine scene. His father Colin was winemaker at Barossa Valley Estate before the family set up Glaetzer Wines, also based in the Barossa, in 1995.
Ben is now winemaker at Glaetzer Wines, whose line-up includes the topend, award-winning Amon-Ra and Anaperenna, and is also winemaker at Heartland Wines from the Limestone Coast and Langhorne Creek (both in South Australia), and at Mitolo in McLaren Vale (just outside Adelaide).
The Heartland range may sell for considerably less than his top Barossa wines, but, says Glaetzer, the attention focused on it is just as high: 'With Heartland, we have about 1,000 acres of vineyard, and what I can do with that is taste all the flavours and come up with a wine and play with the different varieties.
'Some varieties perform better in different years. For example, we've got dolcetto, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, and lagrein. Winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape have many different varieties to play around with (up to 13), and so do I. Consistency of flavour is not what I'm looking for; it's consistency of quality.'
Time for a Change
In the UK at least, Australian wine appeared to come from nowhere in the early 1990s. Part of its success was a matter of timing. A poor run of vintages in France led to a shortage of stock, and despite a drop in quality, winemakers – fatally – put their prices up, assuming that thirsty wine drinkers would continue to buy. They did, but they looked elsewhere, and Australia, with its bold, fruit-filled (and keenly priced) wines, cashed in.
Glaetzer says he has looked into why Australia made such quick inroads in the UK: 'At the time,' he says, 'South Africa was stricken with apartheid; Argentina was tied up with the Falklands War; Chile had Pinochet to deal with, and so on. Australia didn't have any of that to deal with. Its wines just had this perception of "bottled sunshine", and were accessible to the population.'
But this bottled sunshine may never have materialised had the politicians got their way. Glaetzer adds: 'It was as recently as 1985 that the South Australian government was paying wine-growers to pull up vines, because it thought there was no future for the South Australian wine industry!'
Thankfully, not all winemakers took up the government's offer, and what is encouraging is that Australia is now making real progress in terms of forging a strong regional identity – wine drinkers are not just asking for a glass of generic Aussie shiraz, but are learning the differences between the regions – albeit slowly.
As Glaetzer is most familiar with the Barossa and McLaren Vale, how does he compare them? 'In McLaren Vale, the flavours are more generous than the Barossa, when young. Barossa is more restrained in style, and Barossa wines tend to be more ageworthy. But I enjoy the difference between the two.
'There are about 16–17 sub-regions in the Barossa Valley. I'm focused on the northernmost one, Ebenezer, but it's great that there are wines made from a vineyard just 1km–2km away that taste completely different. This is a reflection of our soil and our climate. Ebenezer shiraz is a bit more generous, and tends to have a bit more richness to it. The soils are more free-draining, so you don't tend to get those higher alcohol levels, but you do get that lovely ripeness and tannin structure.'
Glaetzer is experimenting with about 35 grape varieties, to see which have the most potential. Italian grapes appear to be doing well. He says: 'We're focused on dolcetto and lagrein: these are two red varieties that we've been using for the past six years. Dolcetto gives this lovely savoury lift to the mid-palate. A lot of people are now experimenting with different clones of sangiovese. Barbera is another one we're trying, as well as vermentino and albariño.'
Climatic conditions are always a key issue in Australia – the country has been beset by droughts and floods in recent years. Some believe that the rising temperatures are a symptom of climate change, but Glaetzer disagrees: 'I took heart after speaking to one of our growers in the Barossa, who is about 95 years old, and he said that in 1908 and in the 1930s we had very similar weather patterns, with six or seven years of very hot, almost devastating droughts, but then we had floods four years later. It will upset the climate change specialists, but I think it's a cyclical thing.'
The first Glaetzers settled in the Barossa in 1888, having emigrated from Germany. The European influence is clear not just in the Barossa, but in the wines of Ben Glaetzer, too.