Changing Face of Australian Wine

When it comes to Australian wine many people will be of the opinion that it’s all much the same. Explosive fruit, a big whack of alcohol and a dollop of oak flavour. And your choice is either white or red. But in the same way that not everyone in Australia is called Sheila or Bruce this would be a wholly unfair stereotyping of the country’s wines.

Thinking back to my first encounter with Australian wines in the late 80s (during tasting classes at the Hotelschool I attended), I remember it was these ‘new world’ wines that were easier to drink and understand than their ‘old world’ counterparts. What I wasn’t prepared for was its chequered history when it comes to wine. Australia’s wine history in my mind dated to the relatively recent export boom that started in the eighties and brought with it a style of wine little seen in Europe until that day. Flavour on steroids and big brands. Regionality wasn’t important, ripe fruit was crucial and could come from anywhere, and oak dominated many of these wines. And I believe that still gives rise to some of the stereotypes that persist today.

The famous Terra Rossa soils in Coonawarra. Image courtesy of Wine Australia.

Attending the ‘A+ Australian Wine – One Day Wine School‘ session allowed me more than a glimpse into what is a fascinating wine country. It was showing off much more variety than I was expecting and shows that regional differences in soil and climate are having a real impact on how the wine tastes. That sense of place, which the French call ‘terroir’ might actually have some bearing on Australia’s wine regions too. It was an eye opener to witness how six Chardonnays from very distinct regions could taste so different. Arguably this had more to do with the varying degrees of oak and the different times at which the grapes were harvested, but climate and soil definitely play their important part here too. Still, it shows a move towards much more diverse styles. Occasionally I even used the words elegant and intricate, not something I had expected.

As we discussed the merits of some of the better known regions it became apparent that variety is to be expected with around 2300 wineries across 64 diverse regions. But in relative terms Australia is a very young wine country. Its early wine years were spent on the production of fortified wines, much of which found a market in Britain in the 30’s. Production only shifted to light wines in the 50’s and 60’s with increased immigration and modern winery technology, such as temperature controlled fermentation and more efficient transport systems. This ultimately fuelled the Australian wine boom in the 80’s and what we now describe as the democratisation of wine by the supermarkets. Accepting this is a coming of age for the industry, more recently we see the new generation being increasingly inquisitive. Many make wine in different continents and are keen to experiment and find a regional voice. Research and development are now instrumental in determining which grapes grow well in which regions. The point is even raised that the best vineyards in Australia may not even have been planted yet. I think that’s a very exciting notion and shows a country full of promise. Yet, it may take a little longer to convince the average wine consumer that Australian wine is more than just big flavours and big brands.