Australian wine has been incredibly successful internationally in the past 25 years but I wonder if that overseas popularity has come at a cost at home.
Our wine industry has been so keen to market and brand Australian wine in every foreign port that it has too often overlooked our real wine strength – our many and varied wine regions.
For Australian wine is not just one message; it is not just ‘sunshine in a bottle?. It is a tapestry; and it’s a tapestry that offers great, diverse wines for every taste.
Understanding a little bit about our wine regions ? besides making you cleverer than the other people at the dinner party ? also enables you to make better decisions when it comes to buying wine.
Knowing the big and the little wine regions, as well as the well-known and off-the-radar ones, makes you realise the unique bonds that exist between certain regions and certain wine styles and grape varieties.
Once you start getting that wine secret sorted out, well, it’s really half the battle won.
As a general rule of thumb, climatically cooler regions (with lower latitude or higher altitude) are going to make for better examples of white wine and reds such as pinot noir.
However, most of Australia’s wine comes from warmer regions, which is why it’s unsurprising we make a lot of shiraz.
Reds such as shiraz, grenache, and ? as it is now emerging ? the Spanish red variety tempranillo, handle warmer climates well.
This is why such well-known regions as South Australia’s Barossa Valley have an international reputation for big, rich, shiraz wines.
The Barossa is also a good example of the other important factors to consider when comparing wine regions.
Merely marrying the geographical and climatic aspects to a grape variety won’t in itself make for great wine. There are historical and cultural aspects to a wine region.
In the Barossa, we’ve got all of this: soils and a climate that makes for ripe, rich shiraz, and a community of grape wranglers who know, from experience, how to get the best out of the vines.
There are shiraz vines in the Barossa, planted in 1843. It is proof-of-the-pudding stuff.
Yet some regions with high reputations seem to defy climate logic: the Hunter Valley, for example.
Often suffering rain and humidity during vintage this area manages to grow and make the world’s most dynamic semillon.
Pale, citric and almost hurtfully acidic when first bottled, this white wine develops with age and can last convincingly for a decade, during which it transforms into a nutty, faintly honeyed wine with still a trace of its youthful beginnings.
Nowhere else in the world, let alone Australia, can semillon be made in this way and, when you consider it is a world-class white wine, its price is remarkably low.
There are many other tried and tested regions around the country. Western Australia’s Margaret River and cabernet sauvignon blends can touch upon the best Bordeaux has to offer; South Australia’s Clare Valley is great shiraz and riesling territory (its cabernet is a bit of a dark horse, too); the McLaren Vale has made grenache its own; and western Victoria has been producing leaner, peppery shiraz for generations.
With Melbourne’s “dress-circle” regions ? Geelong, Macedon, and the Yarra Valley ? we’ve got vineyards attuned to the needs of pinot noir and chardonnay; and in the north-east, on the Murray, there happily remains one of the world’s great centres for fortified wine ? particularly tokay and muscat ? Rutherglen.
The heritage is there, but the X factor for Australian wine lies in the regions still garnering respect.
There’s immaculate chardonnay in Queensland’s Granite Belt winning medals (Robert Channon Wines, just south-west of Brisbane); there’s a lobster fisherman on Tasmania’s east coast making beautiful pinot in an old cray boiling pot (Apsley Gorge, near Bicheno); and there’s one of Australia’s best winemakers bringing a bit of burgundy to South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula (Brian Croser’s Foggy Hill pinot noir vineyard).
So many wine regions, so many great wines. What an irony it is then that Australia’s most popular wine region is found across the Tasman, in New Zealand: Marlborough and its sauvignon blanc.
Last year, one brand alone ? Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc ? was the biggest selling white wine in Australia. That’s fabulous for Kiwi sav blanc, but I can’t help but think we have forgotten our own backyard.