Some Thoughts on Australian Wine

Anyone who reads Vinography with any regularity would know that I spent some time in Australia recently on a press trip. I got the chance to visit a lot of wineries in both Victoria and South Australia, in the regions of Yarra Valley, King Valley, Beechworth, Heathcote, Adelaide HIlls, McLaren Vale, and the Barossa Valley.

My two week trip by no means made me an expert on Australian wine, but it did significantly increase my understanding of what Australian wine is all about, what’s going on in the country, and it certainly expanded my horizons when it comes to Australian wine.

I’ve of course been posting my reviews of wines and stories of wineries that I visited on this trip, but I also collected some random observations about Australian wine that I offer below, with no presumption of profundity. These are just some of the things I learned and encountered during my trip.

Old Vines
One of the things I was quite excited to see more of (more than my brief trip to the Hunter Valley 9 years ago afforded me) were old vines. Australia has some of the oldest grapevines in the world, thanks to its geographical remove from the rest of the world, and its relative lack of the vine-killing pest Phylloxera. From the century-old Grenache growing a stones throw from the beach in McLaren Vale to the gnarled 150-year-old Shiraz of Barossa Valley, these bush vines are mighty impressive. In particular I was struck by both the massive trunks of a 100-year-old Shiraz vine, as compared with the relative spindly nature of an equally old Mourvedre vine. One of the highlights of the trip was stopping by the famous Hill of Grace vineyard (which isn’t on a hill, but merely on a flat strip of land in front of a church named Hill of Grace) owned by the Henschke family.

Diversity and the Small Winery
I like to spend time visiting wine regions to understand them at a greater depth and to see a wider breadth of production than would ordinarily be visible in the U.S. Our experience of Australian wine in the United States, despite the concerted, valiant efforts of many importers and retailers, will always be somewhat limited based on the calculus of demand on the one hand, and availability on the other.

As someone who has made a concerted effort to taste a lot of Australian wine (at trade tastings, large public tastings, etc.) I was surprised at how much my experience of Australian wine seemed pretty narrow compared to what was on offer there. I visited only a small portion of the many wine regions in the country, but encountered a much wider range of wines (styles and grape varieties) than are typically found here at home.

In large part, much of this diversity existed at smaller wineries. Indeed, some of the most exciting wines I had in Australia are made by tiny producers who don’t make much wine, and export even less to the U.S.

It seemed rather clear to me that Australia hasn’t figured out a way to easily make this diversity available to the world at large, perhaps as a result of scale, but perhaps also as a result of a focus of its energy on “simpler” ways of communicating to global consumers about Australian wine.

Australia (by which I mean primarily the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, the main trade body in the country) should be celebrating and promoting its smaller producers more.

Lack of Labor and Mechanical Harvesting
I was surprised to see so much mechanical harvesting in Australia even among some of the more premium producers. This turned out to be a function of labor availability. While Australia is a country populated with immigrants, that is purely a historical phenomenon. The country does not benefit from the constant influx of immigrants (or merely migrants) from the developing world that manages to produce large pools of low cost field labor in so many other countries. While there exists enough labor (though expensive) to hand harvest smaller vineyards, and the precious, ancient bush-vines that cannot be harvested by machine, any winery of a certain size generally must harvest by machine. I wrote last week about whether this practice necessarily had a negative impact on wine quality. My feeling is that while I have certainly had good wines that have been machine harvested, my anecdotal experience leads me to believe that machine harvesting may at least limit the quality of wine, if not negatively impact it.

Always Acidulating
“Any winemaker in Australia who tells you they don’t acidulate is lying,” said one winemaker in the course of my visit. I only met one winemaker who swore up and down that never, under any circumstances, did acid get added to his wines. I met a couple more who say that most of the time they don’t have to add anything, one of which offered to show me the sack of tartaric acid in his cellar that had a date stamp from 10 years ago and only had about 20% missing.

No one likes to talk about acidulation in Australia (sort of like no one likes to talk about watering back in California, or chaptalization in Burgundy), but it’s clear that it is pretty pervasive. I was surprised at this and still haven’t fully resolved how I feel about it. On the one hand, the fact that winemakers have to add acid seems to indicate that they’re doing something wrong. The most extreme reaction to this practice might be to suggest people are growing the wrong grapes in the wrong places, the wrong way. Of note, the two wineries (Jasper Hill and Yarra Yering) that had the most credible claims of no use of acid are both dry farmed.

On the other hand, what’s a little acid between friends? Especially if it results in delicious wines that clearly speak of a place? I’m not dogmatic about my wine, and I am of the opinion that wine is never truly a natural phenomenon, depending as it does on at least some intervention by humans to remain wine instead of vinegar. A little acid, a little commercial yeast, and a little sulfur dioxide do not turn a wine into industrial swill in my book, though some purists will doubtless vehemently disagree.

I think there is too much good wine being made in Australia to take the position that the pervasive use of acidulation represents a fundamental failure, but at the same time, I wish it wasn’t necessary. As I’m sure most Australians do too.

Increasing Australian Biodynamics
Biodynamic winegrowing and winemaking seems to be increasing in frequency and visibility in Australia. I had a chance to meet with a number of both the pioneers as well as the newer biodynamic vintners in my travels and I was struck by a consistent streak of pragmatism that ran through them all. Nearly every single one expressed dismay at what they saw as the commercialization of biodynamics. They strenuously objected to the idea of the term biodynamics having been trademarked, as well as the certification regimens that exist. Several of them indicated that they didn’t think they could ever be certified, even if they wanted to, because they didn’t use all the proscribed preparations. Many suggested that a few of the preparations (such as 501) were wholly inappropriate for Australia, given the heat, intense UV, and natural vigor of the vines. More than one made note of the fact that biodynamics attempts to offer a wholly natural, closed system of farming, yet in Australia in order to be biodynamic they have to import cows horns and introduce a non-native animal product to the soil in order to “do it properly.” To some, like winemaker Dave Powell at Torbreck, the proscriptive and somewhat inflexible nature of the biodynamic regimen isn’t matched to Australian circumstance. “Look,” he says, “Cows aren’t native to Australia, and for that matter, neither are grapevines. If you wanted to be truly biodynamic here you’d have to take a didgeridoo and stuff it full of kangaroo shit and bury that in the vineyard.”

The Fall from Grace and the Grateful Palate Backlash
There seems to be a consensus, at least in the critical press, that Australian wine has fallen out of favor in America and even more so, the UK. I spent a lot of time speaking with winemakers and other people in the industry about whether and why this is so. Many seemed to think that in addition to the GFC (the Australian ubiquitous acronym for Global Financial Crisis) Australian wine was indeed suffering a bit, if only at the hands of the media and what people referred to as the upper echelons of the wine industry. Most characterized the problem as a two-fold issue: first, the massive corporate wine giants (many of whose brands are ONLY sold overseas) flooding the US and the UK to the point that people are tired of the critter brands and are conditioned to think of Australian wine as something that costs less than $5; secondly, that after several years of hype over huge, extracted, high-alcohol wines from the Barossa (Mollydooker was named as a poster child for this excess), collectors were tasting these wines with five or eight years on them and realizing they were falling apart.

In particular two parties came under sharp attack for this phenomenon: Jay Miller (and by association, Robert Parker) and Dan Philips whose company The Grateful Palate and whose wine brand Marquis Philips are seen as having championed (and massively profited) from this style of wine in the US. The Grateful Palate, like many wine concerns these days, has fallen on hard times.

In Closing, Sort Of
I returned from Australia extremely excited about the country as a wine producer, and quite excited to return some day to explore Western Australia, Tasmania, the Mornington Penninsula, and other regions where I think there is a lot of exiting wine being made, and to be made in the future. I highly recommend it as a destination for wine lovers, especially those interested in a vacation that includes more than just some time spent in wine country.