Photo: Wine Australia

The Evolution of Australian wine

By Jamie Goode
Photo: Wine Australia
6 min

How Australian wine has changed and in such a relatively short space of time. In 1972, the successful British comedy show, ‘Monty Python's Flying Circus’ famously lampooned Aussie wine as 'Chateau Chunder from down under'. Although wine has been made in Australia since the 19th century, until the 1970s the focus was on fortified wines and the Australian drinking culture didn’t generally involve wine.

'In the 1950s and early 60s if you drank table wine you were queer, or eccentric, or both,' says Bruce Tyrell, of the eponymous Hunter Valley winery. 'I had a girlfriend from university, from a country town, and her parents weren’t sure I was a suitable person because I was a plonkie.'

Export Explosion

Back in 1950, 86% of Australian grapes were used for fortified wine. By 1995, 94% were being used for table wine. In 1965 exports of Australian wine were 8 million litres a year - one fiftieth of that of France. During the 1970s, exports of Aussie wine actually declined. But then came the revolution. By the early 1980s, Australia was 18th in the table of wine exporters; by the early 1990s it was 6th. The figures were striking: Exports of 8 million litres in 1981 grew to 39 million by the end of the decade, and by 2007 they were 805 million. Over this period domestic consumption was fairly flat, so this growth was driven by outside interest. 

What were the catalysts of this transformation? Clearly, something changed about Australian wine that caught the imagination and whetted the appetites of export markets, and this was led by an insatiable thirst for Aussie wine on the part of the Brits.

Just What The Doctors Ordered

The seeds for the current scene were sown by pioneer vignerons. In the Hunter Valley, there was hand surgeon Max Lake, who is credited with starting Australia's first boutique winery. He'd caught the wine bug in Europe, and in 1963 planted a vineyard which he named Lake's Folly, specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, sold via a mailing list.

In the Yarra Valley two characters stand out, both doctors, one medical and one scientific: Dr John Middleton and Dr Bailey Carrodus. In 1973, Carrodus, a CSIRO scientist, released the first commercial vintage in the Yarra since 1922, and his Yarra Yering wines have established cult status for themselves. Middleton was close on his heels, planting his Mount Mary vineyard in 1971. These wines were made in an uncompromising, age-worthy style. Dr Guill de Pury is another who was involved in the rebirth of the Yarra as a wine region, with his Yeringberg estate in the early 1970s (first wines, 1974).  

Len Evans played a pivotal role in the evolution of Australian wine. This larger-than-life character was commonly referred to as the Godfather of Australian wine industry. In 1962 he was the first newspaper wine columnist in Australia, and in 1965 founded the Australian Wine Bureau that, with its London outpost next to a sex shop, was so vital in promoting Aussie wine to what was to become its strongest export market. Evans wrote the first Australian wine encyclopaedia, and with his Bulletin Place wine shop and restaurant in Sydney's Circular Quay, he was a pivotal figure in the wine scene. His winery interests included Rothbury, Petaluma and Tower Estate.

Evans mentored a young Sydney lawyer, James Halliday, who has since gone on to become the leading Aussie wine communicator. Halliday played a vital role in telling the world about Australia's wines with his friendly, fluid but always well informed prose, a task he's continued to this day with his newspaper columns and wine companion.

The Birth of Cool

One of the factors behind the success of Australian wine was the emergence of cooler climate regions and the search for interesting terroirs. This was typically accompanied by the colonization of these newer regions with scores and even hundreds of ambitious boutique wineries. Margaret River in Western Australia is a great example, now home to over 5,000 hectares of vines and more than 200 wineries. That it is a wine region at all is down to the work of Dr John Gladstones, a horticulturist. He identified the region as having the ideal climate and soils for winegrowing, in a seminal paper published in 1965. In 1966, Dr Kevin Cullen planted a trial quarter-acre block of vines, and in 1967 Dr Tom Cullity planted the first commercial vineyard, Vasse Felix. Shortly after, Bill and Sandra Pannell planted Moss Wood (1969) and David Hohnen established Cape Mentelle (1970).

Tasmania, now the source of a lot of exciting wines, only really got going in 1974, when Andrew Pirie planted Pipers Brook, with the first wine released in 1977. The Adelaide Hills, now a major wine region with 18 000 hectares of vines, restarted from scratch – it had been a successful wine region in the late 19th Century – when Brian Croser began Petaluma in 1976. Over the 1980s this cooler climate region grew extensively. 

Croser was also instrumental in teaching a generation of winemakers how to make good wine, along with his colleague Dr Tony Jordan. In 1974 Jordan was hired as a lecturer in chemistry and wine science at Riverina College (now Charles Sturt University) in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Jordan had to develop the oenology course at Riverina, along with Don Lester, and to make up for the gaps in their knowledge, they hired Brian, then chief winemaker at Hardy's. Jordan and Croser were to form a potent team, and later founded winemaking consultancy Oenotech in 1978. They were advocates of anaerobic (also known as reductive), winemaking. By excluding oxygen from the winemaking process, and using stainless steel and refrigeration, they taught winemakers to produce clean, fruit-forward and delicious wines, even in warm climates. 

The early pioneers were joined by a second generation of boutique winemakers, such as like Louisa Rose (Yalumba), Jeffrey Grosset (Grosset in the Clare Valley), Rick Kinzbrunner (Giaconda, Heathcote) and Tim Kirk (Clonakilla, Canberra District) helped change perceptions of Australian wine around the world.

This set the stage for the large expansion of the wine industry, driven by soaring export sales, as the world went crazy for sunshine in a glass, and at the high-end the Australian boutique wineries were turning out wines that caught the imagination of those used to the European classics.

Decline and Rise

But the story doesn't end there. Nothing stays the same, and in the mid-noughties, things began to look a little less bright. At the commercial end, the big brands had lost their sparkle, and at the high-end some producers had slipped into an over-ripe, over-oaked style favoured by some American critics. So a new phase of evolution has been taking place.

There's been a move towards farming more sensitively, with biodynamics, organics and sustainable farming taking the spotlight. There has been a wave of small producers who want to work more naturally, picking earlier to preserve acidity and aid site expression, and using alternative forms of elevage such as concrete and large oak, moving away from small new oak.

The excess of the past has been toned down, along with the oak, and now, for example, Australian Chardonnay is showing a lot more restraint and poise. There's also been an exploration of alternative varieties, more suited to some of the warmer, irrigated regions, including new stars such as Fiano and Nero d'Avola.

The classics of old that spurred on the transformation of the Australian wine industry in the 1970s and 1980s are still recognized and celebrated. But there's currently a lot of excitement about the current crop of small boutique wineries, helping reignite the enthusiasm for Australian wines that gripped export markets way back in the boom times of the 1980s.  The future is exceptionally bright for Australian wine.

Jamie Goode is a leading British Wine Writer and the author of the Wine Anorak.

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