Australian wine: The view from north

By Tom Cannavan
5 mins

My trip to Australia late in 2016 was my fifth visit to the country on a professional basis, but my first since 2009. Whilst seven years may not be a long time in Australia’s wine-producing history, it has been an unusually fast-moving period of evolution; more like Australian wine revolution.

It wasn’t absolutely essential to visit the country in order to appreciate the radical changes of the past decade or so. Based on extensive tastings here in the UK, I, like many other British wine journalists, have been banging the drum about ‘The New Australia’ for many years. But landing in Sydney on a warm November morning was the start of a whirlwind tour that filled in the detail. It let me see and taste for myself just how far reaching the changes have been, with so many first-hand accounts from the winemakers including Brendon Keys, Taras Ochota and Steve Flamsteed.

Australia & Scotland: An enduring kinship

Scotland, where I am based, was certainly not immune to the charms of the big, bold and sunshine-filled wines that rocketed Australia to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Retailers, led by Oddbins who had a strong Scottish presence, helped lead the charge. But neither was Scotland immune to the rise of the ‘ABC Club’ and the gradual falling out of love with wines that were too high in alcohol, oak, ripeness and extract. The rejection of oaky Chardonnay in favour of Sauvignon crispness (or Pinot Grigio blandness) had a knock-on effect on all Australian wines north of the border. There was, and to an extent still is, a perception problem that needs to be overcome.

The Scots have a long and historic connection with France, and with French wines. The ‘Auld Alliance’ united the kingdoms of Scotland and France (against their common enemy, England) from the 13th to the 16th centuries, with a treaty that stipulated that if either country was attacked by England, the other would invade English territory.  But as well as the political alliance, the cultural exchange was far reaching too; including Scottish wine merchants in Edinburgh having first pick of the great Bordeaux and other wines, which they shipped to the Port of Leith.

While there is still a great affection between the two nations, Australia has its own close connections with Scotland too. So many Scottish emigrants set sail for Van Dieman's Land and New South Wales in the 19th century: doctors, engineers, distillers, shipbuilders and manufacturers, all so important to Australia’s development. One was James Busby, credited as the ‘father’ of Australia’s wine industry, and Scottish heritage lies behind many great Australian wine names today, from Glenguin to Torbreck and from Campbells to Brown Brothers. In turn, many Scots have relatives and friends in Australia, so there is a natural affinity between the countries that must be a positive factor in selling Aussie wines to Scots drinkers.

Evolution and revolution

But what wines?  Well, I for one can genuinely appreciate the broad sweep of what modern Australia is producing, from the extremely elegant ‘new’ Chardonnays of the Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, the Hunter Valley and the Yarra Valley, to the alternative varieties, with some stunning Italianate wines made from Nero d’Avola, Sangiovese, Fiano and the like.

But my visit also helped me rediscover – or ‘re-appreciate’ -  my love for the ‘classics’ too. From Barossa and McLaren Vale Shiraz, to Coonawarra and Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, producers have been managing their vineyards and winemaking to subtly re-engineer their wines. Thank God that does not mean abandoning the generous and welcoming nature that makes Australia’s wines so instantly appealing, but it seems to me that a little more aromatic complexity, a little more finesse to the fruit, extract and tannins, has kept pace very nicely with a world of change.

So, the message must be change, and my personal shorthand for that is: restraint, diversity and food-friendliness. Scotland’s wine drinking culture has deep roots in history, but today we really do appreciate authenticity in our food and drink. The best restaurants major on quality seasonal produce and having provenance for everything on the plate. There has been some uptake of the ‘natural’ wine movement in the major cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, with dedicated wine bars and an influence on wine lists, but nothing like the trending nature of that ‘movement’ as seen in London.

Australian wine: The positioning challenge

Chile and South Africa have supplanted Australia from the house wine and by-the-glass slots at the lower end of wine lists, and European wines still dominate further up, so the challenge is for Australian wine to find space in the middle and upper ground. That certainly fits with the more food-friendly and regional/grape focus of modern Australia, so the message needs to be driven home to the restaurateurs and sommeliers of Scotland’s booming restaurant scene.

Reaching consumers is also key. I run large consumer wine festivals in Glasgow and Edinburgh where Australian wine is well-represented, and some producers take a whole table to showcase their wines to influential members of the wine-enjoying public. The more Australian wines that can be poured at these and similar consumer events, the better: First-hand tasting is the best education. Consumers in Scotland have a thirst for knowledge and love an ‘experience’, so food and wine festivals are great vehicles for reaching enthusiasts and hopefully creating more advocates for Australian wine.

The independent off-trade in Scotland could be a very important ally too, of course. We have some very strong merchants, as well as small chains, and the potential benefits of reaching them should not be overlooked. I deliver a lot of master class sessions for the wine trade and sommeliers in Scotland, normally on behalf of generic bodies, and they are always sold out, with the organisers commenting on how enthusiastic the Scottish trade – who are not quite so saturated with events as their London counterparts – can be.

There’s certainly a significant upside for Australian wine in Scotland if those perception problems can be overcome. We’re not so different from the rest of the UK in terms of what we drink and the challenges and opportunities for the wine trade, but we are a proud nation that likes to be treated as such and not overlooked in favour of London, or lumped in as just another provincial region. Visit us, support us, and show us that you care about Scotland as much we care about you.

Your friend in the north,

Tom Cannavan

Tom Cannavan is a leading British wine writer and the publisher of wine-pages.com and the organiser of the Festivals of Wine in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  You can read more about his recent Australian wine tour here.

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