Julia Lambeth, owner of South London Wine School, was crowned ‘Tasting Blind Club Champion 2016–17’ and won a trip to Australia. In our latest blog, Julia looks at the diversity of Australian wine and shares some of her discoveries from the trip.
The many styles and surprises of Australian wine
At the end of October, I embarked on a two-week wine tour of Australia after winning Wine Australia’s Tasting Blind Club. I have always been a fan of Australian wines, but had never visited any of the wine regions before, so I was very excited about the trip and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Over the two weeks we covered a lot of ground, mainly in South Australia and Victoria, spending time in Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley. We met a lot of people, had delicious food and tasted an incredible amount of wines! In terms of finding out what’s happening in Australia, it was an unparalleled opportunity, and it challenged some of my preconceptions and brought to light the amount of change and innovation across the country. Things like the research into soils, clone types, planting densities, rootstock types, changes in picking times, oak treatment and whole bunch fermentation. An appreciation of old vines and new varieties alike. There’s a willingness to listen to the land, the environment and work with that to create something authentically Australian rather than imitating styles from other countries.
Discovering the diversity of Australian wine
One of the main things I will take away is that there isn’t really such a thing as ‘typically’ Australian wine as there’s so much diversity. This was exemplified in several places, but it was particularly pervasive in Barossa. Here we took part in Shiraz focussed tastings that truly displayed the diversity of the variety. We did a blind tasting with the AWRI that compared 12 different Shiraz wines to a ‘control’ which has been used on consumers to gather information about how people describe and compare wines and how that relates to different styles and regions. We also took part in a Barossa Grounds tasting, looking at the varying soils within the region. We tasted 15 Shirazes which comprised of 3 different vintages from 5 different sub-regions, each with a distinct soil type and style of wine. This was most illuminating in proving that the regions are not as homogenous as we may think, but that there are many expressions of Shiraz. Try comparing the Southern Barossa Schild Estate Ben Schild Reserve Shiraz (on sandy loams and clay loams) to the Northern Barossa Yalumba Paradox Shiraz (loam over red clay) and see the difference in flavour but also in structure and intensity.
Barossa Valley: History in evolution
Another key feature of the Barossa is the incredible age of vines. In fact, they have the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. And not just Shiraz, but Grenache and Mataro (Mourvedre) as well. These old vines aren’t easy to manage, so why make the effort? Because old vines make great wines. One thing you learn whilst studying wine is that old vines make more concentrated wines. While this is true, it’s not the only benefit. The age of the vine also changes the structure of the tannins, creating elegance and depth. Several producers spoke about being ‘custodians’ of their vines, looking after them until the next generation could take up the mantle of care. In order to preserve these vines and recognise their importance and quality, there’s even an old vine charter with different categories from Old (over 35 years) to Ancestor (over 100 years). If you want to taste wines from old vines, try Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Langmeil The Freedom 1843, Cirillo Estate Grenache and Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre.
The emergence of a classic and the rise of alternative varieties
So, from old to new. We heard about emerging trends, experiments with varieties and new ways of winemaking - these guys aren’t resting on their laurels. This took different forms in different regions; in South Australia there was a lot of emphasis on Grenache. Whilst we were there, Turkey Flat’s 2016 Grenache won the Jimmy Watson Award, one of Australia’s most prestigious wine trophies, the first time a Grenache has ever won. In the McLaren Vale, I attended the annual Bushing Lunch where another Grenache came out top - the 2016 Kay Brother’s Griffon’s Key Grenache.
So why is Grenache so appealing? The aforementioned old vines have something to do with it – Turkey Flat’s were mostly 98 years old - but it’s also about a better understanding of when to pick and fermentation methods - like whole berry or whole bunch, which softens the tannins and brings a brightness of flavour. And the conditions in South Australia are just right for Grenache; it needs some heat to ripen, but still maintains its savoury undertones. Some of my favourites were Wirra Wirra The Absconder Grenache 2016, Mitolo The Jester Grenache 2016, Gemtree Grenache 2017 and Serafino GSM 2016.
Australian Grenache - The fall and rise of an Australian wine great
But it wasn’t just about Grenache, I enjoyed discovering new, alternative varieties including Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Sangiovese. These Mediterranean varieties make sense in the warm southern Australian regions and there were some great examples. Most producers aren’t going for an Italian style but a unique Australian expression, and it works – the vibrancy of fruit and balance was very impressive. Look out for Coriole’s Fiano, Kangarilla Road The Veil and Hand Crafted by George Hardy Nero d’Avola. Up in the slightly cooler Adelaide Hills, I was treated to a tasting of Australian Gruner Veltliner. I was surprised, and impressed, with the range of styles – some with skin contact, some free run juice, some with lees or oak, some more mature. A few highlights were the Hahndorf Hill GRU Gruner Veltliner 2017 and Funky Goose Gruner Veltliner 2016.
Getting to know Australia’s cool climate expressions
After the Adelaide Hills, we went over to Victoria and visited Macedon, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley. If you don’t think Australia does cool climate, spend some time in the higher altitude parts of Yarra when it’s cloudy and rainy. I was blown away by the diversity of styles in the Yarra Valley; Chardonnays are no longer dominated by oak, large format and gentle oak contact, along with a greater understanding of clones, are making for more restrained and elegant wines. And Pinot Noir comes in all shapes and sizes. There’s some influence of whole bunch, earlier picking and in general more gentle handling. So many great wines, it’s hard to pick highlights but Bindi, Lethbridge, Ten Minutes by Tractor and Coldstream Hills all showed superb wines. One of the big surprises of the trip for me was cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon. We tried a few from Yeringberg in the Yarra Valley and they were incredible – balanced, structured and delicious.
Spreading the good word on Australian wine back in the UK
Overall, what I learned from Australia is that there is no one style or type of wine. The diversity reflects not only the size of the country but the diversity of people within it. Everyone is looking to make their own wine in their own way. Now back home in the UK, I’m telling colleagues and consumers to explore the new styles of Grenache and Shiraz, and alternative varieties like Gruner and Nebbiolo. I’m also advising friends in the trade to get down to the Tasting Blind Club to re-discover Australian wine and explore this diversity, and maybe even win a trip like I did.
Want to learn more about Australian wine at the Tasting Blind Club?
The Tasting Blind Club is held monthly at Australia Centre in London. Up to 20 Australian wines are divided into flights, themed by region or variety, and served blind. At the end of each tasting, participants can answer a list of questions, with the season’s most successful taster winning a trip to Australia.
For more information, see here
If you would like to attend, please email firstname.lastname@example.org