Ahead of the Artisans of Australian Wine event, leading British wine writer, Jamie Goode, takes a look at the artisan wine movement in Australia and finds an industry in a state of excitement, change and re-birth...
Australian wine: the buzz is back
Australian wine has found its mojo again. When I first got into wine in the early 1990s, Australia’s wine scene had a buzz to it. It was dynamic, we were excited by it, it was gloriously irreverent, and it was sexy. But somewhere along the way this changed. The Australian wine industry began to be defined by the big players and the more commercial wines. 'Sunshine in a glass' had lost its way. But this has all changed over the last few years. What is probably best defined as the ‘artisan’ movement is on the move, and there’s a lot of excitement about the new wave of Australian winegrowers. In every region there’s a critical mass of people making really interesting wine. At the end of last year I visited Australia, beginning in Sydney with the Rootstock Festival. This is a natural wine festival, but it would be a mistake to think that it’s just ‘The Naturals’ who are pushing the boundaries of interesting wine. After Rootstock I toured around the wine country in Victoria and South Australia, and found lots to love. I was back there a few weeks ago and had a similar experience. If we want to make sense of what is going on at the moment, it’s probably helpful to divide these artisans into five somewhat overlapping categories.
The artisans of Australian wine
As already mentioned, ‘The Naturals' are making quite a splash at the moment. They’re looking to farm using organics and biodynamics, concentrating on soil health, and using a range of preparations in the vineyards to encourage the soils to come alive and the vine to be so healthy and vital that it’s not easily perturbed by pests and diseases. Rather than use chemical solutions The Naturals encourage the vineyard ecosystem to find natural balance, and if they have to spray they’ll be using natural products. This approach is typically carried through into the winery, avoiding unnecessary intervention or manipulation. I had a lovely visit last year with Erinn and Janet Klein of Ngeringa in the Adelaide Hills. They farm biodynamically and make impressive Syrah and Viognier. I’m also quite a fan of the wines of Julian Castagna, who I first met in 2009 at the Wine Australia Landmark tutorial. A filmmaker in a previous life, he was one of Australia’s early adopters of biodynamics, and makes wonderfully expressive Syrah, among other wines.
Closely related to The Naturals – and with quite a bit of overlap – are ‘The Minimalists’. We’re talking here of people who refuse to add anything to their wines, save for a bit of sulphur dioxide, and some even do away with this. This minimalist approach doesn’t imply lack of care though: it requires great skill and constant monitoring if such a natural approach is to produce really compelling wines, because there’s lots that can go wrong. A great example of this would be Bill Downie, who makes wine from his idyllic farm in Gippsland, Victoria. Bill adds very little to his wines, and sometimes nothing, letting the wild yeasts free to do their work, but he pays lots of attention to what’s happening. Also in Gippsland is Patrick Sullivan, who adds nothing to most of his wines. I spent a wonderful evening with him last December, along with a couple of other winemakers. We walked to the top of the hill on his stunning property and sat and drank his wine as the sun went down. Patrick has been one of the leaders of the minimalist/natural wine movement in Australia and it requires quite a bit of bravery to swim against the current like this.
Then there’s ‘The Cool’. Think Australia, think warm climate. Not so: Australia has many wine regions that are pretty cool, and a number of people are pushing boundaries here, recognising that grape varieties often thrive when they are being grown close to the limits of where they’ll successfully ripen. As well as his excellent Yarra Valley reds, Mac Forbes makes thrilling Riesling from the positively chilly Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria. And there’s Andrew Hoadley who’s been working in some of the coolest sites in Western Australia to make his elegant La Violetta wines. Take Syrah into cool regions such as Pemberton, Frankland and Mount Barker and it produces elegant, almost Burgundian wines. And one of Australia’s very best producers of all in my view, Michael Dhillon of Bindi, works in the Macedon Ranges, one of the country’s coolest regions, where he fashions elegant, age worthy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Then we have ‘The Terroir Hunters’. Yes! Australia has terroir, even though some of the wine scientists in Australia are convinced that it’s all about climate, not soils. The site specialists don’t believe that all sites were created equal and seek out special, privileged terroirs that allow them to make distinctive wines that reflect their place. A great example of a site specialist is Gary Mills of Jamsheed. He seeks out privileged vineyard sites and from these produces compelling wines that are skilled interpretations of these places. Another example is Ochota Barrels, based in the Adelaide hills. Tarras and Amber work with small vineyards and produce compelling, balanced wines of real beauty.
And then there’s the fifth category, 'The Alternatives'. Aside from the previous four categories, we’re also seeing some interesting developments with new varieties. One that’s gaining ground at the moment is Nero d’Avola. Newly planted in the warm Riverland region, where growers have struggled of late to get good prices for their grapes, it’s making some really interesting wines. Another that’s doing well is Fiano, which is getting rave reviews from growers and winemakers alike. It just seems well adapted to warm vineyard sites.
The artisans of Australian wine - the future of Australian wine?
How do all these producers fit in? In the past, they’d probably be regarded as just a niche – a fringe movement that’s a sideshow for wine geeks only. But now there are so many of them there’s a momentum that’s catapulting them into the mainstream, and that’s great for Australian wine. Soon it will be these artisans – people who make interesting wines on a human scale that capture some of the essence of Australia and its varied terroirs in a bottle – who will be the face of Australian wine. It’s happening fast. Australian wine has its mojo back! If you are in the wine trade, and you are available on 20 September, the good news is that you’ll be able to meet many of these artisans and taste their wines. Never before will such a gathering of interesting Aussie winegrowers have taken place outside Australia, so it will be a memorable event.
About Jamie Goode
Jamie Goode is a London-based winewriter who is currently wine columnist with UK national newspaper The Sunday Express. As well as writing he also lectures and judges wine. He won the 2007 Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the year award, and contributes regularly to a range of publications including The World of Fine Wine, Wine Business International, Drinks International, Wines and Vines, Sommelier Journaland The Drinks Business. His first book, Wine Science, won the Glenfiddich Award for Drinks Book in 2006, and a second edition was released in 2014.
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