Cool climate evolution: how cool climate regions have driven the evolution of Australian wines
Historically, Australian wines were not known for cool climate styled, making their name in by producing big jammy, heavy Shiraz and super oaky Chardonnays we all remember from the 80s and 90s. At the time these wines were revolutionary in style and revelatory to consumer palates and helped Australian wines establish markets in the UK, U.S.A. and on continental Europe. That though was then, and in the last 5-10 years winemakers situated in some of Australia’s cool climate wine regions – one thinks of the Macedon Ranges or the Clare Valley – have progressively started to move away from producing those overly oaky/jammy style of wines in favour of something lighter, more elegant and with a level of sophistication that Australia’s winemaking community could have only dreamt of just a few years ago.
Australia’s cool climate wine evolution
For me the perfect example of these new cool climate wine gems would be the Yarra Valley Chardonnay. If you look at the wines produced there 10 years ago, they were very much that bigger style of Chardonnay, with wines that were packed with fruit, power and new oak, but which didn't really give a true expression of either the grape nor this spectacular region’s potential. Rather they answered consumers’ demands for big style Chardonnays. Oh, how things have changed…
Wineries like Oakridge are pioneers of the new fresher, lighter style of Chardonnay that’s now being produced in the Yarra Valley. Winemaker David Bicknell was one of the very first in Australia to introduce the puncheon (500 ltr cask) for his Chardonnay production. David chose puncheons as their relatively large size allows for longer, slower ageing without adding too much vanillin and he didn’t want to produce some overly oaky Chardonnay. For him, the true expression of this grape in the Yarra should be fresh and vibrant. Why, he argued, would you kill all that freshness and purity by the excessive use of new oak? Balance is all in any fine wine and oak should add complexity and texture but never be its primary characteristic.
It’s a sentiment that anyone who’s tasted Oakridge’s wines would be hard-pressed to argue with. David was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of cool climate Australian wines and now, years later, if you look across Australia many wineries are now using puncheons for their Chardonnay in regions as diverse as Margaret River, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania.
Australian cool climate wines: education, education, education
As a new generation of Australian winemakers are embracing the cool climate evolution – one thinks of Nazaaray, Scorpo and Willow Creek - and are moving away from those old-style wines, so each wine region is defining their character and expressing, as the French would say, their own terroir. As they do so they face a new challenge: taking wine consumers with them. Drinking habits die hard, and for a global audience raised on the massive, the extracted and the thrillingly full-throttled, the change of pace to the refined, the nuanced and the breathtakingly complex can come as a surprise. But… I truly think that this is where we, as sommeliers, come into the picture. It is our job in our respective restaurants to educate wine lovers, to encourage them to taste these new wines with food and help them discover that there is more to Australian wines than super-sized South Australian Shiraz and colossal Chardonnay. One simply needs to look at the success of Tasmanian wines: from their bright, juicy Pinot Noirs to super-crisp Rieslings, to see the appreciate joys and diversity of Australia’s cool climate wines.
Australian cool climate wines: Diversity. Challenge. Brilliance
Australia has the potential to produce cool climate wines that can rival the world’s finest. Given Australia’s combination of climatic diversity, winemaking brilliance and pioneering winemaking spirit, it will be fascinating to witness the evolution and ageing potential of those new-style cool climate wines. The joyous challenge we sommeliers need to embrace is to bring these extraordinary wines to the widest possible audience so that everyone can enjoy a taste of Australia’s new cool climate brilliance.
Profile: Alexis Rojat
Alexis Rojat is a sommelier at Merivale's award winning contemporary Cantonese diner Mr Wong in Sydney. He has worked in France and the UK before coming to Australia several years ago.We recently caught up with Alexis at Mr. Wong and chatted about the evolution of Australian Chardonnay in recent years. We also chatted about the influence of closures on wines, and how his opinion of wines under screw cap has changed greatly during his time in Australia.
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