The world of wine owes many a debt to Australian wine. Throughout its history Australian wine professional have provided an engine of innovation that has benefited the rest of the industry. In his latest guest blog, leading wine writer, Jamie Goode, looks at Australian wine's history of innovation and finds that from fine winemaking to closures, innovation has been the mother of Australian brilliance.
One of the reasons for the success of Australian wine is because, as an industry, it has innovated. Over the last 50 years the emergence of an Australian fine wine dimension owes a lot to individuals and institutions who have experimented, tried new things, and come up with novel solutions for problems. These innovations haven’t just benefited Australian wine, but they’ve spread throughout the wine world.
Ray Beckwith, Max Schubert, Penfolds Grange and the importance of pH
One of the unsung heroes of Australian wine is Ray Beckwith of Penfolds, who died in 2012 aged 100. When people talk about Grange, Australia’s most famous wine, the hero of the story is Max Schubert, and rightly so. But Max couldn’t have made Grange without the help of Ray, whose innovation and contribution to Australian wine can hardly be overstated. Though his role was hidden away, Penfolds realised that Ray gave them a significant competitive advantage.
Making table wines in a warm climate is challenging for one key reason: high pH. pH is the chemical measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. A lower pH means higher acidity, while a higher pH means lower acidity (although there’s not an absolute correlation between acidity as measured in grams per litre and pH for all sorts of complicated reasons). It was Beck with who worked out, in 1936, that pH was key to the stability of red wines. At a higher pH, which is common in warm climates, bacteria grow much more easily, and the potential for spoilage increases. This was a huge problem in Australia at the time. Also, when malolactic fermentation – the second, bacterial fermentation that all reds go through – takes place at a high pH, off flavours frequently develop. And then after fermentation, the risk of Brettanomyces – a spoilage yeast producing animal-like flavours – is very high. Beckwith worked with Schubert and together they began producing not only Grange, but also the admired Bin series reds that have played such an important role in the story of Australia’s fine wine. The understanding of the importance of pH, and its control with picking earlier or correcting with tartaric acid additions, enabled the production of consistent stable red wines, an innovation with truly revolutionary implications.
Australian Wine Innovation: Refrigeration & 'Reductive' Winemaking
Another innovator was Sydney Hamilton (of Hamilton Ewells). In the 1940s he was the first to pioneer the use of refrigeration to control fermentation temperatures - something that is now commonplace. In those days wine was most commonly fermented wooden vats. Sydney did experiments with copper cooling coils inside these vats and suddenly this made it possible to make delicate, fresh white wines by controlling fermentation temperatures. Later, he excavated an underground cellar and cooled the whole room down. This led to the development of Ewells Moselle, a crisp blended white made with Pedro Ximenez, Verdelho and Riesling that was quite remarkable for its time.
Later on, through the 1960s and 1970s, winemakers such as John Vickery of Leo Buring, and wine consultants Brian Croser and Tony Jordan, carried on this work. They developed what is known as ‘reductive’ winemaking, which changed the way that Australian whites looked. The idea is to protect the must from oxygen, then ferment at lower temperatures in stainless steel and then to keep oxygen away post-fermentation. This allows winemakers to make dry, crisp white wines even in warm climates.
The work of these innovators transformed Australian wine. In the mid-1960s Australia was primarily a producer of fortified wines. But the understanding of the importance of pH and fermentation temperatures, and managing oxygen properly, led to Australia increasingly shifting towards table wines. This provided the platform for the development of new wine growing areas and the evolution of the fascinating regional story of today.
Seeking Closure: The Screwcap Revolution
While closures might seem to be a slightly boring topic, the screwcap has changed the world of wine, and we have the Australians to thank for that. The Swiss wine trade had quietly been using screwcaps for years, but they were hidden away and no one noticed. It was the Australians who brought the screwcap to the world, and estimates are that now 5 billion full size bottles a year are sealed this way. Back in the late 1990s Australian winemakers were fed up of cork taint ruining a lot of their wines. Many have suggested that the Portuguese cork manufacturers sent the worst batches cork to Australia and New Zealand: certainly, the reported taint rates from the 1990s suggest this was the case. Also, the wine world expanded greatly at that time and in order to keep up with demand for cork, it’s thought that standards had fallen. So a group of Clare Valley winemakers got together, ordered a batch of bottles together (minimum order was too large for just one producer) and bottled their 2000 Rieslings under screwcap. It was a great success, and now most bottles of wine from Australia are screwcap sealed. The closure – previously thought to be only fit for low quality wines – is now accepted in most markets as being an excellent solution to the problem of cork taint. The existence of a serious alternative has also helped cork producers work harder to raise their quality standards.
This shift was given added impetus by the publication of the first results from the groundbreaking Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) closure trial, which compared 14 different closures using the same wine: a 1999 Clare Valley Semillon. This showed how much better the screwcap was at retaining freshness in the wine than other closure types. The AWRI has been an important asset for Australia’s wine industry. As well as providing a technical service to help winemakers, it also conducts world class research and disseminates information in such a way that the industry can benefit. One great example of the work that has been done is the 'Brettanomyces Project'. Research on this spoilage yeast has led to recommendations for winemakers that has led to a massive reduction in the incidence of brett in Australian red wines.
Australian Wine Innovation In The Vineyard
The final shout out is for the work of Peter Dry, a renowned viticulturist. Along with Brian Loveys, Dry devised an irrigation technique known as partial root drying. This involves having two irrigation lines, one on either side of the vine. One side is watered, while the other side is kept dry. The hormonal signals from the dry side tricks the vine into thinking it’s short of water, and it changes its physiology to put more effort into producing fruit. Yet the water from the irrigated side prevents yield loss. The result is higher quality grapes, but still with decent yields. Dry has also done research on regulated deficit irrigation, where grape quality is improved by reducing irrigation to the minimum needed. Both partial root drying and regulated deficit irrigation have been widely adopted across the wine world where irrigation is needed.
This is just a small selection of the many innovators who have helped the Australian wine scene develop into the dynamic and diverse state it is in today.
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