Yesterday, today, tomorrow

Australian wine and the sommelier
5 min

Today, Australia’s wine industry is being shaped by more engaged, more knowledgeable and more value-conscious wine lovers. Often a wine lover’s first experiences with wine are framed by how they cook, how they eat out and how they live. Visiting restaurants and wine bars have become social rituals for diners and drinkers, and the reality that consumers can and will learn more about wine in the context of food and dining has arrived.

As a sommelier, educator, ambassador, wine writer and judge, I have witnessed firsthand the incredible changes in the Australian wine industry over the last two decades. However, even though the way wine is made and consumed has evolved, the language and principles we use to talk about it have not. The wine experience in restaurants and bars represents a new approach to wine - one that reflects the contemporary market place as much as it does the changing tastes of a highly-informed, experience-driven consumer.

So if you want to know what we will be drinking tomorrow, look at what we are eating today. I use this line a lot, especially when talking to those whose roles are focused on identifying ‘What’s next?’ in Australian wine.

That wine follows food in Australia is not a new phenomenon: In the 1980s when Neil Perry ushered in the ‘fusion’ era where Australian produce was married to the flavours and techniques of Asia, our ideas around cooking at home and eating out changed forever. Food ‘lightened up’.

Changing Times

The imperial stereotypes from Britain - like the three-way punch of protein, starch and vegetables - gave way to more delicate and aromatic flavours and texture. Dishes layered with spice and fragrant herbs. Not long after this food movement varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Vioginer (briefly) Pinot Gris/Grigio and Gewürztraminer began to fill bottle shop shelves and restaurant lists. Towards the end of the 1990s the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ swept Australia and short course ‘tapas’ style menu formats sprung up everywhere, laden with intensely flavoured combinations of salt, vegetables, seafood, protein fat and oil that scream for wines with a similar pedigree and intensity. Establishments responded to this with Mediterranean varieties like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Tempranillo and in particular the pale rosés of Provence.

Significantly this era ushered in the idea that anyone can eat well at any price, something that was almost completely at odds with the class system of our British heritage and its default to French classical cooking.  Restaurants began to become social hubs for Australians and not just special occasion venues. It was a time in our country’s gastronomic history that signalled a shift in focus for wineries and winemakers as they realised that restaurants and sommeliers were their natural commercial partners and advocates for their wines.

The Natural Choice

Today we are basking in the glow of the ‘natural wine’ movement. A narrative of respect, care and accountability to the raw materials wine is derived from. A category of wines with few boundaries, by-laws or governance. These are wines that have shifted the goal posts for wine drinkers in much the same way as the revolutions in winemaking did in the ‘50s and cask wines did in the ‘70s. They are emblematic of where experimentation and what has become the ‘democratization’ of wine gets some real grip. Push button wines ready to drink now for an audience that is craving less sweetness and oak and more freshness and structure.

What is ‘natural’ and what isn’t is a hotly debated topic. I struggled with these wines to begin with. The ideas around what I perceived as quality in wine were challenged at every level.  What unlocked my understanding and appreciation of them was food and the shift in the way we eat. Sommeliers have been the champions of these wines for some time now and despite some early misfires in communicating to drinkers, these wines are now firmly embedded into the landscape of the artisans of Australian wine.

The Future Is Diversity

The future is diversity; in our diet, in our society, in our values and in our wines. Alternative vine varieties and regions will be commonplace. This places even more emphasis on the importance of wine service and its role in the whole wine experience. As more unique and often un-pronounceable grape varieties and wine regions enter the market, so restaurants and wine bars should be safe houses for wine lovers looking for reassurance and guidance. The renaissance of tannin and acidity in Australian wine is being led and fed by food, restaurants and sommeliers. The move away from fruit sweetness, hedonistic alcohol levels and blocky tannin profiles is giving way to refreshing and more savory wines. Winemakers are making wines that are being inspired by the way we eat and the way we live.

If wine follows food, then sommeliers will follow chefs, as leaders and decision makers. How we drink in restaurants and on-premises begins to also inform the choices we make in retail.

I still believe that the restaurant floor is the ultimate manifestation of the sommelier’s journey as a wine professional. Once they leave the floor their role becomes more strategic, more operational with more focus on training and mentoring. Sensory training, tasting technique and encyclopaedic knowledge of regions, vineyards, grapes is crucial in building a strong wine list and the back of house business of a wine program.

Food and wine are the heartbeat of any restaurant, but a menu and a wine list still requires a human being to bring them to life. This is where a sommelier can have the greatest impact on a dining occasion and is instrumental in creating the perception of quality and value behind a wine.

This brings us to today and the impact the restaurants and sommeliers are having on way we drink wine.

Written by Chris Morrison - Sommelier, Communicator, Writer


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