On Tuesday September 26, leading wine writers Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer hosted a very special trade tasting in New York: The Great Australian Red. For the first time, the winners of the Great Australian Red Competition were gathered together in the US to give the wine trade, sommeliers and journalists the chance to sample the brilliance of contemporary Australian wine.
About the Great Australian Red Competition
Now in its 12th year, the competition celebrates one of Australian wine’s great gifts to the world; Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz blends. With a history that can be traced back to the late 1800s when it was bottled as generic Australian ‘claret’, this unique incarnation is utterly Australian. Revived in the 1950s and championed by the likes of the great visionary Max Schubert who used it to create such legendary wines as the 1962 Bin 60A, it has gone on to become a favourite on the world stage. The Bin 60A became Penfolds most successful show wine ever, picking up 19 trophies and 33 Golds.
Penfold's Wines and the evolution of modern Australian winemaking
Max himself considered it his greatest creation and it has spawned a legion of other outstanding wines that have sought to capture the majesty of this singular Australian blend. This year’s tasting saw award-winning wines from some of the greatest producers in Australian wine on show, with leading names such as Yalumba, Wolf Blass, Hardys and, of course, Penfolds, in attendance.
Australian red blends in the US – A burgeoning opportunity
That this tasting has finally come to New York is indicative of the renewed interest in Australian wine in the US generally. Recent export figures from Wine Australia revealed that in 2016–17, exports to the US increased by 3% to US$367 million (A$464 million) and demand for fine Australian wine (US$15 and above retail) grew 21% to US$34 million (A$43 million). When asked if he thought the Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz blend was of particular interest to US consumers, Tyson commented:
‘Absolutely…These wines represent flagships of what Australia is capable of producing at every price point and hence are a crucial and definitive style capable of leading the Australian wine category in every key export market.’
Matthew concurred adding,
‘I certainly do, for two reasons. If you split US’ palates into two main camps – those who like European complexity and length and those who favour more intensity and richness in their reds, then this unique blend of Cabernet and Shiraz covers both bases… I would say that Australian blends of these two heroic varieties are among a handful of genuinely unique and classic styles of red wine on earth. They will chime with the US palate like no other Aussie wine style to date.’
Tyson’s use of the word ‘flagship’ and Matthew’s use of ‘unique’ in this context is telling, for no other nation on earth can match this special blend or come close to producing wines of similar quality. Even if the French AOC laws were to allow such a marriage, it’s hard to see the union being anything like as harmonious. There is, surely, something special at work here: a coming together of vine, climate, soil and winemaker that is both extraordinary and distinct. As Tyson puts it,
‘Australian Shiraz is unique in its generosity and plush mid-palate and it has long been identified as the ideal partner for Cabernet Sauvignon… It is in Australia’s warmer regions that this blend tends to work best, where Shiraz can want for more structure and fragrance, while Cabernet can yearn for more generosity, plushness and harmony.’
Australian blends: More than Cabernet-Shiraz
While Cabernet-Shiraz has rightly stolen many a show, the idea of blending and experimentation is very much alive and well in Australia. Jaysen Collins of Massena, for example, is creating some glorious blends with the likes of Primitivo, Saperavi and Petit Sirah and other so-called alternative varieties, and no mention of Australian red blends can be made about with mention of Shiraz-Viognier or Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre (GSM). Tyson and Matthew, however, have remained stalwart advocates of the original blend and are determined to see its level of recognition sustained. As Tyson put it,
‘It seems that the blend (Cabernet-Shiraz) has slipped out of the limelight, in the wake of the rise of Shiraz- Viognier and an entourage of alternative red varietals. We have created The Great Australian Red to shift this focus back to our unique icon.’
Quality and value
As mentioned above, the growth in demand for premium Australian wines in the US has been impressive in recent years. The Great Australian Red tasting showcased a number of premium and super-premium wines, but it is interesting to note that amongst the wines on show – award-winners all – there were representatives from lower price points too. Indeed, three of the trophy-winning wines retail in New York for under $20 a bottle, the harmonising nature of these varieties making for a blend that can stand-out even at the more affordable price points.
The history, evolution and revolution of Australian red blends
While Australian wine remains something of a re-emerging category in the US, being able to perform at every level like this surely bodes well for its future prospects. Building on the increasing interest that’s abroad will take time and careful communication to both trade and consumers as to the exceptional quality and value that Australian wine offers. Little though will have as big an impact as experiential activity and tastings, and high profile, focused events such as Tyson and Matthew’s were just what the market ordered. Matthew told us,
‘It is only a matter of time before Americans discover the value aspect of Aussie wines. All one has to do is trade up one price tier to find a huge hike in class, then another step rewards even more. It will be a combination of education and discovery. I am happy to help with this task and I know that Aussie winemakers love touring the USA to do this, too, because they always find that consumers take extremely well to their wines.’
The way to accelerate this rate of discovery is clearly through events and tastings. Tyson told us,
‘There is no doubt that the key to the success of Australian wine globally has been in introducing its wines and the characters behind them to the world. The Great Australian Red Tasting in New York City is our avenue to bring to the US for the first time the best wines that we have identified over twelve years of our competition.’
Australian wine in the US – The revival continues
The Great Australian Red Tasting coming to New York was just the latest in series of Australian wine events in the US that show the industry’s growing confidence in the market’s potential. The recent Artisans of Australian Wine and Taste of Australia helped introduce the US to the amazing variety on offer and provided a timely reminder of the fact that Australian wine offers opportunity for all. All that’s left is for us all to seize the day…