Australian wine : Strength through diversity

Australian wine - Strength through diversity

Sarah Ahmed shares her impressions of our recent Australia Day Tasting in London
Australian wine : Strength through diversity

 ‘Kid In A Sweet Shop’

I suspect I was not alone feeling like ‘a kid in a sweet shop’ at London’s Australia Day Tasting. Not just because of the 1,100 wines were shown. Having judged at November’s Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show (which featured no less than 102 varieties), you might think my capacity for surprise was exhausted. But no. The seemingly unstoppable diversification of Australia’s offer - regional, stylistic or varietal - was a sight to behold (and taste).

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Story Wines Pinot Noir

Port Campbell Pinot Noir anyone? Port Campbell, the Victorian region betwixt Geelong and Henty which produced The Story’s 2016 light, crunchy Pinot (a delicious on-trend vin de soif) was new to me.  Its maker – Rory Lane – is a member of ‘Australia’s Best Kept Secrets’ (ABKS), a corps of 17 artisanal producers whom Awin Barratt Siegel (ABS) recently introduced to the UK. Proving ‘extremely popular’, ABS’ Marketing Manager Lesley Gray told me that Lane and fellow ABKS’ winemaker Damian North, of Journey Wines, ‘were taken aback at the sheer amount of people who attended and the interest in the wines.’  But as September’s jam-packed Artisans of Australian Wine Tasting brought home, the craft scene - be it wine, beer, cider or spirits – has taken strong hold in the UK, especially among a younger and/or hipster crowd.

I suspect Port Campbell wasn’t the only region to expand visitors’ horizons of Australia. New South Wales’ cooler climate regions are gaining a toehold here.  Penfolds and Eden Road’s taut, mineral Tumbarumba Chardonnays have been joined by two new-to-the-UK examples from McWilliams, while Tumbarumba’s neighbour - Gundagai – is getting in on the act.  McWilliams showed another regional variation on Chardonnay (blended with Hilltops’ fruit), while Cockfighter’s Ghost fielded a Gundagai Shiraz.

Australian Chardonnay: From Zero-to-Hero

This writer spent the morning tasting for an upcoming Decanter magazine focus on Australian Chardonnay.  The variety is cementing its zero-to-hero status here with wave after wave of top-notch examples which are regularly hailed as Burgundy-beaters in terms of longevity and bang-for-buck. As this cutting edge, pared-back style of Chardonnay matures, there’s a tad more flesh on the bones these days without compromising freshness; Victoria’s 2015 vintage has produced some gorgeous examples (and of Pinot Noir). As ever, there was strong representation from the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, but there seem to be new Geelong and Gippsland Chardonnays about too, including a very promising new find from Onannon (which is made/owned by Mount Mary’s winemakers).  

Overall, having burnished its credentials, the Australian Chardonnay scene is more relaxed, with plenty of room for individuality, even within a region.  For Penfolds’ Sam Stephens, who co-presented an Adelaide Hills Chardonnay master class, ‘the ‘modern’ reductive styles of Penfolds Reserve Bin A and BK Wines Swaby, to the more generous, fruit-driven Henschke Croft to the almost Alsatian aromatics of The Pawn's Jeu de Fin showed a plethora of the many faces of Chardonnay’. Stephens’ key takeaway from the event was the audience’s ‘constant repetition of terms like finesse, pristine, elegance and purity’, while fellow presenter, The Lane’s Marty Edwards, reported Chardonnay was the most sought-after wine on his stand.

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - ADT London

Cool Climate Grenache – Warm Climate Pinot Noir?

Freshness is to be expected from cool climate Chardonnay, but what about McLaren Vale Grenache?  With bright red fruits, floral aromatics and a great propensity to express site, I am excited about a new breed of old vine Grenache wines which have been dubbed ‘warm climate Pinot Noir’, alternatively ‘blue collar Pinot’ (given Grenache’s value for money versus the Burgundian’ one).  If you found those epithets provocative, what about a Melbourne restaurateur’s aside about Grenache delivering what Pinot promises?  Or Max Allen’s recent suggestion that, since Grenache ‘captures the unique combination of country, climate and culture in a glass’, it might be a better option than Shiraz in Australia’s warm climate regions?   

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Bekkers Grenache

Allen has got a point, but even Australia has winters when a full-bodied Shiraz comes into its own, plus there are less extracted examples of Shiraz around these days (Sami Odi from the Barossa springs to mind). Which assumes, of course, that hedonistic examples are not for you (they still have plenty of fans and I am all for diversity). I asked the audience what they thought at the end of my McLaren Vale Grenache Master Class.  Writer Sarah Jane Evans MW reckoned ‘eight years ago there had been something missing at the heart of Grenache from Australia, but now it can stand on its own two feet apart from Shiraz.’  She saw an opportunity for Grenache where it is ‘less dry’ than Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir is unaffordable in some restaurants.  Blogger Darren Wilmott (Vinesight) commented ‘the revelation for me was taming this naturally high alcohol grape in a warmer climate and producing wines of elegance and structure.’ The ‘crisp fresh acidity was clear’ to Adam Wander (Wine Australia Tasting Blind Club UK winner 2016, Wander Curtis), who was also ‘struck by the wide variation, from the lighter more perfumed aromatic red fruits of the Wirra Wirra to the darker, more savoury almost meaty Bekkers, to the leatheriness of the slightly older wines. Also, the terroir driven differences.’

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Coriole McLaren Vale

The makeover of this regional classic is but one aspect of innovation at work in McLaren Vale.  I was thrilled to see that Coriole’s Nero d’Avola is now in the UK. This pioneer of Italian varieties scooped Best Wine of Show, Best Red Wine, Best Italian Red Wine and Best Nero d’Avola (2016 vintage) at the Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show, which brought home to me the huge potential of southern Italian grapes, including Fiano and Aglianico.  The Nero d’Avola class was particularly consistent, with a distinct Australian thumbprint of vibrant, pristine fruit and a freshness foreign to many an Italian example. It came as no surprise to hear Julie Maitland (Seckford Agencies) report having received ‘so much positive feedback’ about Coriole’s ‘Nero’ (and Trentham Estate’s Murray-Darling Nero d’Avola). Many visitors, she said, described them ‘as ‘Beaujolais-like’ and a wonderful summer wine as they work so well lightly chilled.’

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Alpha Box and Dice

Alternative Varieties Buzz

The buzz around alternative varieties (and alternative wine styles) has undoubtedly gathered steam here since new-generation Italian varietal wines from Australia came out in force at the 21st Century Vino tasting in London in 2015. Running out of half of Alpha Box & Dice’s wines by 2pm, Boutinot’s Robin Naylor battled with ‘a disorderly queue,’ especially for the McLaren Vale producer’s Dead Winemakers Society Dolcetto, XOLA Aglianico, FOG Nebbiolo and Golden Mullet Fury Semillon Viognier (an orange wine). Now made by 27-year-old Sam Berteka in a much fresher, livelier style, Naylor remarked, ‘how exciting it is that the energy and bustle around inventive wines from Australia is suddenly relevant.’ 

I’m a big fan of innovative and irreverent Australian blends, but the improbably sexy Mullet had disappeared by the time I arrived at the table. It was the same story at Field Morris & Verdin’s table with Crittenden Estate’s first UK listing of Los Hermanos Saludo al Txakoli – a Petit Manseng. Meanwhile, over at Negociant’s table, Jim Barry’s maiden Assyrtiko – Australia’s one and only - drew a crowd. So it’s not all about Italy….

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Crittenden Estate

Quealy Winemakers’ Kevin McCarthy was ‘overwhelmed by the buzz and excitement’ for his ‘unexpected take on Mornington Peninsula.’ I’ve encountered his textural skins and solids influenced site-driven Pinot Gris/Grigio and Friulano before, but not Secco Splendido. Fun but serious and food friendly, sparkling wines like this dry Muscat made using the ancestrale method have become hipster wine bar staples. Delighted to receive some orders on the spot, McCarthy observed, ‘the calibre of taster was extremely high with a swathe of sommeliers, wine buyers (both on and off-trade) and journalists.’  No doubt about it, sommeliers love the combination of texture with freshness which Australian producers are so swiftly mastering.

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Quealy

Australian Wine: Traditional Strength

For areas of traditional strength, it was exciting to see confidence, skill and experience fly with new-to-the-UK flagships such as d’Arenberg ‘The Old Bloke and the Three Young Blondes’ McLaren Vale Shiraz/Viognier/Marsanne/Roussanne 2011 (£65.41), Cullen Vanya Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Margaret River (UK RRP £199) and Bird in Hand ‘MAC’ Mount Lofty Ranges Adelaide Hills Shiraz 2012 (£158.75).  At last, it seems, it’s the tall poppy syndrome; not the tall poppies being slayed.  It is paying off. Treasury Wine Estates’ Peter English confirmed, ‘we were particularly encouraged to see the number of buyers and representatives from the fine wine market,’ while a buoyant Christian Dal Zotto (Dal Zotto Wines) described being able to talk with London’s best sommeliers and media as ‘an amazing experience.’

Copyright Sarah Ahmed - Cullen

These developments highlight a hugely important wind of change blowing through the industry. The increased focus on premium and super premium wines. Returning to my sweet shop analogy, with less than 2% of the wines shown retailing for under £7, this tasting suggests that the ‘penny counter’ is on its way out. Felicity Carter (Editor-in-Chief, Meininger's Wine Business International) sums it up when she says ‘[T]he big challenge has been getting out from under the shadow of the monolithic supermarket wines, and I thought this tasting did a good job of that.’  Looking ahead, this event’s dynamic display of craftsmanship and innovation suggests that Australia has much yet to give.

Sarah Ahmed

Leading British wine writer and educator, the Wine Detective, Sarah Ahmed, shares her impressions of Wine Australia’s recent Australia Day Tasting (ADT) in London, and finds the diversification of Australian wine’s offering something to behold.

 

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