The evolution of Australian taste

The key personalities that lead the way in the 1950s and 1960s
6 minutes

Around the world Australia’s reputation for premium food and wine is on the rise. Produce like our seafood, beef, lamb and wine; combined with innovative chefs working in Australia and around the world; are changing perceptions. It’s no mistake that people who’ve visited Australia rank us as the number 2 destination in the world for food and wine.

Things haven’t always been this way though. 1960s Australia was a very different place to the Australia of today. The food and wine scene wasn’t nearly as exciting or diverse. There were no culinary icons. We weren’t cooking, drinking and eating a deliciously diverse range of food and wine. Meat and three veg dinners still ruled Australian dining tables. Roughly 80 per cent of all Australian wine sales were for fortified wines.

Despite this, things were slowly starting to change. Thanks to waves of migrations that forever changed Australia’s cultural makeup the seeds were sown that would forever change Australian food and wine culture. In our latest story we look at a couple of the people that helped drive this change. We look at some of the key winemakers and personalities that lead the way, helping define a new landscape whilst retaining the best of our traditional wine styles.

The great Australian winemakers that blazed a trail

Names like Maurice O’Shea, Max Schubert, Roger Warren, Jack Mann and Colin Preece are familiar today to many Australian wine lovers. Wines are named after them, books have been written about them and people still look to them for inspiration when making wines. Like Bach, Van Gogh, Keats and Poe they are admired more today than they were in their lifetimes.

'The names of these winemakers are revered today, the few remaining bottles of their wines no less so. But the reality is that their skills were largely irrelevant to the industry as a whole, which was almost entirely based upon the production and sale of fortified wines.'

James Halliday, A History of the Australian Wine Industry 1949-1994

What separated these winemakers from many of their contemporaries was a determination to make exquisite table wines alongside the more fancied fortifieds. Maurice O’Shea hunted for the best vineyards and wines in the Hunter Valley and across Australia for his stunning expressions of style or place. Max Schubert pushed boundaries in winemaking, taking the latest in winemaking research to create Australia’s most famous wine.

>Maurice O'Shea tasting wine at Mount Pleasant winery
Maurice O'Shea taken by Max Dupain, image courtesy National Library of Australia
Maurice O'Shea tasting wine at Mount Pleasant winery

Colin Preece at Seppelts Great Western defined Australian sparkling red wine and blended across vintage and region to create ethereal table wines. Roger Warren is regarded by many as Australia’s master wine blender through his work for Thomas Hardy in McLaren Vale. For over 50 years in Western Australia Jack Mann was an innovative winemaker creating groundbreaking wines like Houghton’s White Classic dry white.

These are Australian wine stories that have been told and retold many times over, influencing generations of winemakers and wine lovers. In the 1950s and early 1960s the audience for wines from these future icons was tiny. But as Bob Dylan sang in 1964, ‘the times they are a-changin'. Enter Len Evans, a young Welshman who’d help to forever change Australia’s relationship with wine.

Len Evans – How a Welshman helped change Australian wine

It’s no stretch to say that Len Evans forever changed the Australian wine community. Evans arrived in Australia in 1955 and initially dreamed of becoming a professional golfer. These dreams were short-lived. Instead it was his initial work in hospitality at the Chevron in Kings Cross laid the groundwork for a career that would touch every aspect of Australian wine.

'The early 1960s saw the beginning of table wine popularity in Australia. The Chevron had lists of Private Bin wines where few had been seen before… we took wines from behind the counter and put them within reach of customers in open shelves, split barrels, stacked cartons.'

Len Evans

From these first influential steps Len quickly picked up the pace. In 1962 he commenced a column in The Bulletin newspaper, exposing thousands and thousands of Australians to thoughtful and engaging wine writing for the very first time. This was Australia’s first regular wine column, opening the door to what would become a proud Australian tradition of wine communication to break down wine snobbery and elitism.

>Vintage at Mount Pleasant
Vintage at Mount Pleasant taken by Max Dupain, image courtesy National Library of Australia
Vintage at Mount Pleasant

The column was followed by books, from food and wine frolicking with celebrity gourmet Graham Kerr in the Galloping Gourmets to the first encyclopaedic guide to Australian wine, 'The Australian Winebuyer's Guide’. These books were important in capturing the zeitgeist. Many Australians were making their first tentative steps into table wines and gourmet food, with Len as their guide.

Evans didn’t just impact the developing Australian food and wine culture. He was also integral in fostering a culture of excellence through the Australian wine show system. Wine shows have been vital in fostering the collegiate nature of the Australian wine community. Learnings were shared and exceptional wines were celebrated, helping to improve the breed and building Australian wine into the diverse, world renowned category we have today.

‘Back in the 1960s, Australian wine needed an inspiration, a protagonist, a visionary, a communicator and a global wine identity. Len Evans… promoter, taster, judge, consumer, teacher, and maker of wine did more to advance the cause of wine in Australia than any other individual.’

Jeremy Oliver, wine writer and Len Evans’ biographer

Leaving an Australian wine for future generations

It would be impossible to imagine the Australian wine story without Maurice, Max, Roger, Len, Jack and Colin. Without them would we have James Halliday, Jim Chatto, Peter Gago – passionate advocates for Australian wine respecting the past but leading Australian wine into new and exciting directions? Would we have the vibrant Australian food and wine scene we have today without Len Evans and his pioneering columns, books and advocacy for premium Australian wine? We’ll never know but there’s no doubt that each has played a vital role in the evolution of Australian wine. Something Australian wine lovers around the world can be truly grateful for.


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