Photo: Wine Australia

The Australian Wine Revolution

by Mike Bennie
Photo: Wine Australia
10 min

Australian wine has seemingly never been in better shape; never more exciting, likely never seen an era built more around expressive, free-wheeling ideas and resulting wines. Though Australian wine has seen golden eras in the past, the sheen of the current state of Australian wine - particularly those producing wines in increasingly diverse ways - is truly exciting and finding a broader engagement.

Part of Australian wine’s recent success is the loud spoken but minority sect of winemakers that fall loosely under the ‘avant garde’ banner. These are winemakers and winegrowers who are typically eking out small batch wines, increasingly shifting their attention to vineyards farmed by others or themselves in more sustainable, or indeed, chemical-free, organic standard ways, while applying less winemaking overlay in wineries.

The less-is-more mantra that occupies the umbrella philosophy for these producers has proved potent, with a reinvention of Australia’s wine image as one that now finds touchstones that include words and phrases like ‘light-on-feet’, ‘bright’, ‘cool climate’, ‘natural’, ‘orange wine’, ‘crunchy-textured’, ‘smashable’ and similar words that typify a shift from more stalwart, traditional expressions that have serviced lovers of Australian wine style so well.

Plain in sight is the historical connection to the recent past, current times and future. Winemakers have been taking inspiration from both local and international producers working in similar ways – where vineyard expression trumps winery intervention.

Australian Wine History

Australian wine starts its early history along with the colonisation of Sydney. First vines came along with early settlers, with vine nursery and trial vineyards planted close to Sydney harbour. Climate played its hand, and wines and grape vines didn’t fare well in the prevalent conditions, so early vignerons decided to take their plantings further out from Sydney town.

The abbreviated, populist story positions James Busby as the central protagonist ‘forefather’ of modern Australian wine. Indeed, his work with propagation, viticulture and establishing the Hunter River region is an important chapter in Australian wine history, though the story is broader. First families did indeed plant in the Hunter Valley, and alongside, and closely following were vineyard plantings on the outskirts of Perth, in and around Adelaide – the Barossa Valley, Adelaide, Adelaide Plains and McLaren Vale for example - and central Victoria.

Winemaking in the early days was basic, with dirt floor wineries, rudimentary equipment and a headstrong nous all found in pioneer winemakers. Early table wines were often side-lined for the burgeoning fortified wine trade, though shipments of table wine from the antipodes did make marks on international wine shows, and graced tables in Europe at times.

As winemaking advances came forth, winemakers fine-tuned their offering. Vineyard development and viticulture ideas were also advancing, particularly through the latter quarter of the 19th century, and into the early 20th. Fortified wines still formed a large part of Australia’s wine currency, until the seismic advent of larger scale European migration to Australia, from which Italian immigrants, particularly, began to help shape the dominant culture of Australian wine. A focus on table wines was the natural progression.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 1980s and the table wine culture of Australia is expanding off the back of a unique, bold, flavoursome shroud that seemed to bring cheer in every glass of Australian wine. Big is bold is good is perhaps the apt mantra to describe the bolshie, fruit-forward styles that emerged to capture international attention.

While the 1970s proudly spoke of Australia’s sweet wine and cask wine convenience culture, the 1980s, with its blow waves, shoulder pads and blue eyeshadow, held aloft the ‘sunshine in a glass’ Chardonnay styles that came in lakes from Australia’s big, smart winemaking companies.

The 1990s showed the world that Australia was adept at blockbuster, full-flavoured, densely packed, powerful red wines from the beating hearts of our historical, warm climate red wine regions. Robert Parker Jr, the famous US-based critic, with praise and high scores for the wines of this style, bolstered the image and supported Australian winemakers into reinforcing this and related styles.

As with all movements, counter culture began to arise. Conversations shifted to Australia’s often-overlooked cooler or true cool climate wine regions. Whole bunch fermentation, lower alcohol, earlier picking, brighter red wines styles and a knack for eking out the best from old vines, unique sites, unsung regions and a mesh of new, interesting grape varieties outside of the noble varieties emerged from a separate set of train tracks, even if they were leaving from the same train station.

Even as wine culture and experimentation advances, the nod to the past is seminal in the wines of the future. Indeed, the baseline of natural fermentation, no additions, older and neutral vessels, bottling without fining and filtration, references wine making of the past while referencing the current vogue, and looking forward.

Biodynamics and organics

In a neat parallel to food culture, Australia has seen an increased interest, off a small base, of organic and biodynamic produce. It follows that grape growing would also be seen through the lens of other farming, and dedicated producers are increasingly following organic practises, certified and other, in their vineyards.

"While winemaking practice can with ease revert back to the recent past and further, viticulture is the most important facet of evolving wine culture from Australia."

- Mike Bennie

High-profile proponents of organic and biodynamic farming include some of Australia’s highest profile winemakers. One need only look at Cullen (Margaret River), Castagna (Beechworth) and Jasper Hill (Heathcote) for wine producers who have invested their heart and souls into organic and biodynamic (certified) grape growing, and led the charge for others to follow.

A raft of producers has continued the progress of these considered, yet maverick, vignerons. Ngeringa (Adelaide Hills), Lowe Wines (Orange/Mudgee), Tamburlaine (Hunter Valley), Henschke (South Australia) and Stefano Lubiana (Tasmania), are just some of the collective who have shifted farming practises.

The baseline for the shift in Australia’s wine image comes from several conditions, but the shedding of the science-first image of the wine of this brown land is part of the check list that suggests a wind of change, for many. While winemaking practice can with ease revert back to the recent past and further, viticulture is the most important facet of evolving wine culture from Australia.

Natural Wine in Australia

In essence, natural wine is wine produced from organic or biodynamic vineyards (certified or in accordance with organic/biodynamic practices), from hand-picked grapes, with wines made in winery with no heavy machinery, no manipulation, no additions save low levels of sulphur (typically, additions of less than 50ppm, but lower is also championed), and bottling without filtering or fining applied.

There are two interweaving schools in Australia fitting under the broad umbrella of natural wine. The first idiom celebrates a shift in winemaking practises. Australia, often seen as an industrial winemaking country, and heavily reliant on additions (tannin powders like VR Supra, tartaric acid adjustment, enzymes, colour fixers like Mega Purple, texture enhancers and the like), has been seen to have an adherence to ‘by the numbers’ winemaking learned in the lab at winemaking school. The first shift towards natural wine was from producers who opted to do less in winemaking, refusing additions and fermenting using wild yeasts.

These winemakers came from varied places, and early experimentation in the modern incarnation of natural wine (as there are many who have always done little in winery, and produced wine from sustainably grown grapes), came with colour and movement. Winemakers used ceramic eggs, fermented white grapes on their skins to create orange wines, bottled wild, unfettered wines from varying sources and created a culture that celebrated uninhibited winemaking, with wines showcasing the variegated flavours possible from zero input winemaking.

Alongside those applying the tenets of natural winemaking practice, are those renting vineyards and farming them themselves. If self-farming is not possible, there are those dedicated to sourcing parcels of fruit from organic and biodynamic vineyards, and then applying the minimal intervention principles understood to be natural winemaking. This second weave of winemakers are pushing closer to the loose definition of natural wine, a step beyond those just producing colourful wines from minimal intervention winemaking.

Australia sees an ebb and flow between these schisms, but the broader umbrella of natural wine is continuously growing, even if production and the percentage of wine produced in Australia in this way is small. The voice is loud and vocal, however.

The future references the past

As with many shifts in the perception of style, the currency of a movement is often a reflection or interpretation of another. With natural wine in Australia, there is a recent and historical past to draw on and to take inspiration from. One only need walk the dirt floors of Tyrrell’s historic winery, see the large format oak, and taste the young un-sulphured red wines of the current season, to draw inspiration for minimal intervention winemaking and an adherence to less is more expression of wine.

Wendouree, one of Australia’s most singular estates, is equally retro in its approach. Good viticulture, natural expression of the site, an uninhibited translation of their vines and grapes in bottle, all performed with minimal intervention.

The dirt floor romanticism and low input winemaking is writ large into the lore surrounding perhaps Australia’s most famous winemaker, Maurice O’Shea. In a simple shed, some of Australia’s greatest ever wines were produced with limited scientific application, no modern temperature control, natural fermentation, little in the way of equipment to change the profile of wines from some of Australia’s greatest vineyards.

One need only see wines emerging over the past generation, such as those from Cobaw Ridge, Bass Phillip and Bindi to see a reverence and revelling in minimal intervention winemaking, set to the basics, low influence of new oak, a giving in to nature, to create wines that proffer the same historical references.

These totems are a constant reminder that great wines, from great vineyards, are an ambition, and that a gentle hand in winemaking can produce profound results. This representation is increasingly important for the emerging sect of natural winemakers/winegrowers in Australia.

Key winemakers now

A decade-or-so ago the Australia natural wine movement was little more than a simmering conversation. A set of curious circumstances brought together a collective of creatively thinking, adventurous winemakers all embarking on their solo projects at a fortuitously similar time – James Erskine (Jauma), Anton van Klopper (Lucy Margaux) and Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook/Didi), were joined by winemaker, artist, musician, philosopher and creative soul, Sam Hughes.

The motley posse formed a group called ‘Natural Selection Theory’ and started fermenting wine in ceramic eggs in an inner-city Sydney warehouse. That they played music and soundscapes to their ‘eggs’, worked in a winery that resembled a ‘60s-lounge room, hosted curious parties around the wines, created a mystique and sense of fun around wine, and brought an explosion of interest and creativity to wine, is well known.

The Natural Selection Theory collective roamed Sydney with a wheelbarrow stacked with demijohns full of wine. They wore colourful hot pants, played music, spoon fed sommeliers and independent wine store employees with variegated liquids they’d fermented from grapes in their bespoke Sydney winery. These demijohns, preserved ala Roman times with a thin layer of oil, poured to carafe, started popping up in various establishments, met with scorn by elements of the wine trade, but curiosity from a new generation unfettered by the potentially rigid nature of classic wine learning and fault finding.

The Natural Selection Theory spawned in Adelaide Hills, flourished in the parish of Basket Range, and begat ambitious ideology from a myriad of people from varied backgrounds, all drawn to handmaking natural wines. Taras Ochota (Ochota Barrels) was a front runner, gaining attention rapidly and broadly, and Gareth Belton (Gentle Folk), Brendan Keys (BK Wines), Alex Schulkin (The Other Right) and Tim Webber/Monique Milton (Manon) emerged from this energy, with winemakers around the country following the fireworks.

Almost simultaneously in Victoria, Patrick Sullivan was working on his own projects, learning farming, cattle raising, agronomy, viticulture, while producing a range of wines from varied Victorian wine regions. His curiosity and nous had him independently working at the same time the quiet revolution was taking place in South Australian wine regions. Over West, Si Vintners and Blind Corner were in the mix, a quiet subculture purring under the roar of established blue-chip wineries of Margaret River.

The spread of those under the banner of natural winemaking is now great and wide. A multitude of wine regions has an undercurrent of winemakers experimenting, sourcing parcels of grapes, cobbling together wineries and releasing small batch wines. Indeed, the revolution has come full circle with project wines being released by stalwart wineries of repute, one only has to look deeply into the preservative free ranges from Yangarra and Battle of Bosworth, or see skin contact wines from Knappstein and Brokenwood, as bare bones examples, to realise how far the revolution has spread.

Australian Wine: A Naturally Bright Future

Australian wine has never been more exciting, diverse or looking to improve its own culture. While natural wines have their detractors, the life that it has breathed into a technicolour vision of Australian wine is potent. Importantly, natural wines are focussing the lens on vineyard and winemaking practices, from which better wines, more diverse wines and a new wine paradigm is emerging.

 

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