Australian wine is undergoing reform, says Bruce Palling. Even grand old Grange is facing change
If you asked the man on the street in Britain to name an Australian wine, they would probably only come up with Jacob's Creek at the lower end of the spectrum or, if they were better informed, Penfolds Grange, at the very peak. This lack of knowledge is puzzling, given that the UK imports more wine from Australia than France. However, there are signs that among the better informed, Australian wine is taken seriously, helped no doubt by the recent award of a perfect 100-point score for Grange 2008 by wine guru Robert Parker's Wine Advocate.
In the past, Australian wines were renowned for their massive structure and high alcohol levels and certainly the 20 other Australian wines that have scored a perfect 100 from Parker fall into these categories. Greenock Creek, which produces big-boned Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, takes eight of these coveted positions and some of them tip the scales at 16 per cent.
Australian-born David Gleave MW, who is the founder and managing director of Liberty Wines, thinks that while the blockbuster style is still prevalent in South Australia's Barossa and McLaren Vale regions, big changes are afoot. He ascribes some of this to the growth of vineyards in the cooler climate areas, such as Tasmania, the Adelaide Hills and Victoria's Macedon Ranges. As he says, "What we are seeing in Australian wine production is a much broader base. In the past 20 years, the number of wine producers has almost trebled, while the share of the market controlled by the top four has diminished from 90 per cent to just over two-thirds."
Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with these blockbuster types of wine, but for too long they have defined the way Australian wine is judged in the rest of the world. Andrew Jefford, author of Ancient Earth: Terroir and the Australian Wine Landscape tends to agree. "It is a much more diverse scene than it used to be. You now see a non-classical Australian style, with emphasis of naturalness and subtlety, which is great. With the exception of Penfolds, high-end wines from larger companies have disappeared. Obviously there are some long-term players who are still there, but even in Penfolds case, it is subtly modulating what it does."
Grange is perhaps the most famous blended dry red wine in the world. There is no specific vineyard that it comes from and the final blend can include grapes harvested from several regions of South Eastern Australia. This means that the 'Grange Style' is created in the winery, rather in the way that most champagne is blended from numerous vineyards.
And what are the new Australian wines to watch? There is a lot of interest in Bindi Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Macedon Ranges of Victoria, while the Chardonnay from Giaconda in Beechworth, North East Victoria, is one of the most acclaimed. Amongst the more well-established wines, there is a strong London market for Torbreck, Two Hands, Henschke – all from Barossa Valley along with Leeuwin Estate and Cullen in Margaret River, West Australia. None of these wines are cheap and because of their limited production actually finding them is half the battle.
Although the United Kingdom is not as important for high-end Australian winemakers as it once was, there is still a strong presence. Andrew Jefford thinks it might be inevitable that a famous wine like Grange slowly loses its unique status.
"The whole way of blending and crafting Grange is against the run of history. You can only make blends like Grange if you have a huge amount of grapes from all over the place to work with. Sooner or later, growers, such as Kalleske, are going to think, 'Why don't I make it myself?' Grange will always exist as a reference point, but increasingly its grapes are going to end up in single vineyards. And these top wines will begin to differentiate themselves."
Bruce Palling writes about wine on his blog gastroenophile.com