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Australian Wines
Far from Ordinary

By Don Clemens

The first wines grown in Australia came from cuttings imported from the British Empire's holdings in South Africa (already growing European vines) with the first arriving in 1788 in Sydney and planted in the "Governor's garden”; these vines came courtesy of the Cape of Good Hope. By the middle of the 19th century, Australia had the beginnings of a viable wine industry, particularly in its southeastern regions. As immigration began to grow at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, many European countries were supplying Australia with people looking for ways to improve their lives. Not surprisingly, the diversity of grape varietals being planted was growing, right along with the shifting population. However, the wines being produced were not of any particular distinction, and were generally inexpensive, heavily fortified, "pseudo-Port wines", destined for shipment back to England.

It wasn't really until the 1960's that Australian wine began to approach "quality.” Stainless steel fermentation tanks had arrived on the scene, and cold fermentation of white wines was happening; the larger wine companies were relocating to the cooler growing zones along the coastal areas of southeastern Australia and near Perth, in Western Australia. Places like Coonawarra and Padthaway grew rapidly in importance, as did the states of Victoria and Tasmania. And, it really wasn't until the 1970's that the wooden wine barrel, being useful (if not necessary), became commonly used for fermenting fine wines, as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay became "things" in the Australian wine business. The understanding of growing vines in areas that were more hospitable to wine grapes that required cooler, longer growing seasons was rapidly emerging. In other words, modernity had arrived!

The latter half of the 20th Century, in retrospect, was a really amazing time for the Australian wine industry. It literally reinvented itself. In thirty years, it went from 85% "everything-but-premium" wine grapes/15% premium wine grapes in 1956 to (in 2004) a complete turn-around of 10% "everything-but-premium" wine grapes to 90% premium wine grapes!

The vast majority of the premium wine grapes were following new-world trends. The "Big Three" (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Shiraz) dominated the Australian side of the U.S. market, leaving some remarkable plantings of other grapes struggling for market share. Vineyards planted to white grapes like Semillon, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc and red grapes like Pinot Noir and Grenache were being uprooted or grafted over to the more market friendly "Big Three" at a remarkable rate.

Fortunately for wine-lovers everywhere, not EVERY vineyard faced the fate of becoming filled with vines from the "Big Three.” And, this was amply demonstrated at a recent tasting held in Chicago, sponsored by Wine Australia. The theme of this event was "Australian Wine - Made Our Way,” with a subheading of "Far From Ordinary.”

I've been a fan of Australian wines for many years and have had the pleasure of visiting the wine regions of the southeastern states of that huge country on a couple of trips. Happily, the places that I visited were about not only the "Big Three", but also about fabulous Riesling, Semillon, Verdelho, Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc - the list goes on…

So, back to my day at this tasting, I was pleased to attend a trade seminar focused on one of my personal favorite red grapes. The seminar was titled "Grenache - The Rebirth of a Classic.” In case you haven’t noticed, Grenache and wines blended with it are growing in popularity in many places all over the civilized world. Wines from northern Spain (the ancestral home of Grenache – where it is known as “Garnacha”) and the south of France (from the Rhone Valley and to most of Languedoc-Roussillon) have been experiencing strong sales growth because of a few factors, not the least being that they are increasingly viewed as affordable bargains when compared to Classified Bordeaux or Napa/Sonoma Cabernets. And we shouldn’t overlook the generous, ample fruit and richness that a great Grenache can supply!

This seminar, with six representatives and a moderator, provided a wealth of information about the current state of Grenache production in Australia. In addition to the fact that more vines are being planted, there was also the mind-blowing fact that some of the wines being presented were made with grapes coming from vines planted before Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States. (I'll save the lessons of "old vine viticulture" for a future column, but the quick note for this is that there is a LOT of deep sandy-soiled vineyard land in South Australia, where the roots can go very far down into the soil in search of moisture and nutrients. Also, because so many of the vineyards in Australia are so old, they are planted to original vitis vinifera rootstocks, which normally would be extremely susceptible to the ravages of the phylloxera root louse. But, because that pest doesn't thrive well in sandy soil, there’s a bit of a natural safety zone for these vines. Old "bush vines" are found all over pockets in Victoria, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.) And, one of the exceptional wines in this tasting was the Yalumba "Tri-Centenary" Barossa Valley Grenache 2013. The name tells the tale! Some of these vines have been through parts of the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries!

So, the moral of the tale is: There's a world of great Australian wines out there. Don't get caught in a rut. The "Big Three" can be wonderful, but so can a Barossa Valley Grenache or a Hunter Valley Semillon!

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