Australia’s Golden Period
By Michael Palij, MW
Shiraz may be the putative calling card of Australian wine production but – like Kiwi Sauvignon – what was once a genuinely unique style has been shambolically besmirched by the marketing departments of a few volume-led conglomerates. Do we need another ‘critter label’ when they could pin their colours to the mast and market it as a cash cow? The brooding machismo of high alcohol, high extract, no acidity and a dollop of residual sugar was a talisman for a generation of extrovert, one-dimensional fruit bombs. Like Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco, many were marred by the tarry Shiraz brush.
A couple of steps behind this jammy mask, however, there is considerably more nuance. But you need to be diligent in your search and leave ‘key price points’ forever behind you. Shiraz enjoys the Aussie sunbed, as does Grenache, and Australia is vast: it does have pockets of cool climate viticulture and unirrigated vines. Look at Grange and Hill of Grace: Australians have always made great wine, although not, one concedes, in great quantities. Exports appeared rather late in the day: seabound volume was around eight million litres in 1981, which has since increased one hundred-fold. Admittedly, that charge was led by a herd of creatures and features but – following at a discreet distance – is a small pod of artisans crafting wines that reflect their terroir in a style that is both authentically Australian and world-beating.
A word about freshness. Margaret River is a leading cool-climate region, often compared to Bordeaux. The stats, however, do not quite add up. Margaret River is eleven latitudinal degrees closer to the equator, with an average temperature of 20.9°C during the growing season, and rainfall of 202mm. Bordeaux, by comparison, logs 18°C and 400mm respectively. What bridges the gap? Science, in short. In 1978, Dr. Tony Jordan and Brian Croser established cutting-edge anaerobic winemaking techniques at their Oenotec consultancy in South Australia. As Jamie Goode writes: “By excluding oxygen from the winemaking process and using stainless steel and refrigeration, [Jordan and Croser] taught winemakers to produce clean, fruit-forward and delicious wines, even in warm climate.” This, then, is the genesis of the fresh, reductive style that has influenced McHenry Hohnen, Geoff Hardy, and many others.
In addition to oaky and alcoholic ogres, the 1990s saw a global preference for barrique-driven wines that managed to both obfuscate the fruit and cement Australia’s reputation for charmless monoliths. But what winemaking country hasn’t looked back in shame at one point or another? Piat d’Or anyone? Baby Duck? Thankfully, both craft and perception are changing and the little guys are increasingly getting the shelf space they deserve in export markets. China, in particular, is worth mentioning: China was the number one destination for Australian wine until 2021, accounting for a share of bottled exports greater than the US, UK, and Canada combined. A prickly trade war has, however, reduced this previously profitable flow to a weedy trickle. Producers are working strenuously to establish new markets, plugging a shortfall estimated at AUD 1 billion. One might advance that survival of the fittest has its perks: wines from Australia accounted for a fifth of those awarded ‘Best in Show’ at the 2023 Decanter World Wine Awards. Margaret River was declared the pick of the bunch. The dominance of Shiraz as poster boy is being steadily eroded by the success of other varieties, including Grenache, Cabernet and a clutch of truly cult Pinots and Chardonnays. As we become more informed, the Aussies become more adept at creating wines of undeniable interest.
Are we seeing a Golden Age for Australian wine? I believe so. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate now employs a dedicated Australian Reviewer, in Erin Larkin. New producers are buying vineyards and establishing fledgling wineries. Winemakers continue to gain experience abroad and port it back Down Under. Geoff Hardy has consulted widely in Italy and France, although in truth, his stomping ground in the Adelaide Hills is no backwater. Pivoted between Barossa to the north and McLaren Vale to the south, Adelaide Hills is a veritable low-key champion that became central to the natural wine movement of the 2010s. The region’s profile is about to go stratospheric: Halliday Wine Companion 2024 has awarded ‘Shiraz of the Year’ to – you guessed it, – an Adelaide Hills producer. Would there be a better advert for Adelaide Hills Shiraz?
Increasingly, we are seeing cool climate wines realized not as quirky sidelines, but as central pillars to Australia’s DNA. The synergy beckons between these and the more traditional styles. If this is not a Golden Age, it is a timely revolution. Global warming makes for a rethink of what Australia can, and cannot, produce. In a few decades, Shiraz will be the reserve of today’s cool climate regions; Sangiovese, Grenache, Nebbiolo and other Mediterranean varieties will fill the warmer zones. Perhaps more gratifyingly, we will see a reclamation of Australian wine’s identity; at the very least the nation will reaffirm its ability to compete at all price points and in all styles. Critter labels and cash cows? Seems like all the pigeonholes are empty these days.
Michael Palij MW is the third Canadian Master of Wine. He specializes in Italian wines and has introduced Opimian to some truly special producers.