What Is Australian Wine Really?
This might be a really strange statement, I'm sure that title has thrown you off, because to be honest it's pretty silly, but here we go: What Is Australian Wine? Yeah, ridiculous right? If the grapes grow in Australia, surely it's Australian Wine? An incredibly logical and most likely accurate statement - but I have a few holes to poke at. Our wine history is as old as the colonisation of the country itself, with Admiral Arthur Phillip bringing across the first cuttings onto Australian soil on the First Fleet - Muscat Petit Grains A.K.A. Frontingac alongside a myriad of Portuguese varieties if you're curious - that were planted in Sydney Cove! But therein lies the problem doesn't it? Wine came to Australia, not the world came to Australian Wine.
Look, sadly Australia does not have a native grape variety of Vitis vinifera. Our big island is lacking the key link to having a truly authentic wine history, of grapes that were fit for a place because they first existed there, that weren't introduced. The First Australians only link to alcohol was in a variety of fermented beverages that pop up all over the country. Things like a blossom and honey ferment that originated in Queensland or the most commonly documented Way-A-Linah, a drink made from a Eucalyptus tree now referred to as 'cider gum' in Tasmania. The myth that alcohol was introduced to Indigenous Australians by European Settlers is only becoming more and more debunked - but they did introduce a regular availability to hard alcohol.
We're going to gloss over the hard alcohol stuff because you can read all about the Chaos that was the Rum Rebellion, but one of the more interesting tidbits is that wine, the growing of and the drinking of, was actually encouraged to curb the consumption of alcohol. Yep. Wine was viewed as a lower alcohol alternative to spirits like rum that were causing major issues. By the 1820s local production of wine was firmly established, and the Hunter Valley was the champion, pretty much thanks to James Busby. Busby, after a trip to Spain and France, brought with him the finest selection of french varieties like Shiraz, Chardonnay, Semillon, Cabernet and a range of varieties fit for fortified production.
So we've got the beginnings of everything, we've established a healthy viticultural industry, with cuttings from Busby and also John Macarthur (read the Rum Rebellion!) who also cultivated the varieties that Arthur Phillip brought to Australia. We're planting far and wide - Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia - they've got roots in the ground - the trick now is to establish an identity, what is the brand of Australian Wine? I guess that the real crux of the question.
Ask yourself, when you think of Australian Wine, what do you think? What particular style and variety comes to mind? I'm willing to place a large bet it's Shiraz - and it's a fair one, We've got a long history of producing high-quality Syrah or Shiraz in all parts of the country - 12 out of 22 of the wines in Langtons 'Exceptional' Category are Shiraz. Stuff like Penfolds' Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone, Rockford Basket Press - it's a solid list. Apart from the big rich Shiraz, We've also got stuff like Margaret River Chardonnay, Coonawarra Cabernet, and Tasmanian Sparkling - all of which are undeniably world-class - but when they're referenced as being the best of the best, they're oft compared to their old world forefathers.
The best examples of Australian Wine are frequently compared to the old-world and their most famous wines. They call Leeuwin Estates Art Series Chardonnay 'Burgundian', Hugh Johnson called Grange the only 'First Growth' of the Southern Hemisphere (which is odd since Grange is often a multi-regional blend) - we always refer to the old world to rank the new world. Even now - Vanguardist Wines just reported the equal highest review for a Grenache ever on the cult adored wine website The Wine Front where Gary Walsh gave it, in a glowing, gorgeously written review, a score of 97 points calling it "Bloody McLaren Vale G. Mascarello". Don't get me wrong, it's high praise and the wine is exceptional and deserves all the praise it gets (seriously, go buy it, it's mental), but why isn't simply hailed as the best example of McLaren Vale Grenache - is that not enough?
There is a distinct sense of place in Australia for a lot of wine, and I think it's not championed enough. The terroir of regions like the Clare Valley is unmistakable, the fact that some wines actually taste like eucalyptus is astounding - think Wendouree. I recently had a glass of Ochota Barrels 'The Price of Silence' Gamay whilst at their 'cellar door' Lost In A Forest. After a few slices of their sublime Bahn Mi pizza and went on my merry way, I was gobsmacked that the winter air of Uraidla literally smelt like the glass of Gamay. One of my favourite quotes ever uttered in the Australian Wine industry is from Mac Forbes, after running through his Single Vineyard Chardonnays with the legends at Different Drop, they tried his 'Woori Yallock' and the team exclaimed that it was as good as "great Chablis" and Mac retorted "No - it's Woori Yallock". It's not to put down the compliment, as I'm sure Mac appreciated it greatly, but he's not worried about making great Chablis, he's trying to make great Woori Yallock.
I think that should be the mantra, the motto of the Australian Wine Industry, and the bar we set for ourselves. The best examples should be expressive of the variety, the place it was grown, and overall really bloody enjoyable to drink. We don't have to try and beat old world examples, we don't even have to stack up against them, the wines just need to be unmistakably from where they came from, and what it's made from - and there are plenty of examples of that in this country. Clare Valley Riesling is one of the more expressive wines on earth, McLaren Vale Grenache is unmistakable, Hunter Valley Semillon too - the next step is another question entirely and a bit more contentious: does that variety even belong there?
There are plenty of wines that speak distinctly where they come from in this country - for good and bad reasons - but are they suitable to grow there? Will it survive on minimal intervention in the vineyard, can it be grown without water? If Australia had the same rules as the old world in regards to strict irrigation regulations, would we be making wine from different grape varieties? Of course, if you're well-acquainted with Unico Zelo, this is the crux of our entire existence. This is not a slap in the face to existing and established varieties in Australia, we love them and we love to drink them, but planning for the future has us wary.
The identity of Australian Wine is still juvenile - we don't have hundreds upon hundreds of years of wine history like the old world - and our proposition is to while we can, re-invent ourselves like Prince. In a study published in a collaborative project by climate scientists, viticulturists and adaptation specialists, through the University of Tasmania, their prediction is that on the current trajectory, on average across Australia, by 2100 each wine region is going to get about 3-4 degrees warmer across the board, with more extreme heat days. A lot of the varieties that grow in our established regions won't be able to survive. We will have to adapt.
You're probably reading saying this to yourself: "he hasn't even answered his own question" and you're right! I bloody haven't because I don't even know what Australian Wine is yet - what I'm really trying to portray is that since our identity is so juvenile, now is the time to adapt and re-imagine ourselves. Look towards the future to what we should start planting more of. Adapting for the future is not going to happen overnight, it's going to take decades, and that's just fine - we've got to start somewhere. We've put in the groundwork too! We've got incredible growers who are planting climatically appropriate varieties all over the country, and we have an incredibly well established natural wine movement championing sustainable farming practices. Australia right now has a multitude of identities: we've got bulk cask wine production, we've got conventional classics, and contemporary renegades challenging the status quo - the next step is to change the status quo. So to really answer the question: What Is Australian Wine? I don't know yet but I can't wait to find out.