The Wonders of Oz. Part I

Late in 2016 Tom Cannavan spent 10 days touring several of Australia’s most important wine regions for this report. It will be published in five parts.


INTRODUCTION

australia-2016-hero-1-editorialThat the Australian wine industry is in a period of reflection and subtle re-alignment is undeniable. But any more than other nations? France? South Africa? Chile? Almost certainly not. And yet there’s no doubt that a significant proportion of the country’s best winemakers are pondering the future. It’s not just the move to explore cooler climate regions or the reining back of ripeness and oak; by now that’s pretty old news, and surely everyone knows the story? But alongside there’s a sense that many winemakers are trying to decide on the specific direction they wish to take.

In McLaren Vale, a group of top producers is homing-in on Grenache. Historically a supporting player to Shiraz, now old-vine, often dry-farmed material is being nurtured and coaxed into a starring role, in a generally fresher and more juicy red-fruited style than might have been seen in the past. In the Adelaide Hills a groovy set of Gru-V enthusiasts is establishing its own little Austrian outpost, with a concerted focus on the Grüner Veltliner variety, whilst in another corner of the Hills a bunch of renegade hipsters has a whole zero sulphur, low-intervention movement going on.

What does it tell us about the Australian wine industry?  Not that it is in trouble, or struggling to find an identity, but simply that committed winemakers are doing what they need to do in an ever-shifting global wine scene. They are aware of the need to broaden the Australian offering, to break down clichéd stereotypes, and to keep the world’s excitement levels up. Australia is one of the world’s most technically advanced wine countries, but it’s a pretty young one. There is history and tradition, but free-thinking too. It’s a time of change, but also of opportunity.

Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is, of course, the key.

NEW SOUTH WALES – Sydney’s playground

Seaplane over Sydney Opera HouseOn day one of my trip I was lucky enough to be whisked to the community of Killcare Beach on Sydney’s North Coast by vintage seaplane (right). That was a chance for an epic view of an epic, modern city, yet one where Australia’s viticulture was born. The first cuttings of European vines were planted in Sydney in the late 18th century, but before too long the realisation dawned that heat and humidity in the area were unsuitable, and so the vineyards moved out of the city, the nearby Hunter Valley becoming the first commercial vineyard region in 1828.

nsw-mapThe Hunter remains a high quality regions, famous of course for Semillon, truly a world-leading marriage of variety and place, but other quality regions have emerged, including Canberra for great Shiraz and Riesling, Mudgee, Orange and Tumbarumba, and the important vineyard land of Riverina, one of the sources of high quality fruit for brands like Casella and McWilliams, and of some excellent Botrytis and fortified sweet wines.

Tim Kirk, winemaker at Clonakilla in Canberra, hitched a ride on the seaplane too, and during conversation I was fascinated to hear that he credits his winemaking style to his early love of watercolour painting. As an Art School graduate myself we discussed the properties of watercolour – always attempting to capture the light, the translucency of thinly-applied paint – and Tim said that perfectly summed up his approach “In painting I was trying to capture light intersecting with the landscape, and I try to do the same with my wine: expressing the light and the landscape.” He also credits his father, an academic who was teaching at Cambridge when Tim was born in Wales, who had a distinctly European sensibility when he later started the family wine business.

Not all of the winemakers who gathered for my welcome lunch and tasting would have the same aesthetic approach as Tim of course, but it struck me that New South Wales is certainly celebrating its cooler climate and more elegant credentials. As a group, the winemakers are conscious of finesse and balance, keenly exploring the best of their terroirs, whether influenced by the sandy soils or decomposed granite of the Hunter or Canberra, or the cool nights offered by the high altitude vineyards of Orange, some now pushing well above 1000 metres in altitude.

nsw-winemakers

Left to right: 1. Geoff Krieger, Brokenwood; 2. Damian Shaw, Philip Shaw Wines; 3. Mike Lloyd, Eden Road; 4. Peter Hall, McGuigan Wines; 5. Peter Logan, Logan Wines; 6. Adrian Sparks, McWilliams ; 7. Tim Kirk, Clonakilla; 8. Chris Tyrell, Tyrell’s.

But these wines, with reined back ripeness, extraction and oak, did not lack generosity. The wines had plenty of fruit sweetness and textural richness, but real elegance and finesse too: it’s not a blunt change of direction, but a rediscovering of a sense of place. And in a way that sums up my findings all across Australia on this trip.

Read 14 tasting notes from New South Wales

Go to Part II – South Australia: The Adelaide Hills

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