by Tim Atkin

Australia: lessons from the past

There’s nothing like a tasting of old wines to give you a sense of perspective. Sipping from bottles that were made before you were born (increasingly rare in my case as I approach the start of my sixth decade) encourages you to look back at your own life.  But it also makes you think about the way the wine business has developed, both for better and worse, over the last few decades.

The tasting of Barossa Vintages at the London Internationl Wine Fair was one such event. It was created to underline the fact that this most Australian of wine regions dates back to the 1840s and to accompany a book and a website ( with data about different harvests. It was a pleasure to read the summaries of the different decades, from “cool and elegant” (yes indeed) in the 1960s, to “the revolution” in the 1990s and, finally, “maturity” in the 2000s.

If anything, the wines had an even more compelling story to tell. There was the odd disappointment, where age had withered rather than embellished their content, but many of the bottles were superb. To name only a few highlights, the 1978 Orlando Shiraz, the 1991 Mount Edelstone Shiraz and the 1959 Saltram Vintage Rare Tawny were all deliciously mature wines.

The thing that struck me about most of the older, pre-“revolutionary” wines was how elegant they were and, with the exception of the fortified tawny, how low in alcohol. That leafy, savoury Orlando Shiraz that impressed me so much weighed in at a featherweight 12.4%.

Fast forward to the quartet of wines that were chosen to represent  the region from the mid-1990s to the present day and the alcohol levels were uniformly high, never less than 14.5% and a whopping 15.5% in one case. The wines were good in their own way, especially the 2005 Ben Glaetzer Amon-Ra Shiraz, but I have my doubts about how they will age.

Modern Barossa wines are very different beasts from the wines of the 1970s: plusher, denser, more in your face. In fact, you could argue that what has happened in the country’s most famous wine region reflects what has taken place in Australia as a whole. It’s partly a case of warmer and earlier vintages (with the odd, cooler exception), but there’s also been a stylistic shift towards bigger wines. I’d say this began in the early 1990s and has continued, pretty much unabated, since.

Before I get an in box full of angry emails from Australia, I know that I’m generalising, and that there has always been a countervailing cool climate movement, emphasising finesse and balance over ripe (and over-ripe) fruit flavours.  But the dominant style over the last 20 years has favoured more obvious wines at the expense of elegance and complexity.

Such a style — let’s call it “sunshine in a glass” — has served Australia well. When I started writing about wine in 1985, the idea that Australia would become the leading exporter of wine to the UK (and remain there for more than a decade) was fanciful. But here it is, having achieved just that.

The question now is what next? As Dan Buckle, the winemaker at cool climate Shiraz producer Mount Langi Ghiran, puts it: “We’ve sold the one Australia story for a long time: big brands, legible labels, don’t worry about the vintage, mate. But there’s much more to Australia than that.”

Journalists know that, importers know that, producers know that, but does the general public? My guess is that most of them don’t. As I’ve argued before in this column, the focus on cut-price deals by most of the big Australian brands (partially excused by over-supply, shareholder pressure and the behaviour of UK supermarkets) has prevented Australia from developing a broader and more nuanced image here. Something similar — albeit for slightly different reasons including the Yellowtail phenomenon and the power of Parker points — has happened in the United States.

The sad thing, at least to me, is that at no point in its history has Australia made a greater or more diverse range of wines.  Many of these don’t make it to these shores, partly because they are produced in small quantities, but also because there’s not much of a market for them here. Yet as Max Allen’s brilliant recent book, “The Future Makers: Australian Wine for the 21st Century”, makes clear, there is a new quality revolution fermenting Down Under.

The best place to catch a glimpse of it at the LIWF was on the Wine Victoria stand, where Steve Webber of De Bortoli and Master of Wine Kate McIntyre of Mooroduc Estate were showing 20 odd wines from their native state.  The quality was very high, including some stunning Chardonnays and Pinots, a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Meunier and a couple of elegant Shirazes.

The challenge facing the very capable Yvonne May in her new position running Wine Australia in the UK is to persuade the majority of wine drinkers that Australia has moved on from sunshine in a glass. The wines are there, all right, but are the big companies prepared to let it happen?

Originally published in OLN

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