You know things are bad when the Aussies, normally the most chipper of nations, start grouching about their lot. “We’re stuffed, mate,” one of their number told me recently, having voted with his feet by joining an Italian wine company.
How stuffed, exactly? On a taxidermist’s scale of one to 10, I reckon we’re talking a six or a seven, and quite possibly worse. A combination of drought, falling exports and massive overproduction, equivalent to an estimated 360m bottles of unwanted wine, have burst the Australian bubble.
Without the heatwave of the past few years, which has limited yields in the vineyard, things would arguably be even worse. As the 2010 harvest approaches, some growers are talking about leaving vineyards unpicked or, as happened in the late 1970s, turning their grapes into fruit muffins. Tellingly, Australia probably needs to uproot 20% of its vineyards just to balance the books.
In the UK, an epidemic of cheap deals on popular brands such as Hardy’s, McGuigan, Lindemans, Wyndham Estate, Wolf Blass and Rosemount has damaged the image of mass-market Australian wine. There have been so many “half-price” promotions, where the full headline price bears no relation to the quality of the booze in the bottle, that consumers don’t know what the wine is truly worth.
Things don’t look terribly rosy for the country that has defined the New World wine revolution over the past two decades, but talk to winemakers in France, whose share of the market has fallen off a cliff, and Australia’s plight doesn’t seem quite so dire. It’s worth remembering that one in five of the bottles we drink still comes from Australia. Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from Down Under still sell by the containerload.
I think Australia will come through this crisis in decent shape. The reason for my optimism is that it’s making better wines, at every price, than at any time in its history. More to the point, Australia is increasingly focused on regional expression rather than multi-state blends from South Eastern Australia, a vast appellation which covers a third of the country. The French word terroir (a sense of place) used to be mocked in Australia as an excuse for bad winemaking, but not any more. Belatedly, the Aussies have become terroiristes.
Leading the fightback is Australia’s First Families of Wine initiative, a dozen family-owned wineries with a combined total of more than 1,200 years of winemaking experience. The organisation includes some of my favourite Aussie names, such as Yalumba, De Bortoli, Henschke, Tyrrell’s, Tahbilk, d’Arenberg, Howard Park, Campbell’s and Jim Barry, and makes wines in 16 different regions.
Five exciting First Families releases are the creamy, apricotty, palate-coating 2008 Yalumba Y Series Viognier, South Australia (£7.49, 14.5%, Majestic); the ripe, full-bodied, spicy, raspberryish 2006 d’Arry’s Original Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale (£9.20, 14.5%, Bibendum, 020 7449 4120; £10.95, The Wine Society); the thick, figgy, pruney Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat (£9.49 per half, 17.5%, Waitrose); the refined, elegant, Volnay-like 2007 De Bortoli Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley (£17.99, or £14.39 as part of a mixed case, 13%, Oddbins) and the fresh, youthful, minerally, ageworthy 2002 Tyrrell’s Winemaker’s Selection Vat 1 Semillon (£21.99, 10%, Noel Young, 01223 566 744; www.swig.co.uk).
The aim of the First Families is to promote the quality and diversity of Australian wine. Or as its chairman, Alastair Purbrick of Tahbilk, puts it: “We don’t believe that as individual companies we can stem the avalanche of news stories about Australia producing nothing but cheap industrial wines. But together we can present a powerful showcase of terrific regional wines.” I’ll drink to that. And I hope you will, too.★
Originally published in The Observer