Saturday, 2 February 2013

Is Australia a great wine producing nation or not?

Australia is justifiably proud of its wine producing industry and has gained attention and success on a global scale.  I love Australian wines.  They are built to last, and there are regions for growing grapes that rival European terrain, and the hills of Napa Valley.  Five years ago, I drank 95% Australian wine, with the other 5% being a smattering from Europe and the Americas.  I also used to drink 90% red, but now drink about 70% red and 30% white.  In a recent post on Rieslings, I mention how the Riesling grape helped me transition to more whites.

I have also noticed another change over the last decade, that being that I used to enjoy red wines when they were the biggest, most robust and alcoholic.  I now prefer - more often than not - a more refined, elegant red wine.  I am starting to appreciate red wine blends using more secondary grapes, and more red and white wines from Europe.

In general, it is probably fair to say that my wine tastes are maturing and becoming more diverse.  Part of this has been through the minor study of how grapes are grown, wine is made and wine reviews in general.  But most my education has come from drinking and comparing a wider variety of wine.  I have become much more discerning of the grape used and the impact of soil and vineyard management techniques on various grapes (most prominent influence is on Riesling and Pinot Noir, but all grapes are influenced by the soil and climate they are grown in).  The influence of soil and climate makes up a big part of what is called terroir.  But terroir also has less noticeable and scientifically proven influences through the culture of the area, its accumulated history, and the small influences collectively made over the vines and wine making techniques for thousands of years.  And this is where I am starting to question if Australia is one of the best wine producing regions or not.  While some vines are 150 years old and represent the place where the grapes are grown, Australia is more known for the tastes of the grapes themselves and the wine making techniques used.

I am reading Roger Scruton's book entitled I Drink Therefore I am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine.  It is available in both electronic and printed form.  I am greatly enjoying the book, finding it not just a good and enjoyable read, but also quite educational on both wine and philosophy.  Scruton is a marvelously entertaining and articulate writer.  He is also very sure of his opinions and without a doubt, believes that French wines are without peer, followed by some wines from Napa Valley.  He is also a fan of Italian wines and supportive of Spanish and some South American wines.

But when he starts discussing Australian and New Zealand wines, he quickly downplays the impact of Australian wines and spends most of his time in the region praising New Zealand wines and wine making.  One of his major criticisms is that Australian wines do not reflect a place, they reflect the taste of the grape and the wine making techniques.  He is also critical of how quickly the wine growing and wine making industries have grown and the mass popularity of the wine having repudiated the individual variety that is necessary to make great wines.

Scruton believes that a sense of place is critical in making good wines and I think he is onto something.  You can mechanically churn out excellent wines if you use great grapes and great wine making techniques.  But think how much better wines are if the grapes come from vines that have been in the same location for thousands of years (vines never get that old, but the relationship being the soil and the vine types have existed for that long in many European locations).  The soil, the vine and the grape know how to embrace each other.  And think of the collective history and culture of the place where the grapes are grown.  Even if you have not visited those places, you have a sense of what they are about, and drinking wine from a place evokes memories and a sense of a deeper culture and appreciation of the wine.  And even if you are completely ignorant to a place, you still can taste the nuances of how the culture has defined the grapes and the wine making.

I have tasted some truly unique and excellent second growths or non-categorized wines from these European regions that have evoked great pleasure.  You do not need to buy Grand Cru wines from these regions to experience great wine.

I have tasted some excellent Australia wines and will continue to enjoy them for the rest of my wine drinking days.  They are great wines.  But the very best wines I have had come from France, Italy or Napa Valley.  Australia can be proud of its wine making industry and its wine heritage, but as a New World country that mass produces wines and has large vineyards of similar tasting grapes, you are unlikely to produce wines of the stratospheric quality that you would from a very small single vineyard parcel in Montrachet, Nuit St George, Mosel, Piedmont or Alsace.

In particular, I understand the nuances of some of the best vineyards in The Hunter Valley and can select some truly outstanding wines of unique character from that Australian wine region.  I am anxious to spend much more time in the other major regions to be able to do similar.  By being selective and narrowing my focus to a few wine makers with excellent small parcel vineyards and leveraging the cumulative history and culture of the region and the family of wine makers, I am hoping to be able to continue to buy Australian and get the very best wine it has on offer.

But is Australia in the Top 3 best wine making countries in the world - certainly not.  Is it in the Top 5?  Maybe and if not, it is getting closer.  The joy in all this is that I will continue on the journey of sampling many more Australian and foreign wines and also now have an excuse to sample both side-by-side, which is something I have not done much of before!

Steve Shipley
Twitter: @shipleyaust
My other blog (on business, tech, world issues):  Steve Shouts Out!

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