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Australian Wine: Liquid Gold

5 minute read
Steve Waterson/Sydney

Soon after leading the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, explorer Gregory Blaxland was back on his New South Wales farm, tending his vines. By 1822 he had sufficient confidence in his winemaking skills to submit a quarter-pipe (about 37 gal.) of red wine for assessment by the London-based Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The society’s judges awarded him a silver medal–and five years later a gold medal–for a wine they described with tepid enthusiasm as having “much the odor and flavor of ordinary claret.”

Blaxland was a colorful pioneer, but the business he started in Australia has become famed for producing wine that’s not a cheap facsimile of other nations’ wine but a unique, hardly ordinary invention. While Australia’s wine matches the best in the world in technical expertise, there is something special about the taste of the country’s top blends that has made it an irreplaceable flavor in many of the world’s great wine cellars. This week Sotheby’s and Christie’s will conduct two of the largest wine auctions in history, each boasting impressive lots of the famous Penfolds Grange, a peppery, $200-plus-per-bottle wine that’s almost impossible to obtain. And while Aussie winemakers have been building a great business–exports are up more than 50% in the past five years–they are also changing the way wine is made in some of the oldest vineyards on earth. Says Jancis Robinson, editor of the newly revised Oxford Companion to Wine: “It is difficult to overestimate the Australian impact.” Explains New York City wine expert Humphrey Oguda: “No one has done so much for wine so fast. The giants of Australia, like Penfolds, make more than 1 million bottles of wine a year, and they scare every French winemaker because the quality that goes into a $10 bottle of wine is exactly the same quality that goes into the top of their line. It’s madness! It’s why they are considered a war machine when it comes to wine.”

For 160 years after Blaxland’s first endeavors, the development of Australia’s wine industry was steady but unremarkable. But the past decade has brought a renaissance. Partly it’s been spurred by domestic growth: though historically not big wine consumers, Australians now drink an average of 26 bottles of table wine a year–more than any other English-speaking nation, although less than a third of the average Frenchman’s needs. But the real growth has come overseas, where inexpensive (less than $30) Australian wines are hailed for richness, approachability and reliability–characteristics that put them on a footing with good French wine. “Australia is now seen as a credible dinner-party wine,” says Simon Farr, a director of Bibendum, one of London’s top wine shops. “Ten years ago, it would have been French all the way–even if it tasted disgusting.”

Traditionally isolated, Australian winemakers have had to learn on their own. As a result, they have a deep appreciation for and understanding of technique–and a flair for innovation. Australians mix grapes, casks and soils with an agility that produces fresh, dynamic wines. Penfolds blends Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in a single bottle, producing a wine that matures into a rich, loamy taste. The local Semillon (pronounced Sem-eh-lon, with a typically Australian disregard for the niceties of French) is often mixed with Chardonnay, or even used alone, to create bracing and quite extraordinary dry white wines. Few European vineyards would have the audacity to take such chances. “Australia,” says Oguda, “is all about innovation.”

That innovation has become a global calling card. In the late 1980s, Tony Laithwaite, an English wine merchant, hired a team of young Australian winemakers to apply their expertise to the inexpensive grapes grown for French cooperative wineries. The approach was such a success, says Robinson, that it quickly “developed into a phenomenon with a long-term impact all over the world.” Among the innovations: minimal pruning and “soil slotting,” which adds nutrients by digging deep; obsessive hygiene, which recognizes that nasty microbes in picturesque old wineries are enemies of good wine; and labor-intensive 24-hr. harvests. Dubbed the “flying winemakers,” these experts-for-hire were suddenly everywhere. The fact that they were able to travel so extensively was also a function of geography: their idle season in the southern hemisphere coincided with harvest time in the north.

Blaxland, to be sure, would be proud to know that his Qantas-hopping descendants are following his lead. Back in the 1820s, did the English wine judges of the Society of Arts suspect they were attending the birth of a revolution? Concluding their observations on Blaxland’s red, they offered this verdict: “It affords a reasonable ground of expectation that by care and time it may become a valuable article of export.” Just how valuable neither they nor Blaxland could ever have imagined.

–With reporting by David Bjerklie/New York, Lisa Clausen/Melbourne, Susan Horsburgh/London and Leora Moldofsky/Sydney

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