How a new generation of Australian winemakers are capturing a sense of place

It would be tempting to use the term “terroir” if it hadn’t been so derided by Australian winemakers suspecting a French ruse
September 12, 2017

Does a big Barossa Shiraz or a rich and oaky Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley come to mind when you think of Australian wine? If so, it’s time to think again. Things are changing on the Australian wine scene, reflecting a new generation keen to find a sense of place in their wines. It would be tempting, in this context, to use the term “terroir” (the specifics of soil and climate that give a wine its sense of place) if it hadn’t been so derided by Australian winemakers, suspicious that it was a French ruse to maintain a sense of mystery and superiority.

Relations between the French and Australian wine worlds are intriguing. The sudden rise in popularity of Australian wines in the 1970s and 80s made the French take note. They quickly introduced better practices: greater care in the vineyard and cleaner winemaking in the cellar. After a while, the pendulum swung back and consumers wanted to try new, exciting wines from France, putting pressure on the Australian market. Now Australian winemakers share aims with their French counterparts, leading to experiments with grape varieties, growing techniques and the use of natural yeasts; and the results are impressive.

The most pleasing of those I tasted recently was the dry red Surrey Pinot Meunier from Murdoch Hills. Usually blended with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Champagne, I was delighted to find this grape being used on its own. Pale crimson, it had an intoxicating nose of tender red fruits. Its palate was fleshy yet silky, wearing its 13 per cent alcohol very easily. An intense flavour of wild strawberries combined in the finish with gentle wood and earth notes—a lovely thing.

As for Chardonnay, there are fine examples of this new style of Australian winemaking. One is D’Arenberg’s 2015 Lucky Lizard Chardonnay from the McLaren Vale. By not going through malolactic fermentation it is fresh and lively with notes of pear and quince, a clear nod to the wines of Chablis. Another Burgundy-style Chardonnay is the 2016 Vasse Felixe from the Margaret River.

And yet, despite the wine worlds of France and Australia being tangled, there is a very different wine culture at work in each. In Australia, there is the tradition of the “cellar door,” a tasting room attached to the winery where the public can taste samples of each wine and buy there and then. Often these are furnished with a bar counter behind which knowledgeable staff will pour you a tasting glass and tell you how the wine tastes. Personally, I like to taste and think before the discussion, and so I prefer the French system where, having arranged a rendezvous, the winemakers take you into their cellars, pour their wines and wait for you to comment. It is a judgment not of the wines but of how knowledgeable the visitor is and it can be a bit intimidating. But it will often lead to a wonderful discussion.

That said, there are changes in the cellar culture too. I was delighted to discover the hipster tasting room at Alpha Box & Dice: a metal shipping container decked out like an antique furniture store with winged armchairs and distressed framed mirrors. The staff played their part to a tee. Our pourer, Russell, wore yellow corduroy trousers and a sleeveless red jumper over his check shirt and bow tie. As he poured samples of Nebbiolo, he reeled off a list of flavour descriptors. I managed to staunch the flow by asking questions, at which point Russell revealed just how passionate and knowledgeable about wine he was. Trained at the Australian Wine Research Institute, he was just as happy to converse about the sensory characteristics of the wines and the techniques used to make them, as he was to pour and encourage the young crowd to explore their palates.

This is how to engage the new generation of winemakers, and it may be here, once again, where Australia has something to offer France.