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Australian impressions

Some of Tony Brady's old vines at Wendouree, Clare, September 2004 

As I write I’m sitting in the departures lounge at Adelaide airport, having just finished a lightning fast visit to South Australia. This included four days in the Barossa, a couple in Clare and then a day in Adelaide. So, time to collect some of my thoughts and impressions.

  • The Barossa is undergoing a new lease of life. The thing to remember about the Barossa is that it is still dominated by small growers, who then sell their fruit: some wineries do own their own vineyards, but almost all are dealing with growers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has left the way open for winemakers without much capital behind them to make a start on their own, sourcing grapes and then borrowing winery space. This is what is happening at the moment: young, ambitious winemakers are starting to turn out their own homebrew, often in quite small quantities. Some of the wines produced are stunning, and it is good for the Barossa as a whole to have this dynamic undercurrent. They aren’t making especially big, oaky, soupy critic wines, looking for high ratings and a fast buck, but instead the inspiration is often trying to do the best possible with the grapes they’ve got. The results are frequently hugely impressive. It’s the ‘New Barossa’ style, not relying on toasty, spicy, roasted flavours from American oak, but incredible depth and intensity of fruit. 

  • I’ve never seen so many great old vine vineyards. Because South Australia is phylloxera-free, old vines abound. Virtually everything is planted on its own roots. Growers are often paid relatively little by big companies for old vine fruit, which leaves the way open for the young winemakers to come in and offer a better price and then do something fantastic with it. There are plenty of 100 year old plus vineyards in the Barossa, and a few in the Clare.

  • Winemakers are beginning to realize that Grenache is underrated. Old vine Grenache is compelling stuff. Mourvedre (or Mataro as it is known here) is also underrated. Both are fantastic when handled well.

  • Barrel characteristics and oak usage are under-researched and somewhat poorly understood topics. American oak generally sucks; locally seasoned American oak sucks even more.

  • The Clare is a beautiful region and makes stunning Riesling (you already knew that) and some brilliant Cabernets. The Shiraz is pretty good, too. I didn’t visit many producers, but had a great time with Andrew Mitchell, Jeffrey Grosset and Tony Brady. One of Clare’s claims to fame is that they really kick-started the current screwcap revolution in 2000. Because no one in Australia was offering screwcappet bottles of the right sort of quality, they had to club together to import 250 000 (the smallest viable quantity) from Pechiney in France. This collaborative effort set the ball rolling with the effect that last year there was some heroic number of screwcapped bottles used in Australia – off the top of my head I think it is around 200 million.

  • Synthetics aren’t dead. I visited Nukorc’s facility in Adelaide. They are one of the two current leading players in the synthetic closure field, most of the others having fallen by the wayside a little. They use a novel one-piece extruded design and it works pretty well. And it’s cheap. Impressive product that might be a better option that screwcaps for a large segment of the wine market.

  • The AWRI is doing some fantastic research. I spent some time (not enough) with several of their researchers and came away very impressed. Lots of good information, and a few book chapters will have to be expanded.

  • I think I might be right in saying that Aussies are probably among the world’s nicest people – at least the people I met in my travels. This was my third time here, and I was overwhelmed by peoples’ generosity of spirit and down to earth, open attitude. There’s a refreshing pragmatism. I also heard a good amount of utterly unprintable gossip. Thanks are especially due to all the winemakers and scientists who took time to see me, and for Richard and Wendy Gibson, and Andrew and Jane Mitchell who invited me to stay in their homes.

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