[A word of explanation: I wrote this on the plane on the way home from Australia. I’ve held off publishing it until I’d finished my blogging about the trip, for the sake of continuity.]
I’m on my way home from a memorable visit to Australia. I often find it useful just to capture some of my thoughts as I finish a trip. Yes, it’s good to write a reasoned, thought-out, tidy piece of professional journalism. But sometimes thoughts, unfined and unfiltered, can communicate more effectively and grapple better with some of the issues a trip has raised, and help digest some of the experiences and highlights. There’s a place for both.
A wine trip like this has, at its core, people. Meeting new people; renewing old acquaintances. Usually more of the former. To borrow a sentiment from Saint-Exupéry, there is ‘no hope of joy except in human relations.’ To travel and meet others, with a common bond being the pursuit of interesting wine, is riches beyond anything that money can buy. True wealth lies in connecting with other people. And good wine facilitates such connections.
The measure of a good trip? In part, how much I have learned. Each day we see through fresh eyes, if we care to look carefully enough. The eyes are fresh because, each day, we are changed – if we are open to the process of change. Thus we awake with new eyes. I’ve been to Australia quite a few times now, but it felt different this time. Very different, and in a good way.
First, Rootstock Sydney. That festival would not have been possible a decade ago. No way. And whatever you feel about natural/low intervention/authentic wine, this was a very buzzy, exciting event with a lot of engaged consumers, and a lot of dynamic wine producers who care deeply about what they are doing. What I loved about Rootstock was its diversity. Lots of different wines. So many stylistic choices. I had a lot of fun here and learned a great deal.
Then visiting the Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley, Gippsland, the Yarra Valley and Macedon Ranges. So many exciting wines. So many really cool people. Such diversity. Such bravery on the part of the winegrowers who are willing to take risks in the pursuit of making something special. Critics might come here in a bid to taste all the wines, work very hard, generate lots of points scores and abbreviated notes, and leave without hearing the stories.
I first visited Australia in 1996, when I was young, and just developing a wine hobby. I wrote a spectacularly naive account of my visit that makes me cringe a bit, but which is still on my website. This was my first time in wine country, and this write up, which would have gone up on the internet in one form or another in that year, is wine-on-the-internet ancient history. The Barossa then was a pretty cool region but one that was very different to today. It was before the ill-fated period when Parker fell in love with Australian wines and started to create a strong US demand for them, in conjunction with Dan Phillips’ wine importing business. The big, bold, intense Barossa wines became highly sought after, heritage went out of the window, people making these wines became rich for a while, and then it all crashed.
I visited again in 2004 when I met up with a lot of young winemakers who were starting out with their own wines. This was a mini-revolution, and largely consisted of cutting back on oak use and making purer wines with more of a sense of place. I visited again a year later to see how things were progressing. This group became the Artisans of the Barossa, and I tasted many of their wines this week. But the Artisans are now almost the establishment, and a new revolution is in full swing, led by people like Tom Shobbrook and Abel Gibson (Ruggabellus). It’s very exciting to see these successive revolutions, and I think every wine region needs, to a degree, to go through a process of reinvention just to stay fresh. It’s not that we don’t celebrate the classics; more that we cherish any evolution that has at its roots the place. [Parker-style big, rich Barossa tells you more about the winemaker than it does the wonderful vineyards that this region possesses.]
More recently, in 2009 I visited Australia for the Landmark Australia tutorial. It was a full immersion into the fine wine dimensions of this diverse and accessible wine country. It was memorable, and it combined the old classics and also some of the newer style wines. But a lot has happened in Australia in six years. There’s been progress.
In 2012 I was here to judge the Melbourne wine show. Clearly, lots was happening with Australian wines, but back then all the trendy wine bars had lists that were almost exclusively European. Our good old English pound was worth just 1.6 Aussie dollars at this stage (now it’s over 2), and the strength of the dollar meant that Aussie wines were taking a hammering on export markets, and losing ground to the newly cheap European wines in domestic markets. This has now changed. Interesting Aussie wine – the sorts of producers who were at Rootstock, and a bunch of others who don’t meet the strict criteria but which show a sense of place – is cool domestically and the somms are now pimping them alongside the trendy European stuff. That’s great news. And agency dudes are sniffing around looking to import Aussie wines once again.
Three years later, we’re looking at a very interesting picture. While the likes of Penfolds are chasing the Asian markets, and the big companies are doing what big companies have always done, there’s a new dynamism in Australia. Yes, some of the Aussie journalists have lost their way a bit (I heard producers complain of too much $$$ to play, occasional ethical murkiness, and grade inflated scores) but there are still some good ones, telling the story of interesting wine to an interested world. I’ve visited and come away with an amazingly positive impression of what is going on, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. The future is bright.