Andrew Polmear

Getting a handle on Australian wines

There are a lot of reasons to feel well disposed towards Australian wines. They led the world in introducing modern wine-making techniques. They introduced the screw-cap and invented the bag-in-box with a tap. They were the first to call their wines by the names of their grape varieties and their marketing has been brilliant. And at first it’s easy to like the wines. They don’t seem capable of making bad wines, and if you pay something between £5 and £10 you get a mouthful of huge fruit from the reds (usually Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon) or oaky vanilla if it’s white (almost always Chardonnay). But after a few bottles you find you only drink them round the ‘barbie’ or you start to look for something more; and that’s where the difficulties start.

Dividing French wine-growing areas up is easy: top left is the Loire, top right is Champagne and Alsace; middle left is Bordeaux, middle right is Burgundy; bottom left is the South West and the Languedoc, bottom right are the Côtes du Rhône. Then try the same thing for Australia and you find you have 114 registered GIs (Geographical Indications) ranged along the coast from just south of Brisbane in the east to the Adelaide region in the South, with another cluster around Perth in the south-west. You may recognise names like Hunter Valley and Barossa Valley but you’d have to be a professional to know where Tumbarumba is and what the wines are like. And you get no further forward when you scrutinise the label of the bottle in front of you, because all it usually says about where it comes from is Wine of Australia.

Australian WineTo make progress you have to understand two things. Firstly, most Aussie wine sold in the UK is blended from vineyards that may be hundreds of miles apart. They think nothing of blending wine to make the taste they want. Inevitably that reduces the chance of a distinctive wine. It’s a brand. Secondly, even those wines made from single estates, and so capable of having a distinctive style that relates to their terroir, often don’t say that on the label.

So, apart from price, how can you tell which one to buy? It’s likely to be good if there’s a GI on the label. These are only awarded to wine that comes from that area and conforms to the type and standard of wine associated with it. However, within one area there is nothing like the French system of classifications to guide you. Australians are just too egalitarian for that, and their wine-making is too young. Furthermore, some excellent wine is made which does not have a GI on the label, either because it’s from an area outside the GI system, or they have done something (eg used unauthorised grape varieties) that bars them from using the GI name.

If there’s no GI, you may recognise the name of the winemaker or the firm in the small print on the back label as being one from a previous bottle that you have enjoyed. If not, prepare to have some fun trying different makers, writing down their names and where they come from. The field is wide open compared to Europe and you will have many more surprises.

Andrew Polmear

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