Australia revolutionised the world of inexpensive mass market wine back in the 1990s with their simple, fruity wines. Since then, due to high production costs and competition from Chile, South Africa and even Argentina, it has been forced to reinvent itself as a producer of quality wines grubbing up many redundant vineyards in the process. Previously deriding the concept of terroir over high-tech wine making techniques, it is now marketing wines at prices approaching the best wines of France and the rest of the Old World. We travel to South Australia and Tasmania to find out if the Aussies are kidding themselves or if, as many in Australia believe, they will one day dethrone France as the world’s leading producer of fine wines.
Looking around Adelaide one gets the distinct impression that only the young live here. Perhaps this illusion comes from the the sheer number of students, the Fringe Festival at this time of year or the numerous up-upmarket bars and restaurants full of youngsters with milky white skin even though it’s summer and the temperature outside is in the mid 30s. Adelaide with its ultra clean pavements, free trams and friendly inhabitants is considered the wine capital of Australia. A short drive away will find you in the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Eden Vale and Adelaide Hills where tourism and wine have merged seamlessly – all very upmarket without a paper napkin in sight yet managing not to feel the least bit elitist.
Before we venture out of Adelaide, we visit the National Convention Centre, an impressive modern building next to a beautiful river walk where 180 wine producers have gathered to show off their wines. The number of wines on offer for free tasting is overwhelming. The highlight of our tasting is a small producer called Redman from Coonawarra whose tiny production of Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is exceptionally good. We also come across our old friend Skillogalee Riesling which I have recommended here before. We try their 2016 vintage but as we anticipate it’s still too young and the flavours will need a year or two to develop. I am still drinking the 2010, which being mature, has developed the kerosene aromas wine geeks look for in mature Riesling.
The Barossa Valley
Driving out of Adelaide on the long, straight roads, we notice that everyone is keeping to the speed limit. It would seem that in spite of unlimited space, Australia, in these parts at least, consider two-way roads good enough. For the visitor though, the double articulated lorries coming towards you at speed can be nerve-racking. The landscape is treeless and agricultural and the only kangaroo we see lies dead by the roadside. Imperceptibly at first, the landscape begins to change and soon the dry wheat plains give way to eucalyptus trees and immaculate vineyards. We notice the grape harvest has yet to start and the vines are laden with tight bunches of black fruit.
We are soon in the Barossa Valley, home to 150 wineries, most beckoning you to try their wines or even have lunch or dinner at their cellar doors. Which is exactly what we do when we stop at Charles Melton, a highly regarded producer of Shiraz, the region’s speciality. Here, we try several of their wines and have the best chicken ballotine we have tasted. Barossa wines tend to be big on flavour, very dark and high in alcohol. They are inevitably very fruit-driven and quite different from traditional European wines though we now see many fruit-driven wines in Spain, especially in Ribera del Duero. I do feel that Barossa, like many modern European wines today, sacrifice complexity in their search boldness and that initial, attractive first sip. For me at least, I find it difficult to have more than one glass before my palate is exhausted. I admit that after five days of non-stop tasting in Barossa, I was dreaming about traditional Riojas, Bordeauxs and lean Pinots from Burgundy. I do get the distinct impression that slowly, the tide is turning and producers in Barossa are now talking about restraint in their white wines. Perhaps one day they will talk about restraint in their reds as well. We get an unexpected surprise at Seppeltsfield.
Seppeltsfield, one of the oldest wineries in the Barossa, is best known for releasing a 100 year old wine every year. They make fortified wines some resembling sherry, others more like tawny ports. They grow a wide range of grape varieties including Palomino, Jerez’s grape par excellence, which seems to flourish here. Seppeltsfields guarantee you can taste your birth year no matter how old you are. You also can lunch or dine at their terrace restaurant Fino on seriously inspirational dishes. The surroundings are magnificent and make one realise the untapped potential of the Andalucían wine industry. What took us by surprise though was the sheer quality of their wines, particularly their sherry lookalike Apera Flor DP116. This flor-induced wine was stunning and very, very complex. This gets a perfect 20/20 score from me.
About an hour and half from Barossa lies Clare Valley whose dry Rieslings are grabbing attention around the world. Last month, I wrote about Grosset Polish Hill Riesling. Since then, we have tasted a couple of their vintages – 2010 and 2015. Both are seriously good wines, complex and very long finishes. I would rate them 18/20 without any hesitation. Skillogalee Riesling is also very good and their lunch under their old olive tree is a must.
Fermentasian at Tanunda
Returning back to the Barossa Valley, we end up in Tanunda, a beautiful but small Australian town full of Lutheran churches and single storey buildings with tin roofs. We book for dinner at a small Vietnamese restaurant – Fermentasian. Whilst the food was good, it’s wine list was exceptional. The list, which runs to 90 pages, is a wine geek’s dream and includes all the great and the good of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Austria, Germany, Italy and presumably Australia. Anybody with an extremely generous budget wanting to put together a classic wine cellar would be well advised to have a look at this list, it’s online.
And finally, we report on the Meat Craze taking Australia by storm. It would appear that cows, like humans, can become addicted to alcohol. The Bovine Alcohol Dependancy Unit (B.A.D.U.) is working with cattle farmers in the Adelaide area of Australia where beef cattle are systematically fed grape residue left over in fermenters after grape juice is converted into wine. High alcohol grape residue, if fed to cattle, is said to make finest beef, known as Vinemeat, whose price now exceeds even that of Japanese Wagyu beef. Australian high-end restaurants now offer gourmets Vinemeat Cabernet Sauvignon Filet or even Vinemeat Chardonnay Rib Eye where only single varietal grape residues have been used in rearing the animals.
The Australian Government, under pressure from animal activists who oppose feeding alcohol to cattle, has promised to provide further funding for the Bovine Alcohol Dependancy Unit run by the Department of Animal Diseases at the University of Adelaide. When asked to comment on the latest Government funding, Dr Avril Folley, the unit’s director, said she was delighted but saddened at having to deal with increasing numbers of aggressive and noisy cows, the result of increased use of alcohol in animal feed.
words | Andrew Licudi AIWS