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Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

01 October 2012

Australian wine feature for LCN

This article was first published in the October 2012 edition of Licensed & Catering News (Northern Ireland trade publication).

"Australia is still holding on to the hearts, minds and purse strings of the wine buying public in the UK and Ireland, where Australian winemakers command about a quarter of both off-trade markets, although less in the on-trade. This is largely due to the long-term success of popular brands, easy-going fruit-laden styles and a seemingly laid-back approach to wine marketing and culture in general. The Australian wine industry is trying to move on from cliched images of “Aussie Chardy or Cab Sauv with a barbie” via a campaign (called A+ Australia) highlighting its more premium wines, varied and distinct wine subregions and lesser-known grape varieties. This 'new' direction has its critics in Australia, who think this strategy is too narrow and turns it back on the volume brands that made Aus wine famous. But, in a continuing climate of sharp price promotions in the supermarkets and stiff competition from other wine producing countries, where else can Australia go?

Petaluma's Hanlin Hill Vineyard
Clare Valley
Taking a quote from the catalogue at Wine Australia's big Dublin tasting (back in March) serves as a handy introduction to two white varieties, which deserve more attention and distribution: “Riesling has a bad reputation with wine drinkers, Semillon has no reputation!” The standard of Australian Riesling is, however, generally pretty high and it can deliver plenty of flavour and food-friendly satisfaction; but it's still not easy persuading consumers to buy a bottle. Certain regions stand out in particular for this once-scorned variety – e.g. Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills (both in South Australia) and Great Southern (Western Australia) - and wineries such as Grosset, Petaluma, Lehmann, Plantagenet, Mt Horricks and Leasingham. And they're making wines for anyone who likes their dry whites with real character, from zesty easier drinking now to serious styles destined for bottle-ageing and Riesling die-hards. The catch is, inevitably, price, as most of the ones mentioned range from around £8 to over £20 retail; so they'd fit more comfortably in an upmarket independent wine shop or on a restaurant list.

Coming back to reputation-free Semillon, there was no shortage of curiosity at a special tutored tasting of this varietal at the above-mentioned event, which was full of eager sommeliers, wine merchants and journalists. The dry whites (and one sweet) on show dated from vintages 2007 to 2000, a rare enough dimension, and demonstrated what remarkable wines can be made from 100% Semillon in Australia, especially in the Hunter and Barossa Valleys and by certain wineries that really have mastered a distinctive style. The problem is perhaps, when dry, it often makes a rather uncompromisingly 'steely' and subtle wine, austere even, which doesn't reveal much without a few years bottle ageing bringing out complex quirky flavours. This makes them a difficult sell without a little explanation or endorsement, but again aged Semillon is a great food-pairing wine. Its typical very crisp acidity comes from early picking to preserve this age-bestowing freshness, which helps the wine blossom in bottle and also gives lighter alcohol levels of around 11% to 12% (something consumers are beginning to look out for). The line-up included pretty famous and widely-stocked names too - Lehmann, McWilliams, Tyrrell and De Bortoli – and offer better value than some Rieslings on a similar quality level.

As for red wines, Australia has gained a strong following for its Shiraz/Syrah; and the current challenge is to better promote all their different regional styles. While there's something endlessly thrilling about those classic rich meaty Shirazes from the Barossa Valley (St. Hallett, Two Hands Wines, Yalumba, Lehmann) or McLaren Vale (Chateau Reynella, d'Arenberg, Mitolo, Wirra Wirra), there are also plenty of the more restrained peppery styles around from Australia's 'cooler' climate regions, sometimes blended with a splash of the aromatic white variety Viognier. Areas and wineries to look out for include Yarra Valley (Innocent Bystander, De Bortoli) and Heathcote (Greenstone) in Victoria, Adelaide Hills (Shaw & Smith), and Mount Barker (Plantagenet) and Frankland River (Ferngrove) in Western Australia.

There's also an exciting, and logical trend towards making 'Rhone' or 'Mediterranean' style red varietals and blends, with increasing interest in planting more Spanish, Italian and Portuguese varieties in hot regions. This isn't totally new of course, given that there's some 100+ year-old Shiraz and Grenache in Barossa and McLaren. Certain winemakers are getting to grips with Mourvèdre too, also known as Mataro or Monastrell, on its own or in a blend with Shiraz and Grenache; while others are experimenting with Tempranillo or Sangiovese. Tasty examples of some of these styles are produced by Turkey Flat, John Duval, Willunga 100 and Brown Brothers."

Richard Mark James

Lots more on Australian wine here.

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