Australia's Floundering Future
Desert Chardie & Kiwi Savvy-B?
by PHILIP WHITE
At the beginning of the 1980s, there was a rush of blood to somebody’s head. It was a question, more than an idea. It went around the wine industry like mildew: “What will the new Chardonnay be?”
Funny thing was, Chardonnay was only just beginning to be planted in Australia. This was rather strange, given this country’s blind addiction to copying the great wines of France, and the fact that the greatest white wine of Burgundy had been Chardonnay for centuries. Former Mt. Isa Mines storeman, Len Evans, OBE, flushed, no doubt, with magnificent Burgundian Chardonnays he’d pillaged from the astonishing cellar of his mentor, the surgeon Ray Healey, was running around the country saying that Chardonnay would be “the vanilla of the Australian wine industry”.
This would surely have drawn a derisory guffaw from any Burgundian, who would have known the most common white grape of Burgundy, the humble, but rarely discussed Aligoté, was the true vanilla of that region. Chardonnay was a very rare, and incredibly expensive nectar for gods. It grew there where it snows each year, and surely could never thrive properly in the Australian desert, non?
LEONARD P. EVANS OBE: VANILLA ESSENCE DRESSED AS DESERT CHARDONNAY, PREACHING FROM A FAKE VINEYARD AT A BIG WINE THIING SOMEWHERE.
But Australian winemakers were cockily assured that the Evans-driven commercial Chardonnay rush would be huge and ongoing now that they’d suddenly discovered the variety. They knew that Evans, as the dictator of the Australian wine show system, and Chairman of and shareholder in Petaluma, the ascendant cool-climate Chardonnay church of Brian Croser, would ensure that favoured converts would be duly rewarded with bulk showhall bling. But they had no real idea of how to make it: very few of them had even bothered to visit France, and Croser’s knowledge of the grape had come largely from California.
Nevertheless, the biggest companies of the day - we derisively called them the PLO: Penfolds, Lindemans, and Orlando - were delighted that Evans appeared to have solved a huge problem for them. They hated that pesky bushfly, Wolf Blass, whose cabinet was full of show gold, whose Yellow Label Riesling hovered around the number one slot as far as national bottled wine sales went, and who prominently preached that Chardonnay would never work here, as he never grew any and had the peasant Riesling growers sewn up. Evans depended on the big guys' support for him to retain control of the wine shows, which were his toys, in a way. I have already called him a dictator, so I must now qualify: like Qaddafi, he needed big allied support to maintain his fiefdom. Chardonnay could be theirs, whatever it tasted like. Just trust Evans.
Chardonnay was hardly a new idea. In the dawning of the South Australian colony, 140 years earlier, Sir Samuel Davenport (right) scribbled in his ampelography (grape variety encyclopedia), that Chardonnay would be THE white grape for the colony. This mighty volume of hand-coloured etchings resides somewhere in the State Library of South Australia; I have held it and stroked it. I seem to recall it was a gift to him from a French professor of viticulture. We think Big Sam planted some Chardonnay at freezing Norton Summit, and maybe at his first vineyard at chilly Macclesfield, but will never really know. He certainly had no ambitions to grow it in the desert.
David Wynn claimed his cuttings for his bold high country vineyard at Mountadam were not stolen from Murray Tyrrell’s little Chardonnay vineyard in the Hunter, as ran the court titter, but were propagated from a single vine found near Norton Summit at Marble Hill, the 19th century summer residence of South Australia’s governors. As the vine, and the ruins of the mansion were cindered in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, we’ll never really know.
MARBLE HILL IN 1900 ... THE OLD RUINS ARE FINALLY BEING RESTORED TO THIS ORIGINAL SPLENDOUR, BUT WE'LL NEVER KNOW WHETHER OR NOT DAVID WYNN FOUND A CHARDONNAY VINE HERE TO PROPAGATE THE 'NEW' VARIETY FOR HIS MOUNTADAM VINEYARD ON THE HIGH EDEN RIDGE.
Mountadam became Australia’s first seriously-planned big Chardonnay vineyard, as Wynn commenced work there in 1969, and planted it through the ’seventies as he acquired the land - I think he eventually bought great slabs of five separate farms to get the ridge he wanted. Evans and Croser followed at Piccadilly; and, bankrolled by New Guinea coffee king Bob “Wild Oats” Oatley, Philip Shaw plunged in with the Rosemount Roxburgh Chardonnay vineyard in the sub-tropical Hunter. As a butcher’s son who made wine as a kid, Shaw had been a student at Scotch College under the head prefectship of the ersatz silvertail Croser who then had no idea that he’d soon be foregoing his blazered grazier ambitions to become a winemaker. There was no love lost there.
Neither was there love lost between the Evans/Croser axis and the Wynns, David and his son Adam, who was just back from duxing the Bordeaux University winemaking course, and kicking huge Chardonnay arse in the true Burgundian style. Knowing how the show system worked, and precisely who worked it, the Wynns would never enter their Chardonnay in the competition; and as there was an even bigger chance that his wine would not be recognized, neither was Croser silly enough to enter. There was far too much at stake.
But Shaw would have a go at anything. His obese lumberjacked butter-and-peach Roxburghs were easily recognised blind by the judges, who were happy to deck them with gongs on the grounds that at least they came from Evans's beloved Hunter Valley, and repeated awards made the judges look consistent. Roxburgh Chardonnays soon became the darlings of the Sydney Harbor boulevardiers, fizzhags and even The Neville Wrans for a decade, or at least until they all switched to Cloudy Bay, and thence to Kiwi SavvyBs. Any Kiwi SavvyBs. The extreme opposite of Philip Shaw's Rosemount Roxburgh Chardonnay.
Anyway, feverish with expectation that they’d discovered a grape that would become a sort of blanched equivalent of the omnipresent Shiraz as far as piss-easy farming, shelf space, and the ongoing occupation thereof was concerned, rebellious Ocker plonkies were soon wondering about the next thing after that.
Sauvignon blanc very quickly became the buzzword. With their cunning influence over Iain Riggs (left), the young winemaker at Hazelmere Estate in McLaren Vale, Croser and his partner, Dr. Tony Jordan, were instrumental in trialing the first “grassy” Sauvignons blanc which were much talked about, despite the Vales being exactly the wrong place to grow it. Robert O’Callaghan, aided by his backer-to-be in Rockford, Woodstock's Doug Collett, had made some in the late ’seventies at Angle Vale, but these were quaint, rustic, quick-to-age-and-soften golden wines from hot area fruit, and bore little resemblance to any other Sauvignon blanc known.
It wasn’t until David Hohnen and Kevin Judd, on the advice of Stephen Hickinbotham, began the Marlborough, New Zealand, SavvyB explosion that Australia began scrambling around for something to replace the grape that replaced Chardonnay. By then, the Hohnen-Judd Cloudy Bay enterprise was already showing pretty much once and for all that there was little chance of Australia ever matching the Marlborough region’s quality. Or quantity, for that matter. Marlborough grew SavvyB as easily as Australia grew Chardonnay and Shiraz: like weeds.
The most recent attempt at creating a new fashion was the utterly scandalous Alboriño episode. Somebody, somewhere decided this unknown Portuguese white would be the next rocket to catch, so suddenly scrillions of cuttings were propagated at the government’s CSIRO vine nursery, distributed, and planted. Fascinated, as a fan of scarce wines like the Burgáns Rias Baixas Albariño 2006 imported by Coles, and the grander Paso Señorans Rias Baixas Albariño 2007, I tasted the first local releases keenly. I felt obliged to suggest that they seemed much more oily, greasy and coarse than the elegant versions I’d liked, and put the difference down to Australian ignorance of how the Iberians grew and made the wine. It had taken twenty years for them to learn how to make Chardonnay, after all.
What followed was one of the most telling examples of how bereft of intellectual, gastronomic and moral exactitude the wine racket can be: when the antipodean Alboriño turned out to be Traminer, the coarse sherry grape of Jura, they adopted another of its monikers, calling it Savignin in the vague hope that there’d be some rub-off from the phenomenal success of Marlborough’s Sauvignon blanc, and carried on as if nothing had happened. So nothing else happened, and Australian Savignin is already being hidden unnamed in other wines, just as occurs with the previous tragedy, Viognier. Which is being hidden in Shiraz, and never mentioned.
DAMIEN TSCHARKE, BAROSSA WINEMAKER, BECAME AN EARLY ALBORIÑO EVANGELIST, AND PLANTED IT BIG TIME, ONLY TO THEN DISCOVER IT WAS IN FACT TRAMINER, THE JURA SHERRY VARIETY, WHICH IS NOW MARKETED AS SAVIGNIN, AND GOING NOWHERE FAST. LIKE ALL THE OTHER RUBES CONNED IN THE DECEPTION, HE NEVER SEEMED TO REALISE HE WAS MAKING SOMETHING THAT WASN'T WHAT HE INTENDED.
The weekly Key Report is essential reading for winebiz aficionados: it’s the best wine industry newsletter in Australia, and a reliable antidote to ramblings like mine. It is written with admirable acuity by Tony Keys, of Bangalow, NSW, and is distributed only by e-mail. Last week’s edition rekindled the question earlier put to Keys by Leanne de Bortoli: what will be the next big thing?
The wine industry’s response to this very important question is breath-taking in its fey sparsity. ‘Is it possible to predict the next big thing?” Keys (left) enquires. “Recent history would seem to steer us towards the negative; at some point in the 90s the world appeared to have an insatiable thirst for Australian Chardonnay. As more was sold, more was planted and part of the crop was stretched with other varieties. Anything and Chardonnay would sell in the UK because the consumer focused in on the word Chardonnay and not whatever was the major variety. How ironic was it then when decent single variety Chardonnay was coming to the fore and excess oak had, in the main, been tamed? New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc started moving up the popularity ladder and the zealous pattern of over-planting resulted in oversupply and falling prices.’
Malbec, like Argentina; Chenin blanc like South Africa; Sauvignon blanc on steroids; Chablis-like Chardonnay; cool climate Chardonnay; Clare Valley Riesling; Canberra Riesling; Pinot gris; Vermentino; Arneis; Semillon; Semillon-Sauvignon blanc blends, and even Merlot were the suggestions. Jesus.
photo LEO DAVIS
Richard Gawel, the Wine Research Institute’s glamour sniffnerd, suggested Grüner veltliner, not mentioning that Hahndorf and Prospect Hill are probably the only places ideally suited to it, climatically, in South Australia at least.
If you can't sell Riesling, forget Grüner, I say. Your site will be wrong.
Brian Miller, formerly PR/marketing flack at Mitchelton, Seppelts, Richard Hamilton and Andrew Garrett, very wisely mentioned quality, and was the only contributor to do so, which may explain why he’s now in the jewelry business.
‘Just make better Chardonnay’ Miller said … ‘At a CSIRO conference years ago I was asked, "Is it hard to sell wines made from new grape varieties?" I replied it's hard to sell wines made from old grape varieties. Semillon, Riesling, Cabernet etc.’.”
And then came a telling and astute essay from a retailer using the name Jason.
‘I think you can best predict the next big thing in whites by looking at what it won’t be,’ he wrote. 'The fact that many customers still believe Riesling is automatically sweet rules it out as being the NBT. This has been the perception for decades, and if it hasn’t changed by now, I seriously doubt it ever will.’
He went on to weave his scholarly way similarly through Chardonnay, Semillon, Pinot gris, Chenin blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon blanc mixed with Semillon, Alboriño and Colombard, deftly explaining what is least likely to happen.
Jason concluded thus: ‘I don’t think there will be a next big thing in wine. What we’ll see in the wine industry is the same thing we’re seeing in the music industry and many others, which is continuing fragmentation into niches. The main stream will still catch on to what the "cool kids" are doing several years after the fact, and a year or two after that certain elements of the industry will finally catch on and graft or plant (or force growers to) in time to contribute to an oversupply. The producers who will do best at avoiding cyclical factors will be the super-premium producers of boutique wines, and those who like to adventure on a budget will find an ever-growing number of cheap imports to play with. We’ll still see variation in sectors and varietals, but I doubt it will be anything as dramatic as the Marlborough SB factor, at least not within the next decade. Beyond that? Well, that’s the Next, Next Big Thing.’
So there you go. Only one person, Miller, spoke simply of better quality, and Jason was the only person to mention blends.
Personally, I'm confident flavour will have very little to do with it, outside a very vague parameter. Australian winemakers have always exaggerated the amount of flavours their gastronomic intelligence is capable of conjuring, let alone their capacity to identify the required varieties and their ability to grow them and make them with any sensitivity: most of their wines taste dreadfully similar, regardless of variety. To be a really big thing, the grape will have to grow well nearly everywhere, which points to Sultana, until recently Australia’s single biggest wine grape.
And then nobody mentioned the sound, and look of the name we’ll need to replace the very cool words Chardonnay – easy to pronounce; sounds posh – and Sauvignon blanc – a little more angular, but similar. Semillon will never sell particularly well, simply because people aren’t comfortable pronouncing the word, which is partly why Hunter winemakers passed it off as Riesling until the Europeans forced us to outlaw the practice in order to sell wine to them. And anyway, since the PLO and Evans blasted Blass's Riesling off the top of the charts, that old Hunter deception would never work now.
Given its ratty presumption that grapes like Chardonnay will perform well in the Australian desert, I don’t believe the wine industry can be depended upon to discover the Next Big Thing through gastronomic imagination, oenological science or viticulture.
Linguistics and typographics are what we have left, and these too are rarely considered, and never even vaguely understood by winemaking graduates. Remember what Tony Keys said: ‘Anything and Chardonnay would sell in the UK because the consumer focused in on the word Chardonnay and not whatever was the major variety.’
If I were, say, Len Evans OBE reincarnate, I’d be hiring a writer to devise a brilliant new word to stick on bladders and bottles of a blend which may never be revealed or stuck to but could be constantly grown and consistently manufactured in everything from refinery to wheelie bin. And I mean a writer capable of coming up with a name like Coca-Cola or The Beatles.
There’s nobody with such writing skill within the wine racket, and very few who could invent such a blend, regardless of the vast array of varieties available to them. These Roseworthy/Adelaide/Charles Sturt grads are NOT parfumiers. Just smell them. And read their writing? Holy shit.
All the words we’ve seen this business come up with lately show this. From the confoundingly verbose Chester Osborne's Scarce Earths (unpronounceable, geologically misleading and plain friggin stupid - what's he on?) to the entire industry's Apera (a pair a what?), they simply have not got it, and they probably never will.
d'ARENBERG'S CHESTER OSBORN, LEFT, DE FACTO PRESIDENT OF THE McLAREN VALE REGION, DRIVING AROUND AUSTRALIA PRETENDING TO BE GAY FOR CHARITY ... WHAT'S HE ON? SCARCE EARTH?
Peter Nixon, the National Fine Wine Manager for Dan Murphy’s, recently speculated in The Key Report that there might be a switch of category from wine to cider, which was prophetic. The clever lads at Lobo Cider in Lobethal have already sewn up Perry, the most common name for pear cider, but then, their cider is the best I’ve tasted in Australia, so I know they’re clever. And they make fine cider, not wine.
I can think of only one popular/cult winemaker in my neck of the woods who’s moving towards cider: Justin McNamee of Samuel’s Gorge. Whether or not he’s doing it in response to Peter Nixon’s powerful self-fulfilling prophecy, he’s made one he calls Justin Cider. As a work of genius this remains equal to the late Wayne Thomas, who was offended when the powers that be refused him permission to call his beautiful fizzy red Black Slut. Thommo’s son, Andrew, has followed his dad with Kiss Shiraz.
As far as straight names go, Roxburgh wasn’t too bad, but that vineyard’s a coal mine now.