Column: On the Grapevine
A busy start to 2019 saw us travel Down Under on the hunt for some new wines to import. Specifically, we visited two wine regions: McLaren Vale in South Australia, just south of Adelaide, and the island of Tasmania.
Apart from some glorious weather, which is always a good reason to escape our winter, it coincided with the beginning of the harvest in some vineyards, where white grapes such as Riesling were being picked. It was great to visit two distinctly different regions to get a feel for the country and its diversity of wines, cuisine and culture. Packing in many wineries, as well as several varietal tastings organized by the regions, meant we were able to taste through hundreds of wines as well as getting a good insight into some of the current vintages and initiatives, something that is always harder to assess from home.
The Australian wine industry is a significant contributor to its economy through production, employment, export and tourism. It is the world's fifth largest exporter of wine with approximately 780 million litres a year going to the international export market and only about 40 per cent of production consumed domestically. It is also interesting to note that the Australians are the world’s biggest English-speaking wine drinkers, consuming 21.1 litres each annually.
Australia also has some of the oldest vines in the world. Many of Europe’s established vineyards were destroyed by disease (phylloxera) in the 1800s, and some of the only survivors were the vines brought to Australia. The oldest are to be found in the Barossa Valley, where one vineyard is still producing wines from vines planted in 1843. Yields are understandably low, but quality and concentration are high, as are the prices!
As we have all heard, Australia has had some of the highest temperatures on record in the past year, including a record 48.9C near Adelaide. (Thankfully just before we arrived.) Many reviews on the cause and effects of climate change, as well as illustrations of the specific challenges global warming may bring to the production of wine grapes and wine, have been written. All agricultural activity is dependent upon and interconnected to climate and weather and grapes are no different. Though grapes are grown worldwide, premium wine grape production occurs within very narrow climate ranges and my visit to two of the best wine growing regions illustrated this.
The problem Australian wine has faced in this country over the last few years is that far too much average, if not sometimes downright poor, wines are being sold; mass production to hit a low price on the supermarket shelf has taken its toll on reputation and understandably turned many away from the Australian wine category altogether.
What is quite apparent, however, is that as soon as you delve into the top regions there is much going on to reestablish beliefs. Some outstanding wines are being produced and much experimentation being undertaken, as winemakers discover grape varieties beyond what is deemed traditional to areas can be planted with great success. In many parts of Australia what we term the ‘Mediterranean varieties’ are making great headway. Regionality is becoming key.
After this gentle introduction to Australia, in my next article I will look at McLaren Vale in more depth, where they are undertaking some remarkable initiatives in sustainability - until then!