Falling in Love Again
[img_assist|nid=706|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=100|height=100]Here is the text of the speech I delivered at the National Wine Centre in Adelaide on the evening of November 10th: a public lecture at the end of the Wine 2030 Research Network's 'Blue Sky Day'. Many thanks to the international collaborators who helped me with the background research -- and thank you, too, to the Wine 2030 Research Network for the invitation to speak. Once again, apologies for any repetition involved for those who have followed my blog entries. New furrows will be ploughed soon ...
Falling in Love Again: Australian Wine and the International Press
Good evening, everyone. My aim is to take you on a journey around an image – the image of Australian wine presented to curious drinkers by writers and communicators around the world.
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It’s a three-stage journey. I’ll begin with an overview -- a consideration of what wine writing has been historically as well as in the recent past, and what it might become in the future.
The second stage is to look at Australia’s present-day image among the world’s wine writers. Has it really gone, as Jancis Robinson suggested in the Financial Times in April, from “revered to reviled”? If so, why? And how might Australian wine producers set about rekindling that reverence? What seductive arts are required to make the world’s wine press fall in love with Australia again?
The third and concluding stage of the journey, which in practice will mesh with the second stage, will be one non-Australian wine writer’s view of the road ahead. I’ll suggest a few of the stratagems which, as I see it, might help put Australia at the centre of quality-wine discourse around the world.
So let’s set off on the journey, beginning with a short overview of the purpose and role of wine writing.
It should, I suppose, be called oenography, oenos being the Ancient Greek word for wine -- just as pornography consists of writing about harlots, biography the writing of a life, and hagiography writing about holy people. Wine is as ancient as any of these. Indeed there is rather more about wine in the first great book of the Western literary canon than there is about either harlots or saints. Homer’s Odyssey is a partial biography of the wily Odysseus, tracking his long and eventful homecoming from the Trojan Wars. Its warmest and most nourishing moments are invariably accompanied by wine. Wine features in one of the most famous of all Homeric metaphors – the ‘wine-dark sea’. Prosperity and security are symbolised in the book by the storage of wine, and the safest and most mature of sensual pleasures in the book is the consumption of wine mellowed by time.
[img_assist|nid=707|title=Time moves on|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=150]Everyone making wine in Australia today, in other words, is a direct descendant of those nameless Greek winegrowers, 2,800 years ago. Everyone who enjoys wine is doing so more or less in the same spirit as Odysseus: restoration after exertion, respite from care, the celebration of peace and prosperity. All of this matters and I’ll return to it later. What I’d like to emphasise just now is that wine is ancient and time-honoured and a source of joy and astonishment, to the extent that those great writers familiar with it have always wanted to make it a part of their narratives.
Homer’s descriptions of wines tell us that some wines were better than others, some were sweet, and some were smooth and harmonious: useful colour to pack a narrative. Wine writing or oenography in the modern sense, as the systematic and descriptive exploration of its subject, really begins in the 19th century, with the French writer and merchant André Jullien. Even then, it remains a relatively arcane area of knowledge until the second half of the twentieth century. That’s when the floodgates open – as a response to the great expansion of vineyard plantings away from their European heartlands, and as a response, too, to the breaching of the castle walls of wealth and privilege within which the consumption of wine was formerly immured.
Outside wine-growing areas, the drinking of good or fine wine had traditionally been the reserve of a wealthy European elite. Now it’s a unique, life-enhancing pleasure to which every citizen of the world aspires -- save practising Muslims and other principled abstainers. That could be called a cultural revolution. Indeed the revolution is still very excitingly underway, with the early development of the vast markets of Asia. Wine writers are the secular evangelists of this expansion. The global financial crisis has brought some short-term contraction in consumption, but in the mid-term it’s hard not to be optimistic and see the revolution resuming.
Why are wine writers necessary? Why are there so many of them? Wine consumption has expanded inside the developed and developing worlds alongside car ownership, computer use and mobile telephones, yet none of these requires a vast army of explicators and commentators in the way that wine does. Tea and coffee are more widely drunk than wine, yet there are far fewer tea and coffee writers than there are wine writers.
The reason is threefold. Wine itself is complex: by far the most sensorially complex food or drink item purchased in finished form by human beings. Complexities need elucidation.
The second reason is that those complexities are very nearly an end in themselves, a complement to use, rather than the straightforward modus operandi constituted by the handbook for a new car, computer or mobile phone --or indeed by a recipe book. Wine knowledge, in other words, is quasi-academic; it is a pleasure and pursuit of its own. The elucidation is not self-evident. It requires elucidators.
[img_assist|nid=708|title=Steve Pannell makes a point|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=200|height=200]And the third reason is the cultural wealth and prestige of wine. New consumers come to wine knowing nothing about its intricacies. What almost all new consumers know about wine, though, is that it has a long history within European culture; that kings and emperors have prized it; that it plays a pivotal symbolic role within the Christian eucharist, the central ritual of the world’s most widely practiced religion; and that the most sought-after wines of all are absurdly expensive. This creates curiosity, reverence and fear in equal measure. The hands of guides are therefore sought by all those who want to engage with wine intellectually as well as sensually. That means a significant minority of wine drinkers.
It follows from all this that wine writers matter to those growing and making wine. They matter to varying degrees, though. Wine writers tend to be small-producer champions. Branded commodity wine doesn’t need wine-writing endorsement, because it’s already created its own custom via distribution, marketing and advertising efforts. Wine writers therefore spurn branded commodity wine. Whatever they say about it -- either for or against -- has little impact on sales. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive the wine, the more significant the participation of wine writers becomes to that wine. Few Yellowtail drinkers have ever heard of Robert Parker. Few Latour drinkers have not heard of Robert Parker. If Australia wants to create a sustainable presence in the world wine market, then it needs to have a bigger share of the fine-wine market than it does at present. It’ll be hard, if not impossible, to attain that without the enthusiastic involvement of the world wine press corps.
What, though, do wine writers do? How do they communicate, and how will they communicate in the future? I mentioned “the systematic exploration of its subject” a little earlier. That role is an educative one.
Educating wine writers are those who furnish information in an attractive and intelligent manner, empowering consumers to make their own journeys of discovery in wine. This is the classical wine-writing model, exemplified, for example, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. This tradition still exists, though it is far from universal now.
It’s under threat from three sides. Books written in this tradition are expensive to originate, and in any case the great reference works already exist and if regularly updated retain their relevance, so there’s less demand for new educative work than there was two or three decades ago.
Newspaper articles written in this tradition are now distrusted by many newspaper features editors, who tend to regard wine knowledge as by definition abstruse, nerdy and cliquey, and prefer what they perceive to be the consumer-friendliness of the shopping-list article.
Thirdly the popularity of scores as a wine assessment tool suggests that many consumers prefer to cash a straight tip rather than rise to the challenge of educational empowerment.
Educating wine writers are on the retreat, then.
What about critics? Those, in other words, who speak trenchantly and sometimes savagely about the works offered for their consideration. Theatre critics, cinema critics, literary critics, art critics and music critics have all long taken this approach, and it’s a role recently assumed with some enthusiasm by restaurant reviewers. Who are the really brutal, savage wine critics?
There aren’t any. Wine writing must often look to outsiders like a vast parade of puffery. Hard-edged, Naderist consumer criticism was certainly part of Robert Parker’s early project, and helped make his reputation, but the trashing of inflated reputations has been less in evidence in The Wine Advocate in recent years. Most wine writers spend the majority of their time distinguishing between the good and the excellent via adjectival enthusiasm and often minutely nuanced differences in uniformly high scores. They all know that the truly bad exists, but comprehensive demolition jobs on bad wines or bad ranges of wines is rare. Individual wine writers ignore them; magazine tasting write-ups simply list them as also-rans. It’s death by polite hush.
In my view, this reluctance to criticise among wine writers is a failing. Honest, well-argued criticism is useful if uncomfortable for those producing wines which are less good than they might be. Without criticism, though, improvements will be slow in coming, mistakes will be perpetuated for vintage after vintage, and success may elude the ambitious. Let me quote a Chán (Zen) Buddhist saying to you. “Small doubts lead to small awakenings. Great doubts lead to great awakenings. No doubt leads to no awakening.”
A failure to differentiate the genuinely outstanding from the worthily indifferent also lets consumers down in that they’re given no help in refining their tastes. Great critics in other fields help shape the aesthetic world of their readers, thereby enabling them to derive ever-more profound satisfaction from their reading or listening. Wine critics should do likewise.
To be fair, readers rarely complain about this lack of critical edge in wine writing. Why not? In part precisely because the general enjoyment of wine is unsophisticated; most drinkers like most wines, and what they are really after is a boost in confidence in their buying.
Another major difference with the critical fields I have just mentioned is the chaotic multiplicity of the wine offer. Those reviewing the latest films have a dozen or so to tackle at any one time, each of which will almost instantly become common currency, accessible to every reader. This is rarely true of review-worthy wine, where availability is often problematic. Spending time blaming rather than praising wines might logically be regarded, under these circumstances, as a waste of time.
In practice, there’s also a distinction to be drawn between the domestic presses of wine-producing nations and the international wine press. Those living within a wine culture are always going to feel it necessary to play, to some extent, a supporting or defending role for that culture, especially when it’s perceived to be under external attack, or undergoing market difficulties which threaten local livelihoods. Those based across the border or over the seas will not. This is understandable. Indeed it’s inevitable, though it can also be dangerous: a simplistic patriotism means critical failure, and one’s country is sometimes best served by critical honesty, even at the risk of being branded unpatriotic or disloyal.
Most wine-writers, of course, get the chance to be international abroad even if they have to be domestic at home. There are also corresponding advantages in terms of depth of knowledge and intimacy of understanding in domestic wine writing which can never be matched by those visiting internationally. The two, in other words, play different roles, and both are valuable.
Money, finally, should also be mentioned in this context. “You’ve all got your noses in the trough” said Dave Powell of Torbreck to me recently. It’s hard to argue with this. Wine writing is poorly remunerated for most of those practicing it; yet the research required is costly and takes time. This research is underwritten by wine producers, which is another factor working to blunt the critical edge of most, if not all. The cost of flights, hotels and hire cars is very different from the price of a movie ticket for the cinema reviewer or a concert ticket for the music critic. It’s hard to see a solution to this problem, since an ethically impeccable code of practice would require writers to buy every tasting sample and pay for all travel expenses. No wine writer in the world does this. Such a code of practice would make wine writing a career for immensely wealthy entrants only. Few would consider this desirable.
The answer to the question about what most wine writers do, therefore, is in practice a small amount of education and a small amount of criticism, but a large amount of informed, independent promotion.
The best promote their subject with intelligence, scholarship, modesty, a measure of critical detachment and some literary verve. There are therefore sound reasons for canny wine marketers to regard the press as a vital if unpredictable ally.
[img_assist|nid=710|title=Chewing the Clare cud at Mitchells|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=300]What, briefly, of the future? The internet has not yet changed everything, but it will. I met one of Australia’s finest wine writers in the Barossa a few months ago. Appropriately enough, it was dark and misty, well before dawn. He’d been out for a walk; I was just off for a jog, a bad habit I have since abandoned. We talked a little, but the mist was penetrating and neither wanted to impose pneumonia on the other. “What none of us can work out,” he said to me as we parted, “is how this job will still exist in eight years’ time.”
What did he mean? Well, anyone can become a wine writer on the internet, and a sizeable minority of today’s most prominent wine writers have indeed emerged in that way. Internet wine content is overwhelmingly free to the user, supplied by enthusiasts with remunerative day jobs. The best of it is outstanding in quality.
There’s some scope for subscription wine writing on the internet, but it’ll be a field with a small number of big winners and a large number of losers. It’s conceivable and perhaps likely that the future of wine writing will be a few key professional internet voices obtainable in part by subscription, and a large amount of free babble from enthusiastic and sometimes talented amateurs.
Let’s now move on to the second stage of our journey, by taking a look at Australia’s current wine image and asking what Australia needs to do to re-engage the international press. In preparing this lecture, I contacted wine-writing colleagues in the key export markets of the UK, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada, and have incorporated some of what they told me in what follows.
First of all, the present crisis should be seen in the context of Australia’s astonishing export successes over the last 15 years, rising from a value of 260 million dollars to 2,700 million dollars. No success lasts forever; it was inevitable that, sooner or later, there would be a correction. Australia had, to use a well-worn indigenous metaphor, become the tall poppy.
The press tends to exaggerate everything. In a way, this is its job. A balanced, measured account of the state of affairs is the job of academics and historians. Balanced, measured accounts rarely make for exciting reading. The press has the double role of informing but also entertaining the public by selecting and highlighting both bad and good news in a compelling and vivid manner. Given the choice, bad news is always preferred to good.
The press exaggerated the achievements of Australia in contrast to the perceived failures of its rivals during the boom years, and it may now be exaggerating the defects of Australia in a time of crisis. It’s just too much fun not to take the scythe to the tall poppy. The fact is that Australia’s wine offer is certainly no worse than it was when exports were powering ahead, and in many respects it is much better. What has changed are five factors.
First of all, markets have matured. Australian wine is no longer novel.
Secondly, Australia is struggling with structural overproduction, drought and a high cost base.
Thirdly, the world’s financial system has just undergone an earthquake which makes consumers feel poorer, and poorer consumers look for cheaper wine.
Fourthly, the Australian dollar is problematically strong.
And the fifth change is that Australian wine just isn’t fashionable in the way that it was a few years ago. Maintaining fashionability requires the careful nourishment of an image. Beaches, barbies and koalas don’t cut it in the way that they used to.
One of the most frequent comments I encountered when researching this issue with international colleagues was that Australia was “solid but not progressing”, in contrast to rivals like Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Spain. The preponderant image of Australia is “technically faultless, safe, even boring and impersonal. The wines appeal for their price/quality ratio and approachability rather than authenticity and personality.” The country’s overall image is, in the words of one Canadian journalist, of “one big, overwhelming, overbearing entity”. Everyone I spoke to lamented the domination of big brands on export markets, and suggested that as a consequence Australia’s marketing was now, and I quote, “stale and very corporate”. The irreverent, blokey image of Australian winemakers was also seen as a handicap, and betrayed a failure to engage seriously with the fine-wine project.
There was a lot of concern that, in the words of Jancis Robinson’s April FT article, Australia was “increasingly synonymous with cheap wine”, exemplified by the recent surge is bulk exports. A majority of those I surveyed felt that that the more expensive Australian wines available in their markets simply upped the levels of flavour concentration and oak without offering greater subtlety and finesse, and without offering true regional diversity.
A particular complaint from North American markets were that Australian wines were either cheap or expensive, with few mid-priced alternatives. In North American markets, too, those cutesy critter labels and high levels of residual sugar in supposedly dry wines were seen as populist stratagems which the public was tiring of. ‘Undignified’ was one word used in this context.
There’s perhaps a greater diversity of offer from Australia in the UK market, so I approached one UK fine wine trader for his opinion. “The big problem with the reds,” he told me, “is that they’re definitely stuck with the image of being too concentrated, too alcoholic, show-stopping, point-winning wines that are not actually enjoyable to drink. They’re one-dimensional in style with no complexity or subtlety. Power seems to be their main purpose. These wines are not made to be drunk and savoured with food.” This was reinforced by views from North America. “I like to drink my wine, not eat it,” said one Canadian journalist. “We long for lighter, drier, more food-friendly styles,” said another, pointing out that existing Australian wines were “not food-friendly at all.” Red wines were repeatedly criticised as being jammy, hot, lacking elegance and finesse and being “easy to tire of”, while significantly whites were generally thought to be “more interesting and better value than the reds.”
Here’s a final quotation. “What I want in my wines is sense of place, character and a refreshing quality. I dislike heavy, alcoholic and oaky wine, which is something one often sees in high-priced Aussie offerings.” This was a Scandinavian journalist speaking, but the comment was typical of almost all of those I surveyed.
I can hear – or I suspect I can hear – two thoughts circulating in the hall at this point.
The first, among those of you who work for big brand owners, is that these may well be the opinions of a random bunch of sample-spoiled wine journalists, but they aren’t the thoughts of consumers, who still enjoy Australia’s offer enough to have bought 750 million litres of it over the last year.
True – now. But not necessarily true tomorrow. Wine journalists are high-profile surrogate drinkers, and they lead consumers. If Australia doesn’t change its offer, these criticisms will be consumer clichés in 10 years and Australia may not be selling 750 million litres a year overseas any more.
The second thought, occurring to all those of you who know the latest developments in the Yarra and the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania and Frankland and Beechworth, is that this picture is wildly inaccurate of developments on the ground. Indeed so – but these are the wines which are out there on shop shelves in Stockholm, Calgary, Manchester and Pittsburgh. Having many of Australia’s most innovative wines produced by those who have no need, desire or ability to export is unhealthy, and misrepresents Australia’s wine culture.
So – how does Australia improve matters? What might make the world’s wine press fall in love with Australia again, and perhaps more enduringly this time?
In answering this, I am going to draw on my own experiences here as well as the comments of my international colleagues. Some of these remarks are critical of current practices, but I should stress that no disrespect is intended. I’ve met some of the deepest wine thinkers in the world in Australia. Australia’s technical research is unmatched. I’ve many great wine friends here. We share a common vision – of Australia as not simply a supplier of consistent, inexpensive, accessible wine, but as a nation producing unapologetically complex, refined and harmonious wines which reflect their ancient land in aromas and flavours of unique and compelling sensual beauty. That’s the only route to a sustainable wine future for Australia, and my remarks have no other intention than hastening the journey.
Let’s begin this stage of the journey by looking at the way Australian wine producers present themselves to the world.
Many people in this room, I suspect, consider themselves to be working in something called the wine industry. Many of you will be on wine industry committees. Every state has its own wine-industry bodies. Students at the Waite are groomed for the wine industry; the magnificent AWRI serves the wine industry. The word ‘industry’ seems to spring to mind whenever two or three individuals working for different wine companies in Australia are gathered together for any purpose.
[img_assist|nid=711|title=Agriculture and craft -- not industry|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=247]Now let’s leave Australia. Millions of consumers around the world will buy bottles of Australian wine this year, and almost none of them will think of that wine as an industrial product. If they did, they’d probably purchase a different bottle. They want an emotional purchase of a carefully crafted agricultural product with more or less cultural resonance. This is quietly true even for those with little or no wine knowledge buying widely distributed brands, and is forcefully true for those with some knowledge buying Australia’s finest wines.
Wine, to repeat, is an intoxicating liquid made from particular grape varieties in a unique place on earth by skilled individuals during an always singular season. Emotionally and culturally speaking, it’s more or less the same stuff formerly drunk in hard passes by Homer’s sailors, by plague-striken pharaohs, by cold-eyed Napoleon, by battle-weary Churchill; it is capable of transformation into the blood of Christ; and people pay a fortune for it at Christie’s or Langton’s or Sotheby’s.
You cannot say this of the washing powder or the toilet paper sitting alongside the wine in the Tesco shopping trolley. Both are genuinely industrial products with no cultural resonance. Wine is special. Wine is agricultural. Wine is skill. Wine is finesse. Wine is pride. You will rarely if ever see the words industry and wine linked in any way in French, Italian or Spanish culture. Australians are understandably affronted when others accuse them of producing industrial wine. Yet what else should those working in a wine industry produce but industrial wine? You might object that I’m playing with words. I’d retort that words matter. Much of twentieth-century philosophy was devoted to showing that words matter so much that reality itself proves on examination to be a verbal construct. Dispensing with the notion that you are all working in an industry would change the atmosphere, unfamiliarise the routine, open up new communicative and creative avenues. The press are the consumers’ antennae; they would quickly notice the difference, and applaud.
Now let’s turn to another conceptual issue. It’s widely accepted that much of Australia’s glorious export success over the last two decades has been due to the creation of something called Brand Australia. This is true. It was a simple, comprehensible and attractive notion from which all drew some benefit. It’s worked well.
Nothing, however, works well forever. Remember the Canadian journalist, complaining about Australia’s appearing to be “one big, overwhelming, overbearing entity”? Brand Australia is faceless and formless. It’s beginning to morph from asset to liability. It is time to at least begin dismantling the monolith. French wine producers are often criticised for failing to create a Brand France and instead dissipating their efforts with an excessive focus on regional individuality. That is also true. France needs to be more Australian, but Australia needs to be more French.
Once again, the press have been the first to notice the decay of the Brand Australia concept and its corporate echoes. One of the British journalists I surveyed for this lecture applauded the creation of the First Family initiative -- in that it will help “give Australian wine back a human, less corporate face. Australia needs its producers to get back out there and combat that corporate image.”
The third conceptual issue I’d like to address here is one that I feel much more ambivalent about making. Australia’s great strengths as a wine-producing nation have been based on its pragmatic approach to viticulture and winemaking, and the wealth, depth and rigour of its scientific scrutiny of these issues. The world, and not just Australia, has benefited from this scientific achievement. I’ll deal with some of the practical implications of this shortly, but what I’d tentatively say at this point is that Australia’s image is not best nourished by science and pragmatism alone.
Science and pragmatism are often focussed on the ideals of efficiency, of cost-cutting and of labour-saving. These are ideals about which both press and consumers are suspicious, since -- sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly – they’re regarded as compromising quality. The purer research strands in wine science are both admirable and fascinating, but there needs to be a counterbalance of poetry, of art, of craft and of intuition to feed the sense of astonishment and wonder which lies close to the heart of wine’s appeal. When everything is explained, the sense of wonder often evaporates. This is particularly important for the press, most of whom are arts graduates themselves, and all of whom are looking for stories to fire their readers’ imaginations.
I’m not asking you to be untrue to the pragmatic Australian genius, since it is never a good idea to deny your own nature.
Nor, of course, am I calling for pretentious waffle, and I’m certainly not asking you to stop your magnificent research efforts.
I see no reason, though, why those with a background in humanities or with an artistic streak shouldn’t make wine here as they do elsewhere. I see no reason why Australian wine shouldn’t have its poetic truths as well as its scientific ones. Anything about Australian wine which ignites the imagination will quickly be echoed and amplified in the international press.
Now let’s move onto practical matters: vines and wines. I’ll deal with messages about these things first, and then with the things themselves.
I’m here to discover Australia’s wine-making terroirs. I’ve made seven research journeys to wine-making regions so far, and I’ll embark on the eighth, to northern Victoria, early tomorrow morning. Everywhere I go, I ask about local soil and climate conditions, and the way that vines respond to these. Some of those I’ve met have researched these matters; many haven’t.
It’s still rare to find any kind of consideration of terroir in press materials or on websites.
Yet terroir is the fundamental, unduplicatable asset of any wine estate; it is the core purchase made by the proprietor; and, in the longest term, the quality of the terroir is what will decide whether a wine venture has a multi-generational wine-producing future ahead of it, or whether it reverts to pasture, wheat or lucerne in a few years’ time. Many wineries have no press materials at all nowadays, relying exclusively on their websites, and most winery websites focus on personality, lifestyle, cellar-door purchase and wine reviews which serve as endorsements.
There is nothing wrong with these things, since websites are for consumers too, and consumers are reassured by lifestyle and endorsements. The press shares an interest in personalities, but the press is bored by lifestyle and cellar-door purchase, which are ubiquitous in the wine world. And the press is positively irritated by the wine reviews of others. The more glowing the review, the greater its irritant effect. Most of us want to make up our own minds, free of the influence of others. An over-reliance on endorsement also suggests a lack of self-confidence on the wine producers’ part. It’s rare to find any wine reviews at all on the websites of Europe’s most distinguished wine estates. Instead they concentrate, with varying degrees of detail, coherence and success, on history, site and practices.
In preparing messages for the international press, then, remember that terroir – in other words sub-surface geology, soils, aspect and climate – is always of interest, as is detailed winemaking information. If you don’t yet know much about your terroir, it’s probably worth finding out, since in the long run it’ll underpin the success or the failure of your enterprise.
Naturally these remarks apply primarily to single-site or single-estate wines. Locally blended or cross-regionally blended wines present other communicative challenges. The growing interest shown by the press in the source of the component parts of the blends for Grange and its competitors, though, underscores the terroir message. Even in cross-regional blends, it seems, terroir will out.
The counterpart to all of this, generically speaking, is Wine Australia’s Regional Heroes programme: that’s how Australian wine as a whole is talking about terroir. This has been much discussed by others, so I won’t produce further global warming of my own on this issue, save to say that I think it is an essential stage in the evolution of Australia’s highly successful history of generic campaigning. It’s also the campaigning strand most likely to interest the international press. Falling back on a simple Brand Australia message will guarantee that the international press either ignores or bashes Australia.
There is, though, a word of caution to be made here. ‘Regional heroes’ will only work if the bottles deliver what the marketing materials promise: genuine regional differences. If the press and consumers go in search of these and fail to find them, then the campaign will be criticised or derided.
Let me just resume the fundamentals here.
For the sake of argument, let’s divide all wines into two categories: wines of place, and wines of method. The division is not an absolute one: it’s hard if not impossible to eradicate place entirely from a wine, and method is often a response to place – as, for example, in Champagne, where unpleasant and unpalatable raw materials are rendered delicious by method. Equally, no wine of place is ever made without method. You’d end up with vinegar.
But it isn’t method, finally, which distinguishes the world’s greatest wines from one another; it’s place. Perfectly adapted grape varieties, in other words, growing in a wide range of distinguished sites. The world’s greatest wines, in that sense, are all regional heroes.
If you want to make wines of this sort, there is only one real challenge: growing great grapes. Most of the effort and most of the investment should go into that end. Harvesting the grapes in a distinguished site is the marriage ceremony in the relationship: from that point onwards, you owe those grapes fidelity. There’s work involved: a series of careful physical interventions, and the closer to a caress, the better. But the moment that you intervene chemically, you’ll begin to efface the sense of place in that wine.
I’m not saying you should never adjust wine must in any way; I’m deeply opposed to fundamentalism of all sorts. I’m simply expressing the ideal. The closer you can get to that ideal, the better.
Nor, by the way, am I saying it is the only ideal. Australia’s success has been built on consumer-friendly wines crafted by forceful intervention. A very good case can be made for continuing on that path. Regionality, Wolf Blass told me when I interviewed him in July, is “absolute nonsense. We are a blending country and we will be staying that way. Whoever has brought up this idea that there has to be an original vineyard is what has brought down the industry in Germany. The Australian wine industry is as solid as it gets. There’s nothing wrong with it.” He may be right.
But if you want to make wines of place, there has to be an intimate relationship with the vineyards and an absolute respect for the raw materials. I read many back labels here which proclaim this, but rather fewer of the wines inside the bottles truly deliver on that promise. Let’s tackle a few of the issues involved.
[img_assist|nid=704|title=Prue Henschke's biodynamic compost|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=300]First of all, it is obviously logistically hard for many of those making Australian wine to have a close relationship with the vineyard. Large-company winemakers oversee 200 or more vineyards every vintage. Small vineyard owners know their vines intimately, but often resort to using contract winemaking facilities. Current pricing pressures make it very hard for everyone growing wine grapes here to practice perfect viticulture. Quite the opposite: current pricing pressures seem likely to lower viticultural standards and strain the relationships with growers to breaking point. This is the most difficult and dangerous challenge of all for Australia at present.
I don’t pretend that there are any easy solutions here, but a race to the bottom is certainly not the answer. Good quality wines of place, which don’t necessarily need to be expensive, have a much more durable market appeal than cheap commodity wines. The international press longs to write about good quality wines of place from Australia, whereas it has little interest in Australia’s commodity wines.
Let’s move on now to consider non-interventionism and issues connected with the structural components of Australia’s postulant wines of place -- namely alcohol, oak, tannin and acidity.
Misjudged acid addition is, for me, the defining fault of the Australian wine industry, and I regret the fact that it is rarely if ever viewed as a fault here. I’ve tasted hundreds of wines since my arrival here which I truly feel are defaced by acidity. Potentially fine wines which would, in other words, have been much, much better with much softer, less assertive levels of acidity. Lower acid levels would lead to flavour profiles of greater delicacy, expressivity and finesse, and a much subtler sensual appeal. One of the most frequent criticisms of Australian wine from both consumers and the international press is of homogeneity, and no single factor tends to reinforce this sense of sameiness more than acid adjustment as it’s currently practiced here.
Acid is by far the most forceful component of wine flavour. The idea that high acid levels are necessary to ensure wine ages well is a myth, as a study of the great vintages of Bordeaux will quickly show. Excessive acidity, indeed, can be an iron mask, clamping a wine rigidly in place and suffocating its potential articulacy.
There are, in my view, two compelling reasons why acid levels in Australian wines should come down. The first relates to wines of place. Different places deliver different natural levels of acidity in wine. The acid level of a red wine from Saumur or Chinon in the Loire valley will be very different to the acid levels of a Châteauneuf du Pape. No one in Châteauneuf would dream of correcting the acid levels in their wine so that they equated to those of a Saumur or a Chinon. To do so would be to rob the wine of its Châteauneuf character. This, though, is happening all the time in Australia. Any forcefully acidified wine will never be a wine of place. The alternatives are either not to acidify or to acidify very gently, or to plant a different, later-ripening variety in that place.
But don’t rush to the latter conclusion. Low-acid wines can still be balanced wines, and low-acid wines need not, given adequate cellar hygiene, be unstable or brett-prone.
The second compelling reason why acid levels in Australian wines should come down relates to wines of method as well as wines of place. It’s simply that Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of acid balances. Look at the world’s emblematic fine wine: red Bordeaux. High-acid red Bordeaux was a symptom of the region’s shoddy viticulture, over-high cropping and misjudged harvesting dates during the 1960s and 1970s. Ambitious contemporary Bordeaux tends to have TAs of between 4.5 and 5.2 expressed as tartaric, and pH figures of 3.6 and up.
It’s not just fine wine, either. The British supermarket Waitrose provides analyses for most of the wines it shows at its bi-annual press tasting. At the Spring Tasting this year, the average pH and TA for red wines for evident competitor nations averaged out as follows. Average TA for Spain was 4.8, for Portugal 5, for California and South Africa both 5.5, for Argentina 5.2 and for Chile 4.9. Australia’s figure was 6.3, or 1.2 g over the average for those six competitors, and there are many red wines from Australia whose acidities crest 7 g/l. That is a huge and dramatic difference.
Around half a gram of that can be accounted for by the fact that Australian practice is to titrate to pH 8.2 whereas other countries titrate to pH 7, but no more than half a gram. If we look at the pH figures themselves, they were 3.59 for Spain and for Chile, 3.65 for California, 3.68 for South Africa, 3.7 for Argentina and 3.74 for Portugal. Australia’s was 3.53.
[img_assist|nid=703|title=Go Easy|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=184]I am, by the way, not the only member of the international press to feel that change is overdue in this respect in Australia. When we travelled here in January, Qantas had interviewed Jancis Robinson for its in-flight magazine. In reply to the question as to what Australia most needs to work on, Jancis replied “More subtlety and naturalness – fewer additions of acid and tannin.” And when the fine British taster Michael Schuster wrote up, in Decanter magazine, a Coonawarra versus Bordeaux tasting of the 2005 vintage, he too bemoaned (and I quote again) “that edgy wire of acidity pressing on a deliciously plump, fleshy fruit” in the Coonawarra wines.
I realise that forceful acid balances are popular among Australian consumers, and it’s also true that they taste exciting to new consumers, and particularly to those whose palate expectations have been shaped by the often violent flavours of soft drinks and confectionary. The international fine-wine palate, though, finds these flavours challenging and indigestible, particularly when allied to high alcohol, lavish oak and residual sugar.
I know that alcohol levels are a source of concern to Australian producers, and they’re often mentioned by the international press and consumers, too. Personally, I find much of this concern puzzling, at least theoretically. Wine can be impeccably balanced at 20% abv, as vintage port is. Fine white wine can be impeccably balanced at 17.5% abv, as Jerez fino sherry is. What matters is the wine’s internal harmony and equilibrium: the relationship between its component parts. If high alcohol is a problem here, it’s because it’s often allied to other alien inner forces in the wine, such as copious oak or added acidity. High extraneous acidity, in particular, seems to intensify the burning effect of alcohol on the throat. With lower acidity levels and a more natural flavour profile, I’d suggest that the alcohol would be less palpable, though I accept that this may seem counter-intuitive.
In many Australian growing locations, including many of Australia’s most distinguished sites, alcohol levels of 14 per cent or more will be inevitable if you’re to harvest ripe fruit from those grape varieties currently planted there. These alcohol levels, in my opinion, will be part of the natural expression of the wine and will be unobtrusive and unproblematic -- providing the wine is made from high-quality grapes sensitively vinified to provide flavours of appropriate concentration and mass.
Present-day alcohol-phobia, indeed, is leading many Australian producers to harvest prematurely. There are a few odd and interesting exceptions, but the vast majority of the world’s finest wines are made from fully ripe grapes. Harvesting under-ripe fruit robs the wine of potential personality, articulacy and sensual appeal, just as harvesting over-ripe fruit will rob it of inner life, sap and vitality. I realise that this debate is an eternal one and accept that the devil dances in the detail, but for me finished alcohol levels per se should never be a factor in the picking decision, and skinny wines will not pave a satisfactory path to Australia’s fine-wine future. Completeness, harmony and beauty of aroma and flavour are what counts.
I mentioned mass a short while ago. Both texture and mid-palate are vitally important in the construction of the kind of satisfying, digestible food-friendly red wines which Australia is presently accused of failing to supply. Once again, my suspicion is that Australia is beginning to slip behind its global competitors, though it’s harder to provide evidence here since tannin levels and sources are rarely cited either here or in Europe.
Anecdotal evidence from Bordeaux proprietors, though, suggests that tannin levels have never been higher there than during the present decade. However later harvesting dates and the gentle handling revolution in Bordeaux mean that the tannins in a vintage like 2000 or 2005 are a significant contrast to the tough, ungrateful tannins which some of you will remember from Bordeaux vintages like 1975.
Contemporary Bordeaux tannins are textured, ripe and soft, that profile often being reinforced by lees contact during post-fermentation handling. Advances in Bordeaux are keenly followed in both Chile and Argentina.
Many medium and full-bodied Australian red wines, by contrast, lack any sense of this palpable tannic presence and mass. Light, powdery or dusty tannins, sometimes from extraneous sources, are no substitute. Once again, in the absence of textured, softly chewy, earthy, ballasting mid-palates, the acid component of many red wines assumes an undue and often shrill structuring importance. Ripely textured mid-palates would obviate the need for much of that acidity.
Much the same is true for oak. In general, if the annual new oak budget of Australia was cut by 70% and the savings spent on careful viticulture, gentler handling techniques and longer, softer macerations, there’d be a ripple of applause from the international press gallery. I didn’t talk to a single journalist who failed to criticise the overt oakiness still prevalent in many commonly exported Australian wines. It’s no substitute for genuinely textured middle palates and, like alcohol, it combines badly with excessive extraneous acid levels to make for brutal flavour profiles.
Let me summarise all this. I’d say that the one quality most likely to make the international press fall in love again with Australia is greater diversity. This is achievable either via genuinely regional wines of place -- which cannot help but be diverse if they are faithful to their raw materials -- or via blended and other wines made to new, more contemporary stylistic paradigms. In general, a softer, subtler, more sensual appeal is what most would like from warmer regions, and balanced refreshment from cooler ones. Natural articulation is vital to both.
If you can’t create natural balance in the vineyard, try later-ripening varieties. Everyone I spoke to would like to see more risk-taking and adventure in both viticulture and winemaking from Australia; the international press doesn’t, in general, share the Australian concern for consistency and technical correctness, though they’re seen as appropriate for branded-wine production. The switch in emphasis in Australian research away from fault exclusion and towards the creation of quality is great news, and much should be made of this in communications with the international press.
I don’t want to finish before alluding to another love affair: that between Australia’s large producers and large retailers in the UK and elsewhere. It must have seemed a marriage made in heaven during the good years; now it seems a dangerous liaison, abusively exploitative, perhaps ultimately a fatal attraction. Even Mr Blass saw fit to rail against “the cruelty of companies like Tesco and Sainsbury, and Walmart in America, and the big chains in bloody Europe” who are “crucifying the industry”.
The more a country’s wine offer is dominated by large players who cannot afford to disengage with dominant retailers, the more vulnerable that country will be. This is a situation the international press follows closely and understands well, and their sympathies lie entirely with the producing sector as opposed to the retailing sector. How it will resolve itself depends on the internal structural dynamics of the free market, which -- as we now know -- are as unpredictable as most other forms of seismic activity. Remember, though, that the press is your ally in this struggle, and any initiatives you come up to circumvent the damage caused by abusive retailing will be supported. Remember, too, that this is a story in its own right, and if you feel you have been badly treated and have nothing further to gain in a relationship, let the press know.
I realise that those involved in growing and creating Australian wine at present are feeling beleaguered, so I’d like to finish this lecture with a series of reasons to be cheerful.
Australia has a great wine future. It seems likely if not certain to remain the leading wine exporter of the Southern Hemisphere, and the popularity of Southern Hemisphere wines continues to rise in the North. The vast Asian market is just beginning what seems likely to be a long, steady growth phase, and Australia’s perfectly placed to occupy the centre of that particular stage.
In terms of terroir, Australia’s potentially the most diverse of all Southern Hemisphere nations. A huge amount remains to be discovered, both in those regions which are only two or three decades old at present, and in other parts of the country which may not even be planted yet. Meanwhile, the great adventure of sub-regionality is now well-underway in Australia’s established regions.
Most of my critical remarks in this lecture relate to medium and full-bodied red wines, since those seem to be what the international press finds least satisfactory at present, yet they are a major plank in Australia’s export offer. There is, of course, an avant-garde working in Australia with these wine styles in the kind of ways I have outlined. This creative core is producing outstanding results, though the international press does not yet seem to be widely aware of its existence. Lighter bodied reds, and particularly those based on Pinot, are another recent success story for Australia, and strike me as being every bit as interesting, as well as more stylistically diverse and arguably more refined, than those being produced at present in other Southern Hemisphere nations. The problem is that these wines are, almost axiomatically, produced in tiny volumes, and they haven’t yet received the coverage they deserve. All of these wines are true regional heroes, deepening our understanding of the scattered terroirs in which they come into being.
The levels of achievement with sparkling wines and with white wines, as some of my international colleagues suggested, are often outstanding, with Australia unquestionably producing some of the best Chardonnay in the world outside Burgundy, and some of the best Viognier in the world outside the Rhône. The popularity of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc both here and elsewhere has obscured these successes to some extent, but the craftsmanship and subtlety of Australia’s best Chardonnay and Viognier will give them an enduring appeal which seems likely to elude the more speciously attractive Sauvignons, no matter how well they are selling at present. Once again, almost all of these wines carry a regional stamp.
Both Riesling and Semillon have clearly differentiated regional profiles of high quality and enduring appeal, though both would benefit from a greater diversity of stylistic approaches. I am a great enthusiast for plantings of new varieties in Australia, and some of the most exciting wines I have tasted during the last nine months have come from Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Saperavi. Continuing experiments, despite the Albariño/Savagnin setback, are essential.
[img_assist|nid=705|title=Varietal experimenters Robin and Jimmy Day|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=605|height=175]
There is, in other words, everything for Australian wine producers to hope for and to believe in, despite current difficulties. Australia, as you all know already, has great vineyards; more will emerge in the years ahead. There is no reason, apart from the threat posed by global warming, to assume that these vineyards will not still be making wine in 1,000 years’ time, just as vineyards in Burgundy and the Loire were making wine 1,000 years ago, and vineyards in Italy, the Rhône and Germany were making wine 2,000 years ago. To be involved with the start of this long adventure is extraordinarily exciting. Crises will come and go almost as often as vintages, but when skilled human beings engage honestly and sensitively with great vineyards, something fine, unique and enduring is the result.
That is the story the world’s wine press wants to tell, and I look forward to providing my account of it.