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Frontier of dineing
Australian Wine

Discovering culture

Along with opal jewellery and craft, wine is one of the few disciplines where Australia has a world renowned high culture. The best evidence of this is the response to Australian wine in England (the world's most objective wine market) where Australia is the undisputed market leader. Furthermore, Australian wine has been experienced great international expansion at a time when other wine-making countries have been suffering contraction. From 1990 to 2001 Australia's annual exports increased from 38 million litres worth $121 million to around 354 million litres worth $1.7 billion. This was a 10 fold increase in volume and a 14 fold increase in value. 

Science has been the secret to Australia's success, and the focus on science most clearly differentiates Australia from France, Australia's chief competitor. In Australia, winemakers must go to university and learn the science of winemaking. After graduation, they are expected to make wine in a foreign country in order to further develop their abilities. Once acquiring a vast body of knowledge, they return to Australia and further contribute to the local knowledge pool. The winemaker's knowledge is then tested in a variety of national wine shows where blind tastings are used to assess quality and award prizes.

Whereas Australian winemaking culture is anchored in science and allows the freedom to use it, French winemaking culture revolves around inflexible classification systems that define wineries as inferior and superior and make innovation redundant. In 1855, Bordeaux wineries were ranked in classes titled First Growth, Second Growth, Third Growth, Fourth Growth and Fifth growth. In 150 years, only Mouton Rothschild has been able to change its rank. (In 1973, it was promoted from Second to First growth.)

The Appellation label is another classification system designed to protect established French brands. The Appellation label was created in 1935 and has strict rules about permitted grape varieties, yields, alcohol content, cultivation, maturation practices, and labelling procedures. If a winemaker follows the rules of their respective Appellation, then they are allowed to use the Appellation label. If they don't follow the rules then they can't use the label.

By forcing all winemakers in a specific region to make wine in the same way, it becomes much easier for the region to become famous for a specific style. If the region is famous, then all the winemakers in the region also benefit. Furthermore, if each region is famous for a particular style, then different regions of France have no need to compete with each other. It is very much a group-first philosophy that allows all individuals in the group to benefit from the group's success.

Although the Appellation system helps marketing, the side effect is that it reduces quality. The system is incredibly harsh on innovation, and leaves no freedom for the winemaker to adapt techniques to deal with microclimatic variances from year to year. Basically, the French winemaker is nothing more than a robot following inflexible rules. There is no need for them to be educated. There is no need to learn new theories. No need to experiment. No need to worry about competition. In fact, there isn't even a need for French winemakers to clean their vats. The lack of cleanliness is reflected in many French wines, which taste of an extremely dirty winery.

Due to obvious problems with the Appellation label, in 1979 the French created the less restrictive Vin De Pays label. Although the VDP label allows some freedom for winemaking expertise, in the eyes of the French consumer, a Vin De Pay wine signals that the wine is of inferior quality. (Entrenched interests in the French industry work hard to maintain that perception.) Consequently, the Vin De Pay wine sells for a low price and so further reinforces negative perceptions about the label - to the delight of those who use the Appellation label.

Unlike Australia, France does not have a culture of national wine shows that allow new wineries to gain recognition. As a result, French wine bottles never display awards as do Australian wine bottles. Plain and simply, French wineries have no way of going up in status.

Faced with criticism that its winemakers are morons, and their classification systems are restrictive, the French downplay the role of expertise. They argue that the wine will be good as long as the grapes are good. Furthermore, they argue that France has the best environment for growing grapes. Admittedly, there is some truth in the boast. Good wine can't be made from bad grapes and over the centuries the French have learnt where specific varieties of grapes grow well. On the downside, France often suffers from rain during vintage. This causes the grapes to swell with water and become weak in flavour. Consequently, French winemakers are often forced to add sugar just so the wine can be made. In addition, France has a small range of growing conditions.

While France has significant problems with rain during vintage and a relatively narrow range of growing conditions, Australia has ideal and diverse environments for growing grapes. These include the Hunter Valley, Barossa Valley, the Coonawarra, Tamar valley, Margaret River.

Even though the average Australia's wine is superior to the French, marketing problems have sometimes prevented this superiority being recognised. One of the marketing problems has been with labelling. As recently as the 1990s, Australian Shiraz was sold under the label Hermitage in order to associate it with the region in France. Likewise, Hunter Semillon was sold under the label of Rhine Riesling in order to associate it with German whites. By labelling Australian wines after European regions, the Australians were elevating the European regions as the benchmark to emulate. By implication, the Australian wine was ranked by how closely it matched the European wines. It could never be superior, it could only be "almost as good."

In the early 90s, the European Union forced the Australian industry to stop trading off European names. Although some Australian winemakers were against the change, in hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened to the industry. Once the change was made, Australians started refining their winemaking culture. Not only did this lead to an increase in quality, it also allowed Australians to build reputations of their own.

Another marketing problem is Australia’s lack of a high cultural image that can help sell wine in new markets. Even though a great deal of French, Italian and Spanish wine is undrinkable, they still sell well in Asian countries because they carry with them the romantic and cultural image of the countries they come from. This image is as appealing to many wine buyers as the wine itself.  On the other hand, Australia’s attempts to sell wine with scientific arguments doesn’t appeal to a market that is buying the wine for romantic reasons. In some ways, its counterproductive.

Australian wine regions

Hunter Riesling

Hunter Valley (NSW)

The foundations of Australia's wine industry began in NSW in 1800. Two French prisoners of war, Antoine Landrien and Francois de Riveau, were sent to Australia to promote viticulture. The Frenchman planted 12,000 vines at Parramatta, but despite their strong viticultural tradition, the Australian environment presented novel challenges that they found difficult to overcome. By 1804, they had produced only about 40 gallons of wine 'of a very indifferent quality' and the vines were overtaken by 'blight'.

The Frenchman's failure really didn't disappoint as there was little demand for wine. This changed in 1814 when Governor Macquarie appointed ex-con Dr Redfern to investigate the death tolls on the transport ships. To prevent malnutrition and scurvy, Redfern recommended a pint of wine be given to Convicts every day. It was this need to keep Convicts alive that gave the first pragmatic reason to grow grapes in Australia. Redfern established a vineyard in Sydney's south west in 1818, thus becoming Australia's first wine doctor.

The next lot of vines were planted in the Hunter Valley in 1820. Again, it was the Convicts leading the way. Ex-con Molly Morgan established a wine shack in what is now Maitland and served booze to Convicts and emancipists working in the local coal mines or traveling through the area. Perhaps the Convicts had developed a taste for wine on the transport ships or just wanted to drink themselves into oblivion. Either way, their love of grog made them avid connoisseurs - whatever the wine's quality.

Barassa Shiraz

Barossa Valley (South Australia)

During the 1840s and 1850s the Barossa Valley received strong immigration from Germany. Although Germany was famous for its whites, immigrants soon discovered that the white wine culture of their homeland was somewhat unsuited to conditions of the Barossa Valley. Furthermore, whereas the market for the NSW industry were Convicts who would drink anything, the Barossa serviced Adelaide, the City of Churches, which wanted reds for sacrament. Not surprisingly, reds soon became the Barossa's wine of choice.

Yarra Valley (Victoria)

Australia's dominant wine region of the first century was Victoria's Yarra Valley. Vines were first planted 1840 but the district only took off when Swiss settlers migrated in the 1850's and 60s. It was also during this time that gold was discovered, thus creating a huge pool of extremely wealthy individuals. Arguably, it was the first time Australia produced wine for prestige and show. As Melbourne's prosperity continued to climb, so did wine consumption. By 1890, Victoria produced almost 60 percent of Australia's wine - more than all the other states combined.

It is not clear why the Yarra Valley went for Australia's premier wine growing region to its poor cousin. As it consistently produces great wine, it has nothing to do with quality. Contrary to myth, it was never infested by the phylloxera parasite. . 

Development as a whole

The Hunter, Yarra and Barossa Valley all had a different history, all faced different environmental challenges and serviced a different kind of market. The common challenges they faced were a cultural cringe and an uneducated pallet. Even though Europe had a completely differently climate and made wine for a different kind of connoisseur, Australian winemakers kept trying to mimic them. By failing to look domestically, they kept themselves in the genesis era when French convicts Antoine Landrien and Francois de Riveau struggled to adapt to a new land. Furthermore, even if they did succeed in producing a quality wine, there wasn't a pool of connoisseurs with discerning pallet to discuss it. As wine styles were so cosmopolitan, it would have been impossible for a large body of consumers to develop a common pallet refined for a particular style.

In the 1950s technology started evolving the industry. Refrigeration was introduced to control fermentation thus providing scope for standardisation across a region. Of even more influence was the invention of the wine cask by Thomas Angove in 1965. The cask helped promote wine amongst a population accustomed to drinking beer and shandies. Although it didn't make Masters of Wine out of yobbos, it encouraged them to take the first step towards the qualification. 

1993 was a particularly influential year in the evolution of Australian wine.  To protect their iconic brands such as Champagne, Burgundy and Hermitage, the French successfully prevented producers from outside the respective French region from using the labels. Their justification was that foreigners should stop trying to mimic them, and instead create wines with their own unique identity. Although resisted by many sections in the Australian industry, it ultimately benefited Australian producers by forcing them to address the cultural cringe that was inhibiting their winemaking ability as well as the marketability of their wine. By mimicking the French, Australian winemakers had closed their mind to the wisdom of their compatriots and pursued techniques that were not suitable to Australian environmental conditions. Furthermore, they had sent a message to consumers that the French are the benchmark that all others are rated against. Consequently, Australian wine was ranked according to how closely it resembled the French wine and so by definition, it could never be superior.

Once Australians started making wine with its own identity and marketing it as such, both the quality improved as did market acceptance. Whereas 20 years ago most Australians would have said the French are the best winemakers in the world, today most Australians argue that French wine is garbage and Australian wine is the best. 

 

Region
Known for
Recommended producer
NSW
   
Hunter Valley Semillon McWilliams
Canberra region Shiraz Clonakilla
Riverina Botrytis Semillon De Bortoli
SA
   
Barossa Shiraz, Cabernet Hensche
Coonawarra Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz Wynns
Padthaway Chardonnay Lindemans
Clare Valley Riesling Leo Burling
Tasmania
   
Tamar Valley Pinot Noir Chatto
WA
   
Margaret River Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfindel Pipers Brook, Cullens
Victoria
   
Rutherglen Durif Morris
Yarra Valley Pinot Noir Coldstream Hills
ACT
Pinot Noir Mount Majura

 

 The larrikin wine maker - Max Shubert

The story of the creation of Penfold's Grange, Australia's flagship shiraz, is typically Australian in that espouses the larrikin spirit of breaking rules and persisting in the face of adversity.   After visiting France on a fact finding mission, Penfold's chief wine maker 'Max Shubert' returned to Australia with the aim of creating a long lived wine, with individual Australian characteristics, that would be rated on par with the best the French had to offer. However, the wine required many costly innovations such as refrigeration to control fermentation and maturation in new oaks casks that whilst common place today, were new to Australia at the time. The 1952 Vintage was released in 1955 however condemned as a wine that 'no one in their right mind would buy, let alone drink'.  Shubert was ordered to cease production in 1957 but he continued secretly, hiding the bottles behind a masonite wall in Penfold's 'Magill winery'. Official production recommenced in 1960. 

 

 


 

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""Shouting", or rather its meaning, is peculiarly Australian. The shortest and most comprehensive definition of "shouting" is to pay for the drink drunk by others." Drinking

"Australia has been hailed as a saviour of our soi-disant movie industry. So it could be, irrespective of its box office earnings, if it leads to recognition that we don't have a film industry, despite expenditure over 20 years of $1.5billion in subsidies and perhaps another half billion in tax concessions." Movies

"Australians are very difficult to impress; even if you do manage to impress them, they may not openly admit it." Social Rules

"a confused mix of landscape, animals, and Aboriginal culture, with a kind of Bible overtone." Painting

"A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop" Wisdom

"Gallipoli tends to seem strange to outsiders, as it appears to be a celebration of Australia's greatest defeat, but in essence it is rather a commemoration of those who died serving Australia in battle, be it warranted or not." Anzac

“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it.” Australia Day

"He declared, confidently, that an immense number of women were dying for his diminutive highness, but became terribly angry, when an ugly, red-nosed publican with a hump-back, pretended to recognize him as an organ grinder strolling about with a monkey." Egalitarianism

"Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
" Poetry