Aussies and the Gatsby syndrome

30 November, 2007

Why The French Hate Us is the ever-so-slightly paranoid title of an entertaining book just published in Australia about the wine scene Down Under.

Author Campbell Mattinson's thesis is that the French are upset because the Aussies (and the Americans) have "swept through the ranks of everyday wine" for good and stolen chunks of their traditional export markets.

There's some mileage in this. When did you last hear a Frenchman who doesn't own an Aussie winery (think Pernod Ricard and Jacob's Creek, or LVMH and Domaine Chandon) sing the praises of a South Australian Shiraz or Hunter Semillon? Most of them, I suspect, would rather drink hemlock.

However much the French may dislike Australians - or rather Australian wine - the opposite couldn't be further from the truth. It may choose to poke fun at all manner of Gallic failings, but the Australian wine industry is essentially Francophile. I've just served as a panellist at the National Wine Show in Canberra and at the judges' dinners we drank almost nothing but wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire, the Rhône and Champagne. Of 34 (often very fine) wines, only three came from elsewhere: a German Riesling, an Austrian dessert wine and a solitary bottle of 1986 Seppelt Great Western Shiraz .

Mattinson sees an element of Scott Fitzgerald's great fictional creation, Jay Gatsby, in Australia's recurring need for European approval. "The best Australian winemakers, wine lovers and wine media," he writes, "stand like Gatsby at the end of our continent's pier, hoping for a glimpse of Europe, daring it to approve of the splendour in our glass."

Dolly Parton wines

If that is so, then approval is long overdue. On my recent trip to Australia, I tasted dozens of bottles that could stand comparison with fine European wines. Surprisingly perhaps, it was the Chardonnays that impressed me most, especially from the Yarra Valley, Margaret River and Tasmania. The oaky, top-heavy Chardonnays of the past (so-called Dolly Parton wines) have all but disappeared to be replaced by fresher, subtler, more refined wines. The best of them are world class.

Pinot Noir hasn't moved quite as quickly - Stephen George of Ashton Hills reckons the variety only has a 20-year history in Australia - but here, too, there are some very encouraging signs from the Yarra, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills.

Australia doesn't have a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti yet (who does, outside France?) but Apsley Gorge, Freycinet, Moorooduc, Paringa Estate, Bannockburn, Bass Phillip, Ashton Hills, Coldstream Hills and Serrat are all producing excellent Pinots that are as good as anything from New Zealand.

Shiraz is also beginning to move in the direction of the Old World, although there are still far too many over-wooded, clumsily acidified examples on the market. Judges and critics Down Under have begun to accept pepper spice and a hint of greenness as good things in Shiraz, which is welcome news. If you taste the latest releases from the likes of Clonakilla, Yarra Yering, Shaw & Smith and Mount Langi Ghiran, there is a pronounced hint of the northern Rhône about them.

Not everyone in Australia is trying to rival the French, of course. Indeed, some of the wines that have earned high praise on the other side of the Atlantic are more likely to be described as thick, unctuous, viscous, full-bodied, over ripe and even dry vintage port-like. You may not choose to drink these wines (and you'd need a ladle to do so) but they represent the opposite pole of the Australian wine scene. My view is that these wines are a caricature of the riper styles of Aussie red and will disappear over the next decade in favour of wines with better balance. Let's hope so.

Exciting trend

There is a third, far less publicised trend in Australia at the moment, but to me it's the most exciting of all. This is the "alternative " varieties movement - Spanish, Portuguese and occasionally French grapes that do not fit into the mainstream. These include whites such as Pinot Gris, Vermentino, Albariño, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Arneis, Garganega, Fiano, Torrontés and reds such as Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Graciano, Zinfandel, Durif, Touriga Nacional, Aglianico, Saperavi, Lagrein, Mourvèdre, Tannat and Primitivo.

The underground even has its own annual Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show in Mildura (aavws.com), where the number of entries and the quality of the wines is growing by the year, according to my spies. No less a figure than Dr Richard Smart, Australia's foremost viticultural consultant, believes that Spain and Portugal, not France, should be the template of the future. "Based on temperature, most of Australia is Iberia in the southern hemisphere. Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Albariño have all got fantastic potential here."

Climate change and drought permitting, Australia has the chance to stake a claim to being the most diverse wine-producing nation o n earth, using a variety of climates to grow a huge range of grapes. The potential is mind-boggling. I don't expect to see the classic French varieties disappear, but I'd like to see a little less Francophilia Down Under. Paradoxically, it would give the French good reason to start loving the Australians again.




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