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August 17, 2012 9:32 pm
Consistency marks a divide in the wine world. “Consumers who are uncertain about wine,” says Bernard Hickin, chief winemaker for leading Australian brand Jacob’s Creek, “find consistency reassuring”. Wines that express a sense of place, by contrast, are proudly inconsistent: their drinkers prefer to taste the changing nuances of season and place, and of evolution in the bottle. The consuming psychology is a different one.
The success of Australian wine brands over the past two decades has been predicated on the skill with which their winemakers and blenders have been able to achieve consistency. The fact that almost 60 per cent of the country’s wine grapes come from the warm, inland, irrigated regions of the Murray-Darling basin has helped. Copious sunshine, though, has been matched in Australia by unrivalled technical adroitness at vinifying and blending raw materials. The “Aussie taste” – generous, bright, high-impact – has been historically based on clean, light-textured, un-tannic fruit flavours backed with high acidity, alcohol and oak. Such wines were stable and travelled well. Screwcap closures upped the levels of consistency still further.
What, though, if public taste changes? A consistent asset may then become a consistent handicap. Big California brands have always had softer acid profiles and more sweetness than Australian brands, and over the past decade these have made inroads into the sale of Australian wine brands in the UK. (Britain’s biggest-selling wine brand is Blossom Hill, with Echo Falls and Gallo third and fourth, though all three source internationally rather than in California alone.) “What is it with you Aussies and acidity?” the late California vintner Robert Mondavi famously used to ask. The success of Chile’s major brands, moreover, has been built on a softer, less acidic contour line than was typical for Australian wine.
From 2001 onwards, too, the [yellowtail] phenomenon changed the Australian wine landscape. This brand ballooned from nothing to 12 million cases per year in less than a decade. What commentators noticed about [yellowtail] wines, and what US drinkers in particular liked about them, were their high levels of sugar (about 9g/l compared with a maximum of 4g/l for most Australian brands). No less significant, though, was the fact that acid levels were lower than the Australian norm, both in absolute terms (about 6g/l in some of the reds) and more particularly in terms of percipience, since the presence of sugar buffers and masks the sensation of acidity. [yellowtail] softened big-brand Australia.
● Jacob’s Creek 2010 Reserve Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, 13.3%, about £9.99. Aromatically nuanced and understated, with elegant, zesty fruit.
● Wolf Blass 2011 Yellow Label Chardonnay, South Australia, 12.5%, about £9.99. Creamy, fresh and poised.
● McWilliam’s 2010 Hanwood Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5%, about £9.99. Soft ripe, faintly tarry red fruits, with plump supporting tannins.
Widely stocked by UK and US supermarkets.
Jacob’s Creek 2011 Reserve Riesling, Barossa (£10.19, Ocado; in Asda from October). The label reads “Barossa”, but more than half the blend for this refreshing, bitter-edged Riesling comes from the cooler Eden Hills. Drinkable and dry, making it eminently food-friendly.
I am genuinely curious as to whether most drinkers have noticed, but the fact is that most big Australian brands have changed their flavour profiles markedly over the past half-decade. Take Jacob’s Creek, for example. “Between 1995 and 2005,” remembers Hickin, “alcohols went up. People were choosing concentration at the expense of balance. Some of our reds were nudging 14.5 per cent, and Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay peaked at 13.7 or 13.8 per cent. The reds are now down to 13-13.5 per cent, and the Chardonnay is around 12.5 per cent.” The acid levels in both wines used to be 6.5g/l, but have now eased to between 5.5g and 6g/l. The changes may look numerically slight, but the taste impact is dramatic. The approach to tannin, too, is different. “We used to add tannins between the mid-1990s and 2002, but then we gave it up. We’re trying to draw the tannins from the skins. The Classic Range gets seven to 10 days on the skins, and the Reserve Range 12-14 days.” In a country like Australia, famous for racing up to five successive wines through each tank per vintage, this requires effort.
Nor is Orlando Wines (the Pernod-Ricard-owned producer of Jacob’s Creek) alone. Up in the bulk producing area of Riverina, I chatted to John Coughlin, senior white-winemaker for De Bortoli, and his red-wine counterpart, Julie Mortlock. Both confirmed they have lowered alcohol and acidity levels, and stressed that oak is much subtler now, too. “We still use chips,” says Mortlock, “but the quality has improved hugely.” “I’ve more than halved the oak influence on some of our big blends,” adds Coughlin. “I don’t want that ‘bourbon’ character any more.”
“We started to move away from higher acid when we began to work with Gallo about 10 or 12 years ago,” remembers Jim Brayne, chief operating officer for rival Riverina giant McWilliam’s. “Our Hanwood range now has an acidity of 5.8g/l, whereas a decade ago they were at least 6.5g/l.” He stresses that they use other techniques such as seed removal, giving up oak chips in favour of staves, plus giving white wines as much time on the lees as possible, and reds as long on skins as possible in order to soften and fill out flavour. All the big companies now buy their red grapes based on colour analysis rather than sugar levels, for qualitative reasons.
Most of the big brands, too, are trying to tempt their faithful drinkers upmarket with range extensions pinned to regional origins – which means moving away from their river Murray roots. Jacob’s Creek has a Reserve range with regional origins, and is planning a single-vineyard series too. McWilliam’s is stratifying its offer in the same way. Even [yellowtail] has a Reserve range, and “super-premium” range 1919.
They aren’t Australia’s greatest wines, but they are an improvement on the old “big brand” model of technically unimpeachable, but boring, sometimes aggressive wines. The whites, indeed, are surprisingly good, though the red wines could benefit still further, I feel, from greater textural density and lower acidities. The wines listed here face a big challenge at the UK’s most qualitatively competitive price of £9.99.
“We’re trying to be less interventionist. The more minimalist you can be, the more you’ll retain the sense of place.” It required a pinch to remind myself that this was not a terroir fanatic speaking, heading back to Australia after seven years in Beaune to make Pinot in Tasmania or Nebbiolo in Victoria, but the head winemaker of Jacob’s Creek. He seemed sincere.
Andrew Jefford’s weekly blog ‘Jefford on Monday’ appears every Monday on www.decanter.com
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