Oz bounces back

Image of Jancis Robinson

If I were Julian Castagna, Claudio Radenti, Vanya Cullen, Tim Kirk, Tom Shobbrook or any one of Australia’s army of artisan winemakers, I would be furious. But perhaps they don’t realise what a mismatch there is between their nit-picking travails and the general image of Australian wine as an over-processed, over-marketed and over-discounted, thoroughly industrial product.

This is a view still promulgated by many a French winemaker, but not by any who have actually been to Australia’s wine regions. These now seem to be teeming with small-scale, well-travelled vignerons who are much more likely to take a Burgundian domaine as their model than to follow blindly the high-tech strictures of an Australian oenology degree.

I can remember when there was precisely one practitioner of organic viticulture in the whole of Australia, but now producers as admired and garlanded as Cullen of Margaret River and Jasper Hill of Heathcote are openly practising biodynamics. It can’t have been easy to explain nettle teas and buried cow horns initially to laconic Aussies, but Jasper Hill’s Ron Laughton had the advantage of being a food scientist before establishing his own vineyard, and was moved by pragmatism to do what he does.

There are even Australian practitioners of the much-discussed “natural” winemaking practices, involving minimal chemical additions during winemaking. Last week Britain’s most enthusiastic importer of this polarising style of wine, Les Caves de Pyrène, showed off its new Australian imports, and a very varied bunch they were too. There were some stunning wines, such as Sorrenberg’s 2009 Chardonnay from Beechworth that gave white burgundy a serious run for its money, and Castagna’s Un Segreto 2008 based on the Tuscan grape Sangiovese with additional fruit from Shiraz.

But there were also some seriously strange wines, at high prices, that somehow seem all the stranger for coming from Down Under – although Anton Von Klopper, maker of probably the, ahem, least mainstream examples, is originally South African apparently. I would suggest that this phrase lifted from Caves de Pyrène’s online wine list, “Anton and family are now part of the Basket Range community”, is a bit of a hostage to fortune for those not familiar with Adelaide Hills geography. The charismatic Von Klopper likens his way of winemaking to sailing, while a conventional winemaker might simply navigate from A to B without help from the wind.

I think it is a very healthy sign that, for the first time as far as I know, Australia is now home to these extremes of wine production, and that more and more winemakers are prepared to step off the well-trodden paths of conventional, by-the-book wine production – in particular that there is much less knee-jerk addition of acidity and sometimes tannin. For me a wine should ideally taste natural, but should also be healthy and robust enough to develop into something more interesting after time in the bottle.

It is even possible to make beautiful, natural-tasting wines that end up on the shelves of a UK supermarket. Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, the most famous producer in the wine region around Canberra, makes not only super-subtle wines from the vineyards around his home, but also a blend of Shiraz from Hilltops, a 90-minute drive away. Waitrose is currently selling it online and in two of its most wine-minded branches for £17.99.

The subtlety of Clonakilla’s Syrah-based wines, inspired by Tim Kirk’s travels to Côte Rôtie in 1991, has been hugely influential in Australia, with a whole new generation of young winemakers realising that not all Shiraz has to taste as though it were made from raisins. Newcomers such as Tom Shobbrook, another whose wines are imported into the UK by Caves de Pyrène, has shown that even somewhere as hot as the Barossa Valley can produce really fluid, caressing red from the grape he deliberately chooses to call Syrah rather than Shiraz.

But perhaps the most marked evolution in Australian winemaking has been in the increasing austerity of the whites. Oz Chardonnay shed its flab some years ago, and not just among Australia’s artisan winemakers but in the mainstream, too. Indeed, a Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay 2009 retailing at £7.49 was taken for a smart white burgundy in this year’s Master of Wine exams by more than half the candidates, and one of Wine Australia’s favourite tactics is to show off some of its better Chardonnays blind with famous French counterparts. When there is enough fruit as well as refinement and acidity, Australian Chardonnay can be stunning, although as usual, fashions tend to encourage extremism and in some quarters leanness alone is seen as a virtue.

Australians have long championed bone-dry Rieslings, notably in Clare and Eden Valleys, but again, some can seem deliberately targeted at masochists when tasted young. But this is to pick holes. Overall, contrary to its reputation as being good only for “critter labels” and “dead grape” wines, Australia is a wonderful source of hand-crafted wines, even if nature is throwing huge obstacles –both drought and flood – in its path. One British wine importer has identified and stuck with some of Australia’s finest artisan winemakers throughout its 14-year history. Liberty Wines showed off the latest releases from its growing stable of top-quality Australian producers recently and asked the antipodean visitors to show “wines I wish were mine …”

Thus, Vanya Cullen showed a Leflaive Puligny, John Durham of Plantagenet a Château de Fonsalette Côtes du Rhône, David LeMire of Shaw and Smith a Rousseau Charmes Chambertin. John Duval chose a Chave Hermitage Blanc, Tim James of Liberty’s own label Willunga a Mascarello Barolo, Steve Flamsteed of Innocent Bystander a Ramonet Chassagne, Bill Downie a super-natural Overnoy Houillon Jura red, Nick Farr a Dujac Clos St Denis, Alberto Antonini and Mark Walpole of Greenstone, another Liberty initiative, a Soldera Brunello, and Tim Kirk a Rostaing Côte Rôtie. These Australians really do understand wine quality.

This outfit in Margaret River is hardly artisan but the quality of this Fraser Gallop Chardonnay 2009 (£24.50 Noel Young, 01223 566744) proves Australia’s Chardonnay prowess


Jancis’s picks

• Bindi, Block 5 Pinot Noir 2008

• Larry Cherubino, Ad Hoc Riesling 2009

• William Downie Pinot Noir 2008

• Freycinet Chardonnay 2005/6/9

• Giant Steps, Sexton Chardonnay 2008/9

• Kooyong, Faultline Chardonnay 2009

• Shobbrook Seppeltsfield Syrah 2009

• Sidewood Reserve Syrah 2008

• Tappanappa, Tiers Chardonnay 2008

• Ten Minutes by Tractor, McCutcheon Chardonnay 2009

• Warrumbungle, Dominus Northern Slopes

See www.jancisrobinson.com for tasting notes. Caves de Pyrène, 01483 554750. For all stockists see wine-searcher.com

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