Return from Australia

It’s been a bit quiet over the last month, I know. I’ve just returned from a trip around Australia courtesy of the Oxford blind tasting team’s winning performance in Wine Australia’s University Wine Champions Competition.

The Oxford team (L-R: George, Ren and myself) in the Pewsey Vale vineyard in Eden Valley.

As advertised, it really was a ‘trip of a lifetime’. Travelling with a group of UK wine trade representatives, we toured around the Orange and Hunter Valley wine regions in New South Wales, and the Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and Barossaregions in South Australia. We experienced incredible hospitality, sumptuous food and some outstanding wines. Importantly, I learned a lot about wine making in general, and about Australian wines in particular.

Shiraz Masterclass in the McLaren Vale, which boasts the most detailed geological survey of any wine region in the world.

The schedule was compact and intense; I feel it will take me months to fully digest and appreciate the experiences of the trip. Nevertheless, I’ll do by best to summarise the trip and to touch on a few interesting points in a series of posts over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, as a general comment, I found it refreshing to break through some of the stereotypes that exist around Australian wines outside of their own country. Cricket captains aside, Aussies aren’t necessarily the best at blowing their own trumpet, and perhaps the Australian wine image has suffered because of this over recent years. Aussie wine has a general reputation for being good value, well-made but simplistic. The stereotype goes that the wines show a lot of primary fruit or are over-oaked; they’re designed to be drunk young and often stick out as being overly-alcoholic because Australia is an exclusively hot place. Because it’s so hot, there’s very little locality or vintage variation, thus wines are consistent, yet unchanging.

The historic Langmeil winery in the Barossa has what is perhaps the world’s oldest remaining Shiraz vineyard – dating to 1843.

This trip exposed us to wines and places that countered all of these points:

  • Cool climates genuinely do exist in Australia.
  • Vintage conditions can vary hugely from year to year and these are expressed in the wine as significantly as they are in Bordeaux.
  • Australian wines can be as complex and as nuanced as European wines and can develop into some truly special bottles with age.
  • Not all wines are ‘big blockbusters’ and even some of the full-bodied wines carry their weight with delicacy.
  • It really is an enormous country with a complex array of soils and climates.

    Vineyards in the genuinely cool climate region of Orange, NSW.

I was particularly struck, however, by the friendliness of the winemaking community we met in Australia and the passion with which they go about their jobs. There is a genuine excitement about wine, about pairing it with good, fresh food and integrating it into ‘the good life’. The winemakers we met are concerned about their environment, about where their wines fit into the grand scheme of things and about learning more of how local mesoclimates express themselves ultimately in the glass.

I look forward to exploring these points in more detail over the coming posts.

 

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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20 Responses to Return from Australia

  1. Tony Keys says:

    I am extremely pleased you had a good trip James. You may remember I saw you at the beginning. I hope the three of you managed to unwind some and enjoy the wine in its home environment along with the people as well as the academic side.

    After all its meant to be drunk, oil conversation and make those that shouldn’t, dance.

    Tony Keys

    • James says:

      Thanks Tony.
      Yes we certainly did manage to experience wines in their home environment, shared with good people, accompanying fine food, and facilitating conversation. Noted your mention of us in the Keys Report too!
      Cheers,
      James

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  4. Dick Friend says:

    Delighted you discovered diversity among the six wine regions visited in two states. Of course there are 64 official regions (and more unofficial regions outside those) in 6+ states. And, of course, the 2,500 vignerons in the Great Southern regions of WA, in the southern regions of Victoria, and in all of Tasmania would claim you weren’t exposed to true cool-climate wine. You can do a virtual Oz tour through the on-line interactive mapping of 5,000+ vineyards we provide through our website, or the 2,600 locations on our iPhone App “Oz Cellar Doors”. And “Grapes 101” details 171 grape varieties. As you say, it’s a big country!

    • James says:

      Hi Dick, thanks for your comment and for alerting me to your site – it looks a very valuable tool for the Australian wine aficianado. Yes I’m well aware of the hugeness of Australia and no doubt our ‘little two week trip’ barely scratched the surface. Also love it how there is a ‘race to be the coldest’ in Australia though I think I’ll stay out of the bickering myself!! 🙂

      • Dick Friend says:

        From down under we also note the rise and rise of English wine – partic Sparkling – and maybe we can share a glass in late July/early August when I’ll be playing in a real tennis tournament on courts just north of London, with a planned brief visit to Oxford. An English wine version of VineFinders’ iPhone App “Oz Cellar Doors”?

      • James says:

        Yes, English wine certainly is on the up. Especially sparkling. I feel producers need to consolidate what they have now for a couple of years though rather than the rampant expansion that seems to be the trend.

        Certainly, do get in touch closer to the time and we’ll see what we can arrange!

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  7. jared says:

    I’m so jealous you won this oppurtunity, I would have loved to see all the sights around australia and not to mention, taste all of their amazing wine. i can imagine it now walking through seeing tons of shiraz grapes growing in hunter. I’ve tried imported wines from that region, but i bet they arent the same. i’ve heard a lot about australians being extremly friendly, especially in the wine community. Love this blog, so informative and makes for a great read. i just wish i had the oppurtunity to visit Australia now!

    • James says:

      Hi Jared,
      Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog; you’re very kind to say. Australia is a wonderful place in many respects, though I agree it is hard to find ‘the good stuff’ on the export market as they have such a strong domestic consumption. For Hunter Valley wines, some of my favourites were Tyrells, McWillians-Mount Pleasant and Brokenwood, which I know are widely exported.
      Stay tuned for some more updates from our Australian trip in the near future!
      James

      • Dick Friend says:

        Just returned from the UK where, with difficulty, I hunted down some English sparkling and table wines. It confirmed the future for the wine world is indeed the cooler climates – and, perhaps like visitors to major capitals of the world, they are hard to find when the high-volume producers from warmer climates dominate the shelf space and wine lists. At a formal reception at Cambridge University, I was astounded to be served an Indian Sauvignon Blanc and an Indian Merlot – I was previously (blissfully!) unaware of the Indian wine industry. China now has more vineyard area planted than Australia, but not much of yet in full production. Indeed, I wondered if the “Indian Sauvignon Blanc” was actually from their vines – as it tasted suspiciously like part of the “Savalanche” of cheap NZ Sav-blonk flooding markets everywhere?

        Of course, that would never happen in Oxford, would it?

      • Tony Keys says:

        Dick I have covered the Indian wine industry several times in The Key Report, you must be skipping bits.

      • Dick Friend says:

        In a Bristol wine merchant it was a revelation to see 11 metres of floor shelf frontage for NZ wines, compared to just 3 metres for Oz wines. But, as you say, Tony, the harder you work to find anything the more appreciative one is of the result.

        Apologies for missing/forgetting your Indian wine revelations – by necessity, I concentrate on Oz to detail all our 6,000 vineyards, and keep it up-to-date as poss.

  8. James says:

    Hi Dick, I’m yet to see a Indian wine served at an Oxford reception or dinner; though perhaps similar sentiments were once expressed about Chilean or Argentinian (or indeed Australian!) wines. It seems difficult for such emerging countries to compete though when other economies already have well-established wineries.

    In conducting some research into the recent history of Oxford wine society tastings, I was intrigued to note how a tasting of fine Australian wines in the mid ’80s was advertised heavily on their novelty factor!

    Perhaps the main difference, however, between Australia and the new production from India and China is that Australians love their wine almost universally and have done for a long time. Highest anglophone consumption per capita I understand. Such a culture does not (yet) exist in India or China.

    • Tony Keys says:

      Hello James

      I conducted a tasting or two at Oxford, not sure if it was 80s or early 90s do you have the presenter?

      Tony

      • James says:

        Hi Tony,
        I can’t recall off hand unfortunately; I’d have to go back through the archives. I do remember seeing Bob Campbell give a tasting of NZ wines in the early 90s – a novelty then it would seem!

      • Tony Keys says:

        I remember upsetting a lad when I said that it may look romantic to see a Portuguese peasant on her knees half way up a terrace (with slide) but she was earning a wage that put her below the global poverty level at the time. He wasn’t upset about the peasant but pissed off because he came from the wealthier class in Portugal. My point being that part of the higher cost of Australian wine at the time was high labour costs.

        Referring back to an earlier post, there is plenty of good and interesting Australian wines to be found in the UK but like all wine interesting wine made with care and attention to detail cost more, say between £10 and £20. There are Australian wines in the £7 to £10 bracket that also fall in the same category and a host under that bracket that will satisfy. What your reader is missing (my opinion) is the hunt is as good as the find, and when a great wine is found at a good price then it becomes so bloody fantastic it’s a revelation. However that revelation is often very personal and the bloke next door (also wine lover) just doesn’t agree.

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