Australian wine has followed a dramatic journey over the past 40 years. From 1980, when 97% of the small production was consumed domestically, through the export boom of the mid 1980s, explosive vineyard expansion in the 1990s and then a painful realisation that they couldn’t easily compete at the bulk end of the global market which has seen a gradual decline in vineyard area and realignment of the market in the last 15 years.
Australian winemakers created a paradigm shift in the late 1980s wine world by ignoring their own egos and making wines that consumers wanted – completely at odds with the traditional producing regions who made wine how they always had and expected consumers to buy it. This accessibility changed the face of wine consumption in many markets around the globe and the easy to drink style at an affordable price introduced a whole new group of consumers to the pleasures of wine. There was also a clear quality ladder within brands, allowing customers to trade up as their enthusiasm and income grew. All of this was aided by a lack of regulation and subsidy and the famous Australian ‘can do’ attitude. This made Australia the trail blazer for new world producers (the USA might have filled that role, but its producers were mostly too inward looking and had a huge captive domestic market) but in recent times it has also hampered them as others with lower production costs, notably in south America, have stolen some of their thunder and the country has struggled to shake off the cheap and cheerful label with many consumers.
When considering Australian wine, it is important to remember that the great part of production here is unlike that in other countries as historically for Australians, wine is foremost an agricultural product. Grapes are grown by farmers, then purchased by others and processed in wine factories for market. Often the grapes travel over a thousand miles in refrigerated transport to reach the winery and the concept of terroir or regionality has largely been scorned. As we stand now, Australian wine can almost be considered as two separate entities. The big 5 companies – Treasury (Penfold’s, Lindeman’s, Wynn’s, Wolf-Blass, Rosemount), Accolade (Hardy’s, Banrock Station), Australian Vintage (McGuigan), Pernod Ricard (Jacob’s Creek) and Casella (Yellowtail) – who make over 60% of the country’s wine from fruit sourced all over the south-east (although the majority is grown in the vast inland zones of Riverina, Murray-Darling and Riverland) and account for over 85% of exports and then the remaining 2,250 producers, many of whom make wines more reflective of where they are grown. In this second group are generally the most interesting wines and where the growing trend of regionality is strongest, however it is hard to be heard banging the drum for each individual region, when the whole orchestra has been playing the tune of extraterritoriality for 40 years.
In a country this geographically diverse generalisation is dangerous, but if there is a common trait to the wines, it is an emphasis on fruit at the expense of structure, of a generosity and ease of drinking. It should be remembered however, that for the small band of producers at the top this was never the case and for many others there has been a movement away from this obvious style, no more so than in the nation’s chardonnay production which is now more often lean and crisp than fat and oaky. It is easy to write off Australia for its vinous past, but the wines coming out of the country today are some of the best examples of their styles in the world