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NorCal Wine Blog

Parallels in the California and Australian Wine Industries

The January 14  Wine Australia: Next Chapter trade tasting in San Francisco presented an excellent survey of noteworthy wine and several top winemakers from Australia. I was seriously looking forward to it for a month. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to have a cold that prevented me from tasting or smelling a thing.

Despite my ill-timed malady, I attended two very informative tasting seminars. Yes, even with the cold. When John Duvall is speaking about Shiraz, one listens. I can re-taste the wines another time. And other Aussie winemaking legends were on hand, such as Iain Riggs of Brokenwood, along with representatives from the new guard who bring fresh enthusiasm and challenge conventional wisdom even more than usual for Australia.

John Duvall of John Duvall Wines was
winemaker at Penfolds for 23 years.

Photo: Fred Swan, - SF, Jan. 14, 2013 

Some folks who know me only as the NorCal Wine guy were surprised to see me at the non-California tasting. Here’s why I went.

  • I’m both very fond of and familiar with Aussie wines. I have visited roughly 80 wineries there and a good portion of my cellar is devoted to Australian wine, reds and whites.
  • Australia has a wealth of beautiful wines, a good many of them wholly unique to their region.
  • Even if your goal is to be an expert in one particular region, you have to taste broadly. Otherwise, you’ll lack context and develop a hometown palate.
  • There are a lot of parallels between California’s wine business and Australia’s. It’s interesting to compare their evolution. 

Here are a few of those parallels:

Old Vines

California and Australia have some of the oldest productive vines in the world, though with different grapes and for different reasons. Some vineyards in Northern California have very sandy soils which are inhospitable to phylloxera. Perhaps more importantly, many old California vineyards were planted with St. George rootstock which is naturally phylloxera resistant. In Australia, soil type is also a factor, but geographical isolation and rigorous quarantine/import laws have been crucial.

California’s best-known old vine variety is Zinfandel. There are vineyards with productive vines dating to the 1880’s. Several old vine Petite Sirah and Carignane vineyards exist too. Planted in 1886, Lodi’s Bechtold Vineyard is probably the world’s oldest Cinsault.

Australia claims the oldest productive vines for 5 varieties: Almeria, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Riesling and Syrah. Some are own-rooted. According to Jancis Robinson, most are in the Langmeil Freedom and Orphan Bank Vineyards in the Barossa Valley. [Almeria is white-skinned grape used almost exclusively for table grapes rather than wine.]

Old vines generate complex, concentrated fruit, but in low volume. Some are also important sources of cuttings for research and propagation. Unfortunately, both countries have scrubbed numerous old vine vineyards in the past 30+ years to make way for higher-yielding vines, more commercial varieties or non-agricultural development. Maintaining the remaining old-vine vineyards is important not just to the local regions, but to the world of wine in general.

[For details on old-vine vineyards in the U.S. and worldwide, see The Historic Vineyard Society and Jancis Robinson's Old Vine Register. The latter requires a subscription.]

Other Parallels

Striking commonalities between California and Australia also revolve around stereotypes that need busting. Both areas are frequently pigeon-holed, their wines lumped into one unflattering style bucket or another. And people, even wine writers who should know better, often treat these regions as if they are small and homogeneous, without varying terrain, climate and soil types.

The Syrah (or Shiraz) Issue

Shiraz put Australian wine on the map. Still, not enough people understand how much diversity that wine offers. It’s assumed most Australian Shiraz is jammy, oaky and high-alcohol. in reality, there's a broad spectrum of styles: fresh and unoaked to long-aged in all new oak, alcohol less than 13% or over 16%, bold and fruit-forward to wines focused on mineral, black olive and garrigue. Try the vibrant 2012 BK Wines "Cult" Shiraz Adelaide Hills with savory red fruit, light tannins and just 10% new oak or the 2010 Luke Lambert Syrah Yarra Valley, a savory and herbal wine one master somm called "a dead-ringer for Cornas."

"Syrah is more expressive of terroir than Cabernet Sauvignon,"
said John Duvall during the Classic to Contemporary seminar.

In California, Syrah is not a commercial star. On one hand, California Syrah is typecast as a jammy wine without nuance, due to both underwhelming wines from well-distributed but undiscriminating producers and overblown points-seekers. On the other, huge contrasts in the character of California Syrah between good producers and regions — based on both terroir and technique — catches casual drinkers by surprise. They don’t know what the wine will taste like and feel safer with the more predictable Cabernet Sauvignon. The good news is that this has kept Syrah prices from going through the roof. It may be the best overall value in California red wines right now.

The Old World Reference Point

Often, when producers from California or Australia do a great job, they are complimented on how much their wine doesn’t taste as if it comes from California or Australia. A top Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir isn’t an exemplar of the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. It’s Burgundian! Syrah that is true to its cool climate source in California or Australia (yes, they exist) is praised for expressing Northern Rhone characteristics. Sure, Burgundy and the Rhone are well-known reference points for quality and for particular styles. But consumers will never get a grip on unique New World sites if we don’t provide the appropriate context.

Chardonnay Gets a Bad Rap

”Chardonnay from California and Australia is buttery, oaky, overly fruity and flabby.” There have been, and are in increasing numbers, Chardonnay of great sophistication from both countries. Some have no oak, more simply use it well. There are wines that grab your attention with crispness, minerality and laser-beams of citrus or green apple despite 100% malolactic fermentation and no supplemental acid. Others showcase a deft balance of perfect fruit, fine cooperage and lees contact. Both categories can age well and include wines that are easy to find and afford.

Penfolds Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2010 is laced with mineral and just 12% alcohol. The Margaret River region in southwestern Australia is perhaps that country's best for Chardonnay. Leeuwin Estate is the most celebrated producer there, but don't overlook Vasse Felix. I've been a fan for a decade and their Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2010 is a great wine that might recall Burgundy (if we hadn't just agreed not to do that).  From California, try the Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay 2011, made from Atlas Peak fruit that benefits from both copious sun and cool mountain nights. It's got depth of fruit and nuance, from 30% new French oak and sur lie aging, but plenty of food-friendly acidity.

The Fowles "Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch" Chardonnay includes touches of Viognier and Semillon.
It's designed to be balanced dinner (or lunch) wine
Photo: Fred Swan

Bold, Fruity and Oaky Reds

Bold, fruity and oaky isn’t an accusation thrown only at Syrah. It’s also associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and numerous other varietals and blends from California and Australia. Obviously, there are plenty of the wines that do fit that mold. It doesn’t take much effort to find numerous bottles of refinement and at reasonable price points though. And while Australia is not yet well-known for it, there are some amazing things happening there with Pinot Noir. The 2012 BK Wines Skin n Bones Pinot Noir Adelaide Hills is a lovely, floral wine with an undercurrent of red fruit and mineral.

The High Alcohol Stereotype

Alcohol percentages have crept up globally, and not just in response to the taste of particular critics. Vineyards are healthier, sorting practices more rigorous, winery sanitation more scrupulous and last-minute harvests more practical. But the association of high-alcohol with the wines of California and Australia is made too broadly, often to lazily dismiss those regions in comparison to Old World wines. There are a few wines, producers and regions in both countries well-known for being lean (Ridge Monte Bello, Brokenwood of Hunter Valley). But there are so many more. You can get really good wines from Lodi at under 13% [ex. Alta Mesa Cellars Verdehlo, McCay Cellars Rosé and Uvaggio Vermentino] and from many parts of Australia as well.

Hunter Valley Semillon is well-known for being lean. The 2006 Brokenwood ILR Reserve Semillon is just 11%. Australian Riesling tends to be crisp and light in virtually every region that produces it. The 2011 Henschke Julius Eden Valley Riesling is 11.5%. Frankland Estate has four single-vineyard Rieslings ranging from 11% to 12.75%. And these are just top-of-mind examples.

Cheap, Fruity and Sweet

Some high-volume producers in Australia and California have done their regions a disservice by exporting tanker-loads of cheap, sweet wines with generic fruit flavors. Here in the U.S., a majority of wine drinkers only experience Australia’s vineyards from the mouth of critter-labeled bottles. In the UK, California’s reputation is undermined by the fact that very few of our high-quality wines reach that market. Instead our biggest representative — the top-selling wine overall in the UK — is Blossom Hill, a Diageo-label using San Benito County fruit that tells potential customers, “Life’s complicated enough, and wine needn’t be.” Conscientious producers and regional organizations in both countries are working hard now to see that a greater number of distinctive, artisanal wines find their way to important foreign markets.


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