They call her a young country, but they lie,” wrote A D Hope in the poem “Australia” – but when it comes to her wine regions, Australia really is a whippersnapper and a precocious one at that. Back in the 1970s, my Australian father used to bump into his fellow countryman and this magazine’s columnist John Pilger in Clapham Oddbins: there was generally only one bottle of Aussie wine on sale and they were the two reaching for it.
These days, Oz is the world’s fourth-largest wine exporter, largely because of qualities that are the stuff of stereotype: the country pioneered straightforward labels on plain, no-nonsense wine. You didn’t need to be able to pronounce “vin de pays” to buy an Australian Shiraz, so millions did. Naturally, this being Australia, where moderation is not even in the dictionary (plant or import anything and it’ll either die or take over), the country still made too much of the stuff. It also became synonymous with cheap fruit bombs. As the career of any child star demonstrates, it’s damn hard to escape the image that first made you famous – stereotypes, like big, bolshie Antipodean wines, are attractive in their simplicity.
In career terms, Australian wine wants to be more Kylie than Jason and has the talent to do it. All she needs is the right marketing – the vinous equivalent, I suppose, of gold hot pants. Plenty of wine writers are shouting about the better Aussie wines, so let me add my foghorn and tell you about Mornington Peninsula.
Below Melbourne, on Australia’s south-eastern tip, is a delightful patch of well-watered vineyards. They don’t get rained on like we do – does anyone, outside the Bible? – and they occasionally get more heat than most Brits will see in a lifetime: a month’s worth of it in three days in 2009, according to Mike Aylward of Ocean Eight winery. Half the grapes in the region expired of sunburn that year. Winemakers there nurture Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the traditional grapes of burgundy, and also, because they are Australians, Pinot Gris and some Viognier and – hell, why not? – Shiraz, just to show those blokes up north in the Hunter Valley that they can beat them at their own game.
The wines they make aren’t burgundy: the soils are as different as the annual rainfall. The flavours are bigger and less intricate, even among winemakers such as Aylward and Lindsay McCall of Paringa Estate, who want their wines to be pretty. That’s not necessarily a negative. These winemakers – and others, such as Richard McIntyre at Moorooduc Estate and the entertainingly named Ten Minutes by Tractor – are anxious their Chardonnays, say, aren’t confused abroad with those ubiquitous barrels of oak juice. Nor should they be: these are lean, citrusy wines, closer to Chablis than something Bridget Jones would cry into.
British wine-buyers will notice the difference between these and the cheap-and-cheerfuls at the till. Most are above £15, which is not unjustified but is a pity. As Australia continues to struggle with the perception that she is “the last of lands, the emptiest” (Hope again), her better wines have the capacity to argue otherwise, if only enough people could get their hands on them.
A fabulous Chardonnay such as Ocean Eight’s 2011 Verve, with its green-apple flavours overlaying a whisper of exoticism (Mornington winemakers don’t like tropical notes in their Chardonnays but they’re there) or Ten Minutes’s 2008 McCutcheon, are golden lures enrobing considerable talent. If that puts you in mind of a former child star, once associated with tack but now hugely admired – fine.