The thirsty country certainly makes a lot of drink: Australia produces well over a billion litres of wine a year, which isn’t bad for a continent largely covered by ground so parched that no vine stands a chance.
Until recently, Australian wine was perceived as cheap, plentiful and about as subtle as a wallaby in your bathroom – which was never wholly true but worked well until the rest of the New World started carving up the market. Its current emphasis on regional differences is a change of tack, but it makes a lot of sense if you drive the 250 kilometres from Beechworth through the King Valley to the Yarra Valley, both wine regions considered to be on Melbourne’s doorstep, although the former is as far from the Victorian capital as Newcastle is from ours. This is Australia’s blessing, and its curse: too much of everything, from square miles to fauna. The best-known example is the cute bunnies that arrived with the settlers and pulverised the fragile land, but in Australia everything, from orchids to kangaroos, breeds like rabbits.
From Beechworth, you travel past fawn fields and silver-green eucalyptus down sun-dappled, endless roads. As you approach Yarra, however, you move abruptly into darker-leaved, fern-pelted lushness. It’s a startling change, and that’s just a corner of one of five wine-producing states in a country bigger than Europe. Whoever first decided to build the “Aussie wine” brand may have been a marketing genius but they surely failed their geography GCSE.
What about the choice in grapes? In Australia, no hallowed rules decree which vines may be planted where: you can make wine out of any varietal you can persuade to give you sufficient juice. Where, then, do you stop? Many wine traditions, even the greatest ones, are simply that – if Burgundy grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Piedmont concentrates on Nebbiolo, that is presumably what worked best out of a very limited range of grapes, with primitive wine-making techniques, a hell of a long time ago. The logic of capitalism says that more choice is always good and the market will regulate, but that just makes you a slave to the market. As I zigzagged through northern Victoria, tasting my way from Arneis to Sauvignon Blanc to Riesling to Vermentino before I even got near the reds, I found myself thinking of a short story by Tolstoy, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, in which a man is offered all the territory he can journey round on foot in a day. Of course, he becomes greedy, and expires with exhaustion just before sunset.
I tasted some lovely wines – jasmine-scented L’Immigrante Prosecco 2014, made by Dal Zotto using the champagne method (they can’t export it for fear of cross Italians); Pizzini’s clove-and-blackcurrant 2008 Sangiovese (called Rubacuori, meaning “stealer of hearts”); a fine, restrained Chardonnay from Oakridge in the Yarra – but I also tried a lot of duds.
There are various ways to deal with the excess of options the so-called lucky country presents. In Beechworth, Rick Kinzbrunner and Julian Castagna rely on their own judgement: their planting, farming, vinifying, ageing and releasing all follow the idiosyncratic rules of individual taste and their labels, Giaconda and Castagna, produce some of Australia’s best wines.
At Yering Station in the Yarra, a programme of precision viticulture helps pinpoint differences – in temperature, soil and compatibility – not just between vineyards but within each tranche of vines. This is regionality taken to extremes, but it is more logical than trumpeting the importance of terroir while trying to make wines like those of a village 10,000 miles away. Better for Australia’s winemakers to find their own way through their scrub, fern and decomposed granite to wines as unique as the land they spring from.