Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson were first-generation European settlers in Australia who, when drought and insects threatened the fledgling coastal colony with starvation, intrepidly found a way through the Blue Mountains to the fertile land beyond. At least, that’s what young Aussies used to be taught at school. For the indigenous people, who had been traversing these mountains for millennia, the refusal to ask for guidance must have seemed very odd, the 1813 traversal merely logical and the consequent land-grab outrageous. History is always a question of perspective.
When they could, the settlers continued to cluster by the shore: all the country’s state capitals are close to the water except Canberra – which, as a city created to solve Melbourne and Sydney’s quarrel over precedence, doesn’t really count. And the majority of the important wine regions are coastal, too. Partly, this is due to soil types and climate and the cooling effect of the nearby water: good luck to anyone trying to grow vines in the country’s parched central region. But also it comes down, once again, to perspective. The sea brought Europeans to this country; the land did not welcome them. They had no idea how to farm it and were not, of course, disposed to ask the people the land had been nourishing for thousands of years, because the whole concept of terra nullius – an empty place, ripe for the claiming – depended on a refusal to see that those people existed.
The corollary of blindness is stubbornness, which does have its uses. Those new arrivals who were struggling to grow enough food to survive were, nonetheless, planting vines. Blaxland was already a winemaker before his Blue Mountain crossing: when he took his Aussie wines back to the mother country, they won several awards. Lawson helped “discover” the Mudgee region, which today is famous for Cabernet Sauvignon. All Australian vines are also European settlers, since the country has no indigenous grape varieties, and they too suck sparse moisture from alien soils, and take comfort from breezes that have crossed oceans to cool them.
Nonetheless, the strange failure of vision that helped root them there persists. There is the obstinate belief that Australian wines are all cheap and cheerful fruit bombs, well crafted but uninteresting, despite the shelves of fine Antipodean wines in every decent wine shop. There is the insistence that all great Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy, when the best winemakers on the Mornington Peninsula – people such as Lindsay McCall of Paringa, Moorooduc’s Kate McIntyre, Glen Hayley of Kooyong or Martin Spedding from Ten Minutes by Tractor – are making such rich, savoury, sophisticated Pinot Noir that this triangle of land poking into the sea south of Melbourne is sometimes called the Pinot Coast.
Then there is the prevalent notion that “old” vines must be in Europe – even though there are plantings of Grenache in South Australia’s McLaren Vale, another great coastal wine region, that are close to a century old. Their survival is an anomaly: during the decades that the variety was held in contempt, none of the winemakers bent on pulling up Grenache and replanting with something trendier noticed these vines were there. Today, several excellent wines (Wirra Wirra’s The Absconder, Sands of Time by Thistledown, Yangarra Estate’s High Sands, Aphelion’s The Confluence) serve as reminders that some forms of blindness, at least, have real benefits.
What is our resistance to opening our eyes to the world as it is? A fear of the unknown, perhaps. These coastal wine regions are the meeting point between land and sea, arid centre and gentler shore, and between Old World and New. Yet when I praise Australia’s fine wines, I encounter the sort of reaction that must have met an early 19th-century whippersnapper who asked how you can have territorial wars in a supposedly unoccupied country. Sometimes, perspectives need to change. If we approach the Pinot Coast determined to find it empty, then we will. But the loss will be ours.
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play