Winemaking in Australia: how far we’ve come
Leanne de Bortoli, co-owner of one of Australia’s most recognisable brands, reflects on just how far wine loving Australians have come.
Growing up on our family vineyard in the 1960s and 1970s exposed me to a wonderful life with a winery as my backyard.
Back then, wine was simply labelled: Moselle, Riesling, Chablis, Hock, Burgundy and Claret. It was about the ‘style’ of wine (not varietal) that actually bore no resemblance to the French origin of those names. At that time, Australian fortified wine was king; sherries, ports and muscats were far more popular than table wines.
However, change was on the way. As winemaking practices improved, so did the selection of table wines. As tastes became more sophisticated, there was growing interest in wine as a social drink. Coffee drinking became an alternative to the traditional cup of tea and – in general – Australians were developing a broader palate for both food and wine.
Coinciding with this time was the resurgence of winemaking in some regions, including the Yarra Valley, as well as the emergence of newer wine regions around Australia, like Margaret River.
It was in the early 1970s that sales of table wines finally took over from these sweeter, stronger, fortified styles. The change from style to variety started to appear on wine labels and in the decades that followed, popularity for certain varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz grew, resulting in a mad rush to plant more of these grapes and pull out the less popular ones like Grenache and Mourvedre.
This was also the time of wine casks. They provided consumers with inexpensive wine to enjoy with their meals at a time when TV advertising was glamourising the appeal of wine as a social drink.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, interest in Australian wine grew overseas and so did the availability of big ballsy Shiraz. The world fell in love with these wines courtesy of influential American wine writer Robert Parker, and Australia delivered.
Winemakers were also trying to keep up with the insatiable thirst for Chardonnay. Sales grew but somehow along the way, we lost it. Chardonnay became too full on, too oaky and too alcoholic. Australian consumers backed away from these monsters and started to drink this lesser known variety called Sauvignon Blanc, particularly if it was from New Zealand. And like in overseas markets, Shiraz was on the up and up domestically.
Into the turn of the new century and winemakers have taken the process back to grassroots, literally. They have gone back to the vineyard in the quest to capture site expression, soil and season, doing things a little differently and trialling new varieties. They’re challenging the norm.
And we’re no exception here in the Yarra Valley. After buying a vineyard in 1987, we still grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz but over the last 30 years have added Pinot Gris (which not all that long ago was considered an alternative variety) and in more recent times we’ve grown Pinot Blanc, Nebbiolo and Gamay.
In the King Valley, which has become renowned for Italian varieties, you can find Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo amongst others. In places like Heathcote and McLaren Vale, largely the home of Shiraz, Grenache is making a comeback. Yes, that very same variety planted by our forefathers and used to make Port is back in vogue.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz may still be the popular kids on the block, but Australian consumers are becoming more adventurous. As a nation we have exposure to so many different cuisines with a mountain of different wine styles to enjoy with them. A few years ago, our company championed the cause for pale, dry Rose and it’s heartening to see how well it is now accepted; a wine that suits the Australian lifestyle perfectly.
With the advent of wine bars popping up all over the place, customers have the opportunity to try new and interesting wines by the glass, rather than the ubiquitous house white and house red. Single vineyard wines sit alongside artisan gins and craft beer.
Try getting your tongue around names like Assyrtiko and Sangiovese – it’ll be worth it, because they’re a revelation and they may be coming to a neighbourhood near you soon.