One school of thought argues that we are idiots, those of us who find something special enough in wine to pay a little more for it. Naysayers point to scientific studies that purport to show that most consumers can't tell the difference between simple wines for $5 and complex, expensive wines. If that is so, why fork out $50 for a special-occasion bottle, or even $15 for a wine to drink with dinner tonight?
Some of the loudest buzz these days in Australian wine centers on Tasmania, the island that is the southernmost state in the country and therefore the coolest (closest to the pole, of course). I just spent a couple of days in Tassie, tasting wines and visiting with small- to medium-size producers (there are no large wineries), some of whom don't export to the Australian mainland, let alone to the U.S.
The world's biggest, busiest, most practical wine research facility isn't in California, France, Italy or Germany. It's the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide, surrounded by many of the country's key wine regions. With 100 full-time employees, paid for by government assessments on wineries and vineyards, it's bigger and, the Institute claims, better-equipped than university-affiliated enology and viticulture departments elsewhere. I spent Monday morning visiting research, development and communications managers, who filled me in on some of their compelling work.
On a visit to the Yalumba winery on Thursday, after tasting through the next-to-arrive vintages of the winery's familiar wines, chief winemaker Brian Walsh showed me three bottlings I hadn't seen before. "Single-site Shiraz," they were called, one labeled Lyndoch, another Eden Valley, the other Light Pass. I thought, yes, this is cool. Someone in Barossa is focusing on the distinctions to be made from specific sites in various parts of the valley.
Next day at First Drop, as I tasted through the 2010 and 2011 bottlings (to try to get a handle on the two vintages in Australia, and specifically the Barossa), the winery's Fat of the Land series reminded me that Yalumba's approach was not unique.
Melbourne-based wine writer Max Allen loves a good Shiraz as much as the next guy. He just thinks there is so much more Australia can do, it's time to shake things up. In his book, The Future Makers: Australian Wine for the 21st Century (available online and soon to be published in the U.S.), he argues that a wide range of styles is also coming into focus for existing varieties, made by winegrowers who have adopted organic viticulture, byodynamics and, especially, grape varieties new to Australia.
As the big Qantas double-decker Airbus A380 soars over the Pacific Ocean taking me and some 460 of my new friends to Australia, I peer out the window at the vast dark and get philosophical. The 15 hours it takes to fly from California to Melbourne niftily represents the gulf that now seems to separate those who strive to make good wine in Australia from wine buyers that seem to have dismissed them back in the U.S. of A.
One of my intentions over the next couple of weeks is to get a better handle on just what the Australians are doing to remedy that state of affairs. I know from what I sample in my own blind tastings that the range of styles and wine types coming from Australia today is wider and greater than ever. I am looking forward to getting some clarity on what they are actually trying to achieve.