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.
The philosophical me has been stumped by why so many wine drinkers and professionals have rejected such a trove of terrific wines from a country and continent as large and diverse as Australia. Roughly the size and shape of the contiguous United States, it has as many variations in climate and topography. More than 2,000 small winemakers can't all be making the same kind of juice. And they're not, especially when you consider the range of personalities among them.
It occurs to me that we all see the world of wine through different prisms. Zillions of bottles are coming at us from too many places for any one of us to track. Sound winemaking is no longer a secret held by arcane practitioners in musty French cellars. Countries no one paid attention to 10 years ago are making outstanding wine. We naturally want to simplify this world. The easiest way is by geography. Most restaurant wine lists are still organized that way. So are most retail stores. But how many of us actually decide on what we want to drink tonight by geography? I don't choose my friends, or my wines, based on where they come from, but on their character and personality.
It makes more sense to sort the wine world by grape variety. California or Washington Cabernet Sauvignon has much in common with Médoc reds, Cabernet-based Tuscan reds and Australian Cabernets, more than with Burgundy or Rioja.
One of things we love about wine is how it can express the place where it grows, so geography matters. But it's a trap to focus only on geography, or you might find yourself drinking a light, fresh Dolcetto when you really wanted a noble Barolo. Both are Piemontese reds, of course, but they don't taste alike any more than Australian Grenache does a Cabernet.
Place of origin delivers its message through the filter of the grape variety. The narrower the geography—such as smaller appellations, single sites—the more alike the wines of the same grape varieties might be. But that still isn't what makes a wine worth drinking.
What does it is style, the third element. The winegrower (a lovely term that encompasses all of the human influence on the wine), makes hundreds of choices in shepherding the grape from vineyard to bottle. In some parts of the world, laws and regulations define many of those decisions, such as which grape variety to plant, and where, how to train the vines, when to pick, how to ferment the grapes, how long to age the wines and in what sort of container, and when to bottle.
These choices define style and, to a large extent, quality. But it's how well the winegrowers do them. All Gevrey-Chambertins are not created equal, and neither are all Aussie Shirazes. And that's why, over the next couple of weeks, I have lined up visits with wine producers young and old, experienced and brash, traditional and cutting-edge, who focus on different varieties in different places. I will also be talking to journalists and wine industry veterans who see all this from their side of the ocean.
Australia has also seen some whiplash quality and stylistic swings in the past several vintages, from blazing heat and bush fires in some regions to wet weather and cold temperatures barely enough to get the grapes ripe. At least they say they got 'em ripe. We shall see.
Follow Harvey Steiman on Twitter at twitter.com/harveywine.
Ivan Campos — Ottawa, Canada — November 9, 2011 1:48am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — November 9, 2011 5:53am ET
Denny Kleber — Charlotte NC — November 9, 2011 2:36pm ET
Scott Fore — San Diego — November 9, 2011 5:27pm ET
Aaron Meeker — Kansas City, KS — November 10, 2011 3:04pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — November 10, 2011 8:12pm ET
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