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harvey steiman at large

Aussie Wines and Humor on Display

Documentary details how Australia's wines emerged from derision to triumph
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 11, 2012 11:54am ET

It takes a certain understanding of the peculiarly Australian sense of humor to appreciate why a documentary tracing the story of Australian wine in past few decades would be titled Chateau Chunder: A Wine Revolution. The reference to a Monty Python sketch from 1972 ridicules Aussie wines with a vulgarity that would involve tossing one's cookies.

Self-deprecating, often sharp, the dry Aussie sense of humor is one reason I enjoy knowing the country's winemakers. They are, for the most part, not full of themselves. Their effort goes into the product and spreading the word about it. Most Aussie wineries, for example, are anonymous-looking sheds, not architectural palaces. It's the wines that matter.

That no-nonsense attitude is why a documentary made in Australia by Aussie filmmaker Stephen Oliver and shown there on ABC-TV (Australian Broadcasting Co.) to acclaim, could get away with such a title. Australian wine, the Pythons suggested then, was not for drinking but for "laying down and avoiding." Barely 25 years later, Australia was challenging France, Italy and Spain in total wine exports.

There are those today who have no clue to the breadth and depth of what Australia really produces and who would still say that the Pythons got it right. Some find fault with over-the-top wines that gained way too much notice among wine insiders, thinking that's all there is to serious Aussie wine. Then there are those who dismiss Australia because of several very large-production low-priced brands with kangaroos, wallabies and other antipodean marsupials on their labels. (Yellow Tail, by the way, was not the first; an early brand shown in the film: Kanga Rouge.)

In fact there is a cogent scene in the documentary reenacting a key moment in Australia's quest to earn the wine world's business. At a trade tasting set in London, an eager Aussie peppers wine critic Oz Clarke with some questions. What characteristics does he like in Cabernet Sauvignon? How much should he have to pay for a bottle? Annoyed, Clarke offers a few sketchy descriptors.

Cut to the next year's trade fair. The eager Aussie offers Clarke a glass. It has all of the attributes he likes about Cabernet, Clarke recalls, and the price is exactly what he specified. He is impressed. "The Australians made wine that we wanted and had asked us what we liked. That had never happened before. It was a revelation."

That fairly accurately reflects what happened in the 1990s. The engine that drove Australia's broad success is that its winemakers learned how to achieve reliably good wine to respond to what the world wanted to drink. Australia conquered the wine world.

The documentary steps gingerly beyond this scenario. It glances only briefly at the multiple challenges to the country's wine image today (exports fell off significantly in the first decade of this century). But it does a good job of sketching the story of those who have held their ground, making honest, often extraordinary wines. Robert Hill Smith of Yalumba, Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's and Vanya Cullen of Cullen are prominently featured. The French vigneron Michel Chapoutier, who now has several wineries in Australia, expounds on the uniqueness of the terroirs he found there. The contrast with Jean-Marc Colombo, a fellow Rhône producer who sneers at Australia, is amusing, if painful for all concerned.

With a strong British slant, the narrative focuses mostly on how the U.K. media and consumers overcame their antipathy and became fans. Observers most prominently featured include the London-based critics Clarke and Jancis Robinson, both proponents of Aussie wine before it was fashionable. Each is seen in archival footage that will make anyone who knows them chuckle. Also of note is John Avery, the prominent British wine merchant.

The most insightful observations, however, come from leading Aussie critics Huon Hooke, as always clear-eyed, and Max Allen, who is more out there on the edge.

The documentary, first seen on ABC Australia and on BBC4 in the U.K. is now available in the U.S. on DVD. The extras—longer interviews, archival footage with the winemakers and writers and some odd and funny detours—are worth the price. Oz Clarke recounting how he bluffed his way into perfectly identifying an Australian Chardonnay in a blind tasting on live television, despite suffering a head cold, is hysterical.

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