In my experience, Australian vintners are a candid bunch. They don't try to put a good face on things if they're going bad, and they don't shy away from saying something nice about competitors if they deserve it. Ask a direct question, I've found, and most often you get a straight answer.
That's not the way things usually go in the wine world.
Two Aussie winemakers paid me visits this week. I was struck again at their openness.
First up was Tom Carlson, the winemaker at Yering Station in Yarra Valley. We shared a bottle of Spanish Albariño (not his own wine; his choice, as it was already on the table when I got there). We talked about the difficult 2007 vintage, ravaged by spring frosts and drought. "If the vines had not put out a second crop," he shrugged, "we could not have put a decent amount of wine in the bottle. And some of the wine we made off of second crop grapes was better than the main crop, which was pretty good."
Usually, wineries ignore the second crop or pick it for their lesser wines. For a winemaker to admit that it made better wine, well, let's just say I can't imagine that coming from a French vigneron.
"Tell me," Carlson said, turning the tables. "how do you think Yarra Valley is doing?"
I looked at him, and I knew he expected a straight answer. Besides his Chardonnay and Shiraz-Viognier, I said, I can only think of a few wines I really like. I get the impression, I said, that a lot of wineries are coasting, because Yarra is close enough to Melbourne that they can sell all their wine without trying too hard. I mentioned a couple of wineries with big reputations whose wines I find flawed.
His answer surprised me. "I agree with you," he said. Then he complimented a competitor, Coldstream Hills, for "making some of the best wines they've ever made in recent vintages."
The next day, I sat down to coffee for a chat with Phil Laffer, winemaker for Jacob's Creek. The big brand from Orlando Wyndham, owned by the French company Pernod-Ricard, sells better in the United Kingdom and Australia than it does in the U.S., despite the fact that many of the wines offer tremendous value.
"We let the market drag us down on quality," he said, a startling admission for a winemaker. "Now we have to prove to people that it's worth paying more for our wines, because they're good enough."
In Laffer's view, America's perception of Australian wine quality peaked around 1999. But there was a time bomb ticking in Oz. The country's export success had already ignited a vine-planting boom. Unfortunately, many of the vineyards were put in the wrong places. When thousands of new vineyard acres produced mediocre to poor quality grapes in this decade, the country was awash in wine, not all of it good. (It still is, but the frosts and drought are taking care of that.)
About five years ago, Yellow Tail burst onto the scene, scored a huge marketing success, and spawned a legion of imitators. But whereas Yellow Tail was the product of a real family winery, many of the imitators came from neophyte negociants who designed cute labels for whatever they could buy on the bulk market.
America's opinion of Australian wine has suffered, Laffer believes. "And we (at Jacob's Creek) made the mistake of chasing after that same market," he said ruefully. "We cut corners to keep our prices competitive, when what we should have done was make less wine, make it better and sell it for more."
That's what Jacob's Creek is doing now. The reserve level, which sells here for $12 a bottle, has performed especially well; most recently the Shiraz 2003 scored 91 points. At those prices, these are impressive wines. A higher tier, which had been called "Limited Release," is getting a new package that befits the wines' quality, which often exceeds 90 points.
The huge surplus that was hanging over Australian wine last year should evaporate by next year, once the excess wine moves through the market. Vineyard experts say next year's harvest cannot be bigger than this year's, and Laffer doesn't expect a normal crop until 2011. "It will take that long for the vines to return to some kind of balance," he notes.
And that's good for Jacob's Creek, he says. "All those other wines will be gone, and what's left will be the good stuff."