CLARE VALLEY, Australia—Of all the wine sagas that I've followed over the decades—the rise of California; the decline of everyday Bordeaux; the stunning renaissance of Italy; the revitalization of Spain; the wholly new appearance of Oregon and Washington—none quite equals the roller-coaster ride of Australia.
In the space of little more than a decade, Australian wine went from a strictly local item fighting for shelf space and cultural legitimacy in a beer-besotted country to a worldwide phenomenon that single-handedly knocked France off the (low-priced) shelves in Great Britain and was fast encroaching on comparably low-priced wines in the United States. Like some alien invader, Australian wine was a commercial juggernaut that seemingly came out of nowhere.
Then, about five years ago give or take, the juggernaut ground to a halt. All of a sudden, it seemed that nobody wanted Australian wines anymore—or publicly admitted to it, anyway. Producer after producer here in Australia told me point-blank during my three-week-long trip last month that they had no market in the United States. I heard time and again that their importers either cut orders severely or left off importing their wines altogether.
Every wine industry has its missteps. It happened in Burgundy in the 1970s with excessive yields creating dilute, almost anorectic wines; in California in the 1980s with flavorless "food wines;" and in Oregon with a self-proclaimed pair of supposedly great vintages (1986 and '87) that set the region back in public esteem and credibility for nearly a decade. The list could easily continue with, for example, Austria's disastrous scandal in 1985 involving wines spiked with diethylene glycol.
In all of these cases, what emerged from the ashes was a vastly improved wine culture in each locale. Burgundy has never made better red wines, in my opinion, than it does today. (White Burgundies are more problematic as the yields for Chardonnay are still way too high for consistent greatness, to say nothing of the nagging, aggravated and still-unsolved problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies.)
Austria radically reformed itself after the wake-up call of the scandal, and its wines have never been purer, finer or more profound. California has gone from strength to strength, from an explosion of ever-better Pinot Noirs and Syrahs to the still-evolving maturation of largely new (and often cooler) wine zones along the Central and Sonoma coasts. Oregon, for its part, is now creating the best Pinot Noirs it has ever made.
But what of Australia? Right now, Australian wine suffers a nearly worldwide lack of esteem. Where only just a few years ago seemingly everyone was oohing-and-aahing over the new Australian wine baby, today there's a collective shrug. It's just another baby—and maybe it really wasn't all that cute anyway.
Australia's fall from grace had a velocity I've never before seen. I can't think of another wine country that, Icarus-like, flew so high and fell so far in so short a time.
"If you're thinking, 'Great, just what we need: more syrupy, over-alcoholic Barossa-style Shiraz,' think again."
Now, the question is: Where to go from here? In both value and quantity the plunge continues. According to Impact, a trade publication of M. Shanken Communications, "Exports of Australian wine have fallen in value for the third consecutive year, experiencing a 9 percent drop … for the 12 months through December 2010."
And what is sent abroad is increasingly exported in bulk form, as a cheap commodity item. Higher-value bottled wine exports continue to decline: exports of bottled wines to Australia’s two most important markets—Great Britain and United States—fell in volume by, respectively, 28 percent and 4 percent, according to Impact.
While other wine zones may have more breathing room thanks to, say, a larger local audience, which is the key advantage of American wine producers, many other nations are nowhere near as fortunate. (New Zealand, for example, exports fully 71 percent of its entire wine production.)
Many wine zones are faced with becoming "mini-Australias" as worldwide wine competition increases, exchange rates become unfavorable (Australia; New Zealand; Europe), local production levels become insupportably large (Italy, Spain, California) or lopsided in variety (New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc; Oregon with Pinot Noir) or the luster simply wears off (Napa Valley; Brunello di Montalcino).
Mind you, none of this is inevitable. But the nature of the world today makes Australia's astoundingly rapid fall a cautionary tale. Simply put, things happen faster and more dramatically now. The reasons may differ—Japan's appetite for luxury products may contract because of a new mindset from the earthquake—but markets indisputably now react more severely than, say, 10 years ago.
This is why I went to visit Australia's Clare Valley. Such a statement may seem a non sequitur, but I assure you it's not. I went to Clare Valley to see the future—and the redemption—of Australian fine wine.
About 90 miles north of Adelaide, Clare Valley is a narrow strip of farmland—really several lateral ribbons of hillsides—that's one of the oldest winegrowing areas in Australia, dating to the 1840s. With just 2,500 acres of vines, it's overshadowed by its much larger and equally old neighbor, Barossa Valley. Yet the two zones, despite their proximity (the two districts are 60 miles apart), create distinctly different wines—and have utterly different mentalities.
Where Barossa has long been the titular headquarters of some of Australia's biggest wine companies—and consequently has suffered disproportionately from their bulk-processing mindset—Clare Valley is far more artisanal. Vineyards typically are small: 200 acres of vines would be considered a big holding.
What's more, Clare retains a distinction that's remarkable anywhere in the world: It creates stunningly fine dry Riesling alongside equally superb Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. And if you're thinking, "Great, just what we need: more syrupy, over-alcoholic Barossa-style Shiraz," think again. Clare Valley reds are typically sleek and cool-climate in their restraint. Sure, the reds can be amped-up, and a few are. But most are not.
Clare Valley has what all wine lovers should want: artisanal, handcrafted winemaking values allied to a focus on just a few varieties that perform magnificently. And oh yes, the prices are proper. They're not Australia's cheapest wines, nor should they be. But you won't be paying for hype and hoopla either.
For producers everywhere (and we onlookers as well), what Clare Valley represents is what the future will reward: no critter labels, no winemaking trickery; no cheap and cheery and no excess.
If Clare Valley had monks, we'd call it Burgundian—which is what it is, at least in its agricultural modesty. It epitomizes the cure for what ails Australia.