Prior to launching the 10th edition of his “100 Best Australian Wines”, wine writer Matthew Jukes looked back on a decade of radical change in the country’s wine industry and offered the drinks business predictions for its future direction.
Due to be unveiled to the UK trade on Tuesday 21 May, the 2013 selection is primarily based on what Jukes summed up as the “awesome” 2012 vintage for the whites and “great” 2010 vintage for the reds.
However, he also promised a number of more mature styles such as a 2007 Semillon, as well as a broad price spectrum that starts at £8 a bottle.
Despite acknowledging: “The estates that do well haven’t really changed,” Jukes noted a marked shift in the style of wine and regional strengths that are winning attention today.
While up and coming regions such as Tasmania featured on the inaugural 2004 list, Jukes noted: “today there are five or six Tassie wines – and Pinot Noir as well as sparkling.”
Similarly he highlighted a shift in his Yarra Valley representation, telling db: “I’m writing up Syrahs now – it was always too hot for Pinot Noir.”
With a “Port” style wine making his list for the first time this year, Jukes also revealed the 2013 inclusion of two Tempranillo-based wines.
Describing this Spanish variety as “a grape that Australia could do especially well – just look at what Garnacha can do there if it’s treated right,” he also recommended it as blending “extraordinarily well” with Cabernet Sauvignon.
In response to previous criticism about the number of high scoring, highly acclaimed wines that are absent from his list, Jukes stressed an aim to ensure a “completely balanced” representation of Australia’s top wines with minimal overlap.
Wines must also have “a year’s worth of stock” and be available in the UK market, thereby ruling out many of the cuvées praised by Jukes as “very creative” that are only sold at the cellar door.
Drawing a common theme across his 100 wines, Jukes maintained: “It’s the pursuit of balance, finesse and a sense of place that these people think about.”
In particular, he remarked: “It’s the finessing that’s changed – what’s definitely happening is the cool climate thing. People have modified their style and
there’s been a gradual reduction of alcohol.”
While larger companies like Penfolds are now sourcing increased amounts of fruit from cooler regions such as Tasmania, even in warmer regions Jukes pointed to “massive changes viticulturally” that have enabled producers to manage ripeness more elegantly, “getting physiological ripeness at lower Baumé.”
He also echoed widespread praise about the change in Australia’s use of oak. “The whites in particular have much less new oak or they’re using larger formats,” Jukes summed up. “That’s reducing the impact but still gives the splendour that oak brings to the palate”
With such a discernible stylistic shift within a relatively short time frame, Jukes observed: “That’s why the Aussies are so good; they just keep on improving.” Indeed, thanks to this rapid evolutionary pace, he went so far as to argue: “As an average quality level, Australia’s higher than any country in the world.”
Despite this progressive approach across the country as a whole, Jukes picked out Margaret River as a region that “seems to have gone a little under the radar.”
Describing the region as “largely disappointing in the overall number of good wines there should be given the headstart they had,” he suggested: “It isn’t a very dynamic area and I don’t think they’ve moved as far forward as other regions.”
For other parts of the country, he argued that the problem was more one of communication than inertia. Picking out Coonawarra, Jukes commented: “It doesn’t have the glam tourist feel, but they have made such an effort in the vineyard that the wines have been transformed in the last 10 years because of the investment that’s been made.”
Highlighting in particular “the effort Penfolds are making there” and the way “Wynns has been transformed,” Jukes noted: “The message just hasn’t got through yet.”
As for Hunter Valley Semillon, an Australian flagship that has struggled in recent years to enjoy the same commercial success of many less original styles, Jukes predicted a brighter road ahead.
“They might just start to get there with the introduction of these mid-priced wines that are forward drinking but still really classy,” he maintained. “I’ve been purposefully parading these wines in place of Sauvignon Blanc because it fits perfectly with what Sauvignon does for your palate, but it’s a much finer, foodie wine with a higher IQ. If you want Sauvignon Blanc, go to New Zealand.”
Jukes also suggested that Australia’s results with Pinot Gris have been underwhelming. Calling the variety “a dead duck,” he remarked: “It’s a grape that winemakers don’t really enjoy working with,” explaining: “It sells shedloads at the bottom end but bugger all at the top so why lavish attention on it? It’s never going to be remotely as interesting as Chardonnay or Riesling.”
In contrast, one style that Jukes admitted to being “particularly dear to my heart” is the country’s Shiraz/Cabernet, which he praised as “a blend that defines Australia.”
Stressing the quality of this blend across the price spectrum, he argued: “at the bottom end of the market it’s a world leader and at the top end it’s as good as the Super Tuscans, Napa and Bordeaux – some of the greatest Cabernet-based reds in the world.”
In order to raise the profile of Australia’s Shiraz/Cabernet blends, Jukes will team up with fellow wine writer Tyson Stelzer in June to host the first ever UK tasting of past and most recent winners in The Great Australian Red competition, which focuses exclusively on this varietal combination.
As for his feeling about the most promising future areas of improvement for Australia, Jukes remarked: “The next step is vine age.” Despite accepting that “they’re not going to discover too many more regions,” Jukes flagged up “the implication of newer plantings in existing sites where they’ve changed the root stock or clones or grafted over a variety.”
This aside, he emphasised that a major game changer for Australia would lie not so much in the vineyards, but in its export market communications. “It really is about changing the way the trade thinks about Australia,” Jukes insisted, picking out the restaurant sector in particular as “really vital.”
Setting the country’s fine wine offer against the backdrop of ever-increasing prices from traditional sources such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, Jukes argued: “The timing’s perfect because Australia’s ready and Puligny or Chassagne are now £100 a bottle – and not all of them are that great.”
By contrast, he continued, “Aussie Chardonnay hasn’t reached £50 yet in top restaurants and it’s really great. I don’t think sommeliers and wine buyers have cottoned onto that yet.”
A further update on Australia will appear in May’s issue of the drinks business.