Australia’s new philosophy of freshness
A new generation of Australian winemakers are turning their backs on the big, beefy styles that made the country’s reputation, preferring to make lighter, fruitier expressions in response to demand from restaurants and consumers.
It’s mid afternoon on a crisp spring day in Adelaide. As if teasing us, the sun flits in an out of the clouds, forcing us into a comical routine – our jumpers come off and sunglasses go on when the sun comes out, and vice versa when it disappears behind the clouds again. We’re sitting outside a church that has been converted into a wood-fired pizza restaurant called Lost in a Forest.
Holding court is Taras Ochota, the laid-back, dreadlocked spiritual leader of an exciting new band of winemakers in the small town of Basket Range, including James Erskine of Jauma, Brendon Keys of BK Wines and Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux, who are putting purity of fruit and downright deliciousness at the forefront of their winemaking agendas.
As the afternoon ebbs on, we taste through Taras’ Ochota Barrels range while munching on an endless supply of Neapolitan-style pizzas fresh from the oven. Taras speaks passionately about the importance of taking a holistic approach to grape growing. While not a ‘natural’ winemaker, he takes a hands-off, minimum-intervention approach, picking grapes when their acidity levels are high enough to imbue the wines with a compelling energy and nervous tension.
He works with light- and medium-bodied red varieties like Gamay, Grenache and Pinot, and plays with whole-bunch fermentation, using controlled pigeage and small amounts of sulphur.
The common thread running through his reds is their brightness – both in terms of their attractive ruby-red colour glinting jewel- like in the glass, to their juicy raspberry and cherry red fruit character, soft, almost undetectable tannins, vibrant acidity and pretty perfume.
“I’m keen to make beautiful wines that are easy to drink. I pick quite early so the wines maintain their natural acidity. I like them to be mouthwatering and pithy. I’m all about approachability and deliciousness,” says Ochota, whose range is represented in the UK by Indigo Wine.
While the Basket Range collective are making wines on a small scale for a niche audience, Ochota’s philosophy and winemaking approach is indicative of a seismic stylistic shift in Australia, which is happening on a grand scale to great effect.
There will always be an appetite in some pockets of the world for big, bold, velvety Shirazes that make you feel like you’re being hugged from the inside, but if a recent trip to some of the key regions in the country is anything to go by, any long-held prejudices about Australian wine need to be cast aside.
The winemaking conversation is largely moving away from jammy, Parker- pleasing blockbusters towards something lighter, brighter, more elegant and altogether more appealing. Plus, finesse needn’t come at the expense of power – some of the most interesting and inviting wines being made in Australia at the moment successfully walk the line between the two.
“We’ve just about lost all of the alcoholic, heavy, dead-skin, palate-killing Shirazes, which is an hallelujah moment. Instead, we’re moving towards brighter, more interesting wines from quality producers,” says Chris Hancock MW of Robert Oatley Vineyards in New South Wales. He adds: “In Australia, there used to be monster wines at one end of the spectrum and sweet, chunky wines at the other.
There’s a space in between that we can fill where we can be shown to be very serious about what we do. Winemakers across the board in Australia are showing more sensitivity in their approach, and there’s a focus on viticultural excellence in the vineyards too.”
Hancock was one of the first to spot Chardonnay’s potential in Australia in the early 1980s. It has grown to become one of the varieties the country can really hang its hat on and be proud of. With the days of sunshine-in-a- bottle Chardonnay truly behind them, winemakers across the country are on a mission to express terroir and maintain freshness and purity of fruit rather than masking it with oak.
Australia is fortunate in that is has more warmth and sunshine than many cool-climate countries and is able to achieve phenolic ripeness with depth of fruit flavour,” says Hancock, adding, “The Chardonnays coming out of Margaret River, the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and Tumbarumba are all a little bit different in character, which adds to their interest. Regional styles are starting to emerge and hallelujah to that.”
Andrew Hardy of Petaluma believes so passionately in the potential of Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, that he thinks the best wines from the region now offer a viable alternative to Burgundy.
“It’s all about fruit here – more malic and less malo. Styles have become more restrained in the Adelaide Hills and we’re getting more of that gunflint character, but we have to keep our luscious style – creamy and complex with bodyweight and texture from the oak, which complements it. We used to be making 100% malo Chardonnays with a lot of new oak but we’ve been reining it in and our oak formats are getting bigger,” he says.
Chardonnay is the most important and exciting variety we have and it will make or break us.” Dan Coward of Shaw and Smith believes climate change has played its part in changing the style of Chardonnay made in the region. “Adelaide Hills Chardonnay has changed so much since climate change. You wouldn’t have dreamt of picking in February and now most people have finished picking by then,” he says.
“We’re trying to get back to the fruit and build up texture. Generosity of fruit is very important for Chardonnay from the Hills. Oak use has dropped off dramatically – winemakers are playing a lot more to the fruit character now.” Site selection for grape sourcing is becoming increasingly important in Australia for all varieties.
Big guns Penfolds and Hardys are looking to the cool-climate regions of Tasmania, Tumbarumba, the Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley and Victoria for their top Chardonnays – Yattarna and Eileen Hardy respectively.
“Different regions bring things to the blend – from Yarra Valley you get sweet lemon curd and creaminess, while Tasmania brings persistent acid and juiciness.
For me, the defining character of Eileen Hardy Chardonnay is the sweet fruit, peaches and cream, and lemon curd flavours that make it incredibly drinkable,” reveals Tom Newton, longtime chief white winemaker for Hardys and custodian of Eileen Hardy, who describes Chardonnay as his “blank canvas”.
On the red front, producers across the country are taking a growing interest in light and medium-bodied red varieties from France, Italy and Spain like Gamay, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola, Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Mencía.
This newfound interest has sprung up both out of a desire to experiment, their suitability to certain pockets of the country, and a desire on the part of sommeliers and consumers for easy-drinking reds to enjoy with food.
The influence and importance of Melbourne and its thriving restaurant scene can’t be underestimated. It’s so powerful, that it’s actively driving winemaking decisions and wine styles in nearby regions like the Yarra Valley.
“We’re hugely influenced and pushed by the trends in the Melbourne restaurant scene because we’re only an hour away from the city. We work closely with sommeliers and chefs on what new dishes they’re developing and the wines that might go with them. There’s a constant conversation about food and wine pairings,” reveals talented trailblazer Mac Forbes.
He adds: “We harvest a month earlier than we used to in the Yarra Valley. We’re finding out which varieties suit our soils best at the moment. It’s hard to sum up the wines from the region as there’s such variety.
There’s a lot of experimenting going on and a willingness to try new things I think Nebbiolo, Barbera, Grenache, Sangiovese and Mencía all have a bright future here.” In the McLaren Vale, producers are united in their belief that they are collectively making the best Grenaches in the country.
“McLaren Vale Grenache is so fragrant and is halfway between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie in style,” enthuses d’Arenberg’s ebullient chief winemaker Chester Osborn.
“Most of it comes from old vines, some of which are over a century old and dry grown. For me it’s like Pinot Noir – the Everest challenge I’m trying to climb. Grenache shows off the year and terroir more than any other variety that we work with, which is great – I love how sensitive it is.”
Yangarra’s chief winemaker, Peter Fraser, is equally excited about the quality of McLaren Vale Grenache.
“It’s one of the jewels in our crown. Grenache can be a bit of a hard sell but is forging its own path at trendy restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne where medium-bodied wines are being celebrated. It’s very Pinotesque – fragrant and not too tannic but complex with good palate weight. We make our greatest Grenaches in our coolest years,” he reveals.
Nick Hazelgrove of Hazelgrove Wines is keen to educate consumers about the fact that Grenache’s light ruby colour doesn’t make it a light- bodied wine. “Grenache gives a lot more in terms of body and power than its light colour implies. This misconception has been a bit of a problem in the past. We used to be apologetic about Grenache, now we’re proud of it,” he says.
One of the big trends to have developed recently in Australia’s cooler-climate regions is a desire to experiment with whole-bunch fermentation, with some winemakers going the whole hog, unafraid of the stalky character it can imbue in the wines, and others using a percentage of whole bunches in their blends.
Timo Mayer, a wild-eyed German who has made the Yarra Valley his home for the past 20 years, is bold enough to make a 100% whole-bunch Cabernet, which he’s pretty pleased with.
“You get less reduction with whole-bunch fermentation. It used to take five years for the tannins to come around on my Cabernet, so I decided to do a whole-bunch version, which you can drink the next day,” he says.
David Bicknell of Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley is also a fan of whole-bunch. “We want to make fruit-forward wines not tree-flavoured wines. You can add fantastic light and shade to the wines when you use the stems. Whole-bunch actually works better with Shiraz here than with Pinot,” he says.
Another advocate of the style is Steve Flamsteed of Giant Steps – Gourmet Traveller Wine’s winemaker of the year for 2016. “Whole- bunch has become part of the Giant Steps house style for Pinot – I love the aromas you get from it and the glycerol mouthfeel,” he reveals.
For Forbes, the trend for whole-bunch ferments links back to the current conversation in Australia about the importance of freshness and brightness of fruit – and a renewed focus on drinkability.
“Australia still carries the scar tissue of piss-poor critter wines and people telling us that we can’t make site-specific wines, but the industry has turned a corner – it’s great to see growers fighting people off and getting good prices for their grapes.
As winemakers, we’re thinking about the starting point more, and about sourcing the right vineyard fruit rather than trying to make certain wines to suit consumer palates. Consumers are more than happy to accept lighter wines with beautiful fruit flavour that are easy to drink.
Youth and freshness of fruit are the two trends driving the Australian wine market, but there are clearly some consumers that still want big oaky reds from Australia,” he admits. On the competition circuit, judges are scoring light and medium-bodied reds more favourably than the bigger, higher- alcohol styles traditionally made in Australia.
“Judges are going for the light, fresh, easy-drinking young wines, and the trophies are going to reds that are less than six months old, with hardly any of the top accolades being awarded to anything older – you’re almost penalised if you put a bigger wine into a show,” laments Osborn of d’Arenberg, who believes the trend stems from the influence of the Melbourne restaurant scene.
He adds: “People are really going for that Beaujolais style of red and there’s a place for it in the market – the somms in Melbourne are going mad for food- friendly, lighter reds so winemakers are chasing that style now but it’s a fad and I’m sick of drinking lollies!”
Fraser of Yangarra also airs concerns about the kind of wines that are picking up the top gongs in Australia at the moment: “The trophies are going to producers’ light-and-bright entry-level wines, which is dangerous, as a lot of consumers still love big, bold Shiraz styles like Torbreck.
“I believe there’s still an important place for full-bodied Shiraz crafted around an architecture of skin tannin and French oak tannin – reds that are classic and beautiful but still fresh.”