A is for Australia
Ten years ago, I was asked to write a wine column for Living Orkney magazine. The brief was to write about wine from an Orkney perspective. Not such a strange notion as you might think: the definitive book on wine and other alcoholic drinks in Scotland was written by an Orcadian. Celebrated in her day but now rather forgotten, F. Marian McNeill, daughter of the Free Kirk manse in Holm, published The Scots Cellar in 1956.
I contributed those columns to Living Orkney for nearly five years, and, chancing across some old copies of the magazine lately, it seemed to me that they were still worth reading. Well, you can be the judge of that! For the next 26 weeks I will republish one of those columns here every week, with thanks to Living Orkney, and its editor at the time, John Ross Scott.
I will make any small updates that seem required by the passing of time. Mostly those will just be the specific wines recommended in the text.
So here we go: an A - Z of Wine, part 1. Where will we start? Albania? Antarctica? No! AUSTRALIA!
By the time The Scots Cellar was published, ordinary Orcadians had been drinking wine for at least a century (we know that because K&G was founded in 1859!) and no doubt it had been served in some of the big houses a lot further back than that. These days it’s a pleasure that’s available to everyone, and the perfect complement to the fine food on our doorstep: an essential part of Living in Orkney.
Where better to start an A to Z of wine than in Australia? Several years ago it became the source of more imported wine than any other country, knocking the French off the top spot they’d held since year dot. And despite growing competition from other New World areas like New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, it’s still the first shelf most of us reach for when we want a half-decent bottle on a Friday night. We can take it for granted that almost anything from the Aussie section will be reliably fruity and affordable.
But that reliability will be a curse as well as a blessing. I mean, we all know what Australian wines are like, don’t we? Big, blowsy, golden Chardonnays, with buckets of fruit and lashings of oak. Even bigger Shirazes, tooth-staining purple in colour, bursting with ripe, jammy, concentrated flavours, like a strawberry alcopop in a 75cl bottle.
Well, there’s some truth in that. The cheap Australian wines that throng the supermarket shelves tend to be like cheap food and drink of all kinds: produced on an industrial scale, made by scientists and marketing men rather than farmers and food lovers. It’s dependable, drinkable, always the same – but it tends to be boring and bland. Think of Supermarket X own-brand whisky compared to a good Scapa or Highland Park. It’s brown, it’s nippy, it gets you foo, but it has none of the character or interest of a dram made with care and aged slowly and patiently.
The success of the cheaper Aussie wines, with their predictable, formulaic flavours, has obscured the fact that the country has hundred of small and medium sized producers making individual wines with care, attention to detail, and real passion. Australia is a vast country, but almost all of the wine – certainly all of the best wine – is made in small valleys or on the slopes of low-lying hills. In other words, it’s as much influenced by soil type, exposure to sun and wind, rainfall, surrounding vegetation, underlying geology as anywhere else. Even (cover your eyes, traditionalists) the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. That complex interplay of influences – terroir, as the French call it – is the foundation which the skilled winemaker builds on.
So where to start in the search for great, interesting, individual wines from Down Under? Well, it’s a lot easier than searching for a selection of great Belgian or Mexican wines! Here are some of our current (2019) favourites:
Dandelion Vineyards, Lionheart of the Barossa Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia. A full-blooded Aussie red in classic style…
Peter Lehmann, Wigan Riesling and Margaret Semillon. Two characterful whites from Barossa, and one of Australia’s most respected wineries.
Shaw+Smith, Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills, SA. If you like New Zealand Sauv Blanc…you’ll love this! Australia’s best.
Charles Melton, Rose of Virginia, Barossa Valley, SA. My favourite rose in the world…dark pink and very fruity.
Cullen, Amber, Margaret River, Western Australia. An intriguing orange wine from one of the world’s leading organic and biodynamic producers.
McHenry Hohnen, Rocky Road Chardonnay, Margaret River, WA. David Hohnen was one of the founders of the iconic Cloudy Bay. Now he crafts superb whites and reds in beautiful Margaret River.
Plantagenet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Great Southern, WA. Very very classy. One to convert the keenest lover of Bordeaux into an Aussie fanatic.
Giants Steps, LDR, Yarra Valley, Victoria. LDR stands for Light Dry Red which is a great piece of underselling: This is a truly delicious juicy blend of Pinot Noir and Shiraz. (An unusual blend, but it works.)
Innocent Bystander, Moscato, Yarra Valley, Vic. Its pink, it’s fizzy, it’s low-alcohol and it’s sweet. And it’s one of our best selling wines!
I could go on all day…and if you come in the shop I probably will. It’s 10 years since I wrote this essay, and 12 since I visited Australia, but I still love the boldness and diversity of its wines, which if anything are even better than they were in 2007.