AUSTRALIAN RHAPSODY

Blends are the key to consistency and marketability for the Southern Hemisphere's wine juggernaut.


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Déjà vu: the forceful sensation and absolute conviction that what you are experiencing right now, you have experienced before.

Touring Australia's wine country recently, I found myself experiencing déjà vu. As my wanderings took me through New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, these periodic flashbacks time-warped me back to 1970s northern California, to then-ingenuous Sonoma County. Day after day, as I met with various Aussie winemakers and tasted their wines, the parallels between present-day Australia and 1970s northern California were palpable.

Back in the 1970s, Sonoma County's golden vistas were uncluttered, as are Australia's present-day Hunter Valley, Adelaide Hills, Goulburn Valley and Mudgee. Like many of the hundreds of Aussie wines I sampled, Sonoma's wines back then were fruit-intensive, angular and assertive, sometimes even brash. Sonoma County vintners of a quarter century ago were, like many of the smaller Australian wine producers we met, authentic rather than "gentleman" farmers. But, by far the most striking resemblance between the people of my Sonoma County past with the Australians of today was in temperament.

Like the Sonoma winemakers of a quarter-century ago, contemporary Australian winemakers are amiable, accessible and receptive to objective comment about the state of their fast-evolving industry. Generally it is rare to be asked point-blank questions such as, "Do you feel that we're doing the right things in the global marketplace?" or "In what areas of winemaking or marketing can we do better?" or "Are our Cabernets up to snuff yet in comparison to California and France?" But it happens frequently Down Under, where a striking absence of hubris is galvanizing an industry.

For the purpose of perspective, it's important to remember that table wines have been commercially produced in Australia since the mid-1800s. Hallowed wineries like Tahbilk in Goulburn Valley (established in 1860), McWilliam's of Riverina (1877), Penfold's (1844) and Orlando (1847) in the Barossa Valley, and Tyrrell's (1858) and Lindeman's (1843) in the Lower Hunter Valley have been producing wine continuously for, give or take, a century and a half.

But, no question, these are boom times Down Under. Here—let the statistics flow like fine wine:

· Vine-bearing areas in Australia rose 55.3 percent from 1994 to 1999 (from 151,564 acres in 1994 to 235,393 acres in 1999). Australia now boasts roughly 1,200 wineries, ranging from minute 2,000-case-a-year "garage" wineries to mammoth companies like Southcorp, BRL Hardy, Orlando Wyndham, Mildara Blass, McWilliam's and Rosemount.

· Wine production in Australia rose from 531 million liters for 1993-1994 to 793 million liters for 1998-1999, according to the Australian Wine Bureau—an increase of more than 49 percent in just five years.

· Australia is now the third-largest wine exporter to the U.S. after Italy and France. Wine exports from November 1, 1999 to October 30, 2000 were up 40.8 percent over the identical period of 1998-1999, according to the Australian Wine Bureau.

Clearly, at the dawn of the third millennium all systems are "go" for Australia's energetic wine producers. So why, at this moment in time, are the Australians so eager for outside, dispassionate opinions? Simple. At no time in its history has the Australian wine industry encountered such an explosion of both internal industry growth and worldwide export opportunity. Or, as Keith McLintock, CEO of McWilliam's Wines, put it: "For decades, we were motoring along in third gear. Quite happy with that really. But since the early 1980s, we've all shifted into overdrive, especially in the last decade. New wineries. New regions. New export markets.

Mergers, both internal and international. The chance to become a serious global factor in the wine industry suddenly became apparent to everyone. But there's still so much to master because first Europe, then California established formidable commercial beachheads. Neither can we take the competition from our Southern Hemisphere neighbors from South America lightly. For all practical purposes, we're still on the learning curve in this era of expansion."

Part of the learning curve is the gradual development of a distinctive "Australian wine style." Currently, at least, most Aussie wines, especially in the $15-and-under price range, appear to be focused more on emphatic fruit character and near-term drinkability than discernible regional idiosyncrasies and longevity.

To achieve that style, many of these New World winemakers are practicing a decidedly Old World technique: blending. In fact, during my visit, blending practices dominated many a conversation.

Of the two primary blending methods (combining wines made from different grape varieties, or combining wines from the same variety grown in different regions), blending across regions seems to be the favorite method among the Aussies. This is for purposes of consistency, but also due to the wide variety of terroirs on the vast continent.

"It's probably difficult to generalize about the preference of blending single varietals or single region wines," said Brett McKinnon, chief winemaker at Wyndham Estate Wines in New South Wales. "A lot of it depends on where a particular wine fits in terms of market and price point. For example our Bin range of wines retails at around $10 U.S. per bottle and at that price the consumer expects a certain quality level, style and consistency. Certain volumes are required. These things are more easily achieved by blending across regions."

Blending across regions, observed Andrew McPherson, managing director of McPherson Wines of New South Wales, "is based on producing wines of a consistent quality vintage after vintage. Grapes in any given region are subject to the vagaries of weather, and by blending between regions these vagaries can be leveled out. And wines from different regions have different flavor attributes. By blending these wines, the winemaker is able to achieve a more complete flavor profile."

"Both approaches have merit and have resulted in long-established quality labels," allowed Sue Hodder of Wynn's Coonawarra Estate. "At Wynn's we produce six varietal wines and one blend. We think we can make distinctive single-varietal wines that reflect the age and maturity of our vineyards and indeed we do like to see vintage changes in our wines. The Wynn's Cabernet Sauvignon and Wynn's Shiraz are Australian icon labels that date back to the early 1950s. They both have strong, individual identities and loyal followings. A blend of these two wines would be far less interesting than each wine in its own right."

But winemakers who blend insist that, beyond consistency, blending can lead to a product that is more than interesting—one that is unique. "A very good example of this is the blending of Shiraz from the Hunter Valley with, say, Coonawarra or Barossa Valley Shiraz or Cabernet," said Andrew Spinaze, the chief winemaker at Tyrrell's in New South Wales.

"Some of the best wines ever produced in Australia have been blends of various regions. Also, because Australia is so vast and we produce so many different styles of Shiraz, it makes sense to experiment with blends to try for something unique."

Australians have become such inveterate blenders that even some of their single-vineyard, single-varietal producers admit to blending, in some form. "We produce many single-vineyard, single-varietal wines. However, blending takes many forms even with these wines," said Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Mildara Blass in the Barossa Valley. "We use different winemaking techniques, oak types and coopers and blend different components to add complexity and improve quality."

"I think that in Australian winemaking there exists a preference to have the choice to blend, when appropriate," said Peter Gago, winemaker/oenologist at Southcorp Wines in South Australia. "Flexibility offers an opportunity to optimize quality, improve the flavor pool, and fine-tune structure. The classic multivarietal Australian blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz is a great example of a blend that parallels those of Bordeaux [Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot]."

Brian Croser of Petaluma Winery in the Adelaide Hills, a custodian of hands-on winemaking traditions and a notorious iconoclast, was forthcoming about how the blending of Australian reds and whites differ at day's end. "Blending has traditionally made Australia's best red wines, not white wines," he said. "The vestige of the tradition of great blended reds, of which each family-owned Australian wine company had examples, has largely retreated to Penfold's, the captain of the defending guard being Grange." (Penfold's Grange is a blend of Shiraz from very old vines and Cabernet Sauvignon, the majority being Shiraz.)

"Australia's best white wines have been very specific regional/varietal wines and continue to be," continued Croser. "Whites blended across varieties and regions have been consigned for commercial availability and costing reasons, and generally not for quality and style."

You could hardly be more forthcoming than that. And that's one of the great things about the winemaking community in Australia today. There's an openness, an authentic friendliness that is rare, not just for the wine industry, but for any industry. Add that to the often thrilling beauty of the wine regions and the forward-looking marketing of the industry as a whole, and Australia is a force to be reckoned with—and admired. To me, it's like the best of old Sonoma County ... but with kangaroos.

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