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New Australia?

The "New" is Born

Ever since Jon Bonne published his great book (and even before that in our weekly newsletter!) there’s been lots of talk about “The New California Wine.” And for good reason! There’s no more exciting recent development than the rise of Cali growers and winemakers who look back to the Golden Age of California Wine for inspiration to make wines that are balanced, interesting, subtle and, most important of all, delicious.

But America isn’t the only country with a long, complicated and under-appreciated history of winemaking. It isn’t even the only such new world country that, for a while, went a little bit overboard making “Parkerised” wines. Far from it!

So it's time we Americans recognized something important and exciting: the parallels between what's happening in California and in Australia are striking. Maybe we need to start talking about New Australia. 

Putting things in context

Let's start with some Australian history. Again, you'll see parallels with California. Although not a traditional homeland of vitis vinifera, Australia has been growing the grapes for ages. They were first introduced in the 1700s. And Australians have been exporting wine since 1822! Australia even had its own Judgment of Paris moments, surprising French blind-tasters in a series of late 19th century contests. 

Back then, Australia was best known for its sweet wines (“stickies,” in the local parlance), which were hugely popular in England. But starting after the Second World War, red wine became a big thing, with winemakers taking advantage of vines that had been planted by Australian pioneers as long as 100 years earlier.

Some of the classic Aussie wines developed in that era, like Penfold’s Grange (originally “Grange Hermitage”) and Bin 60A were blends from different vineyards, or even regions. But others, like Henshke’s Hill of Grace and Mt. Edelstone, are single-vineyard wines from relatively cool-climate, high altitude sites, made very much as “Old World-style” wines of terroir.

Drawing parallels

There are obvious similarities here between Australia and California. Each had an important (pre-prohibition/WWII) quality-oriented wine industry that sought to build on European models but in its own way. Both suffered setbacks in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and enjoyed post-WWII rebirths. 

For better or worse, the similarities continued when, ten or fifteen years ago, Australia started developing its international reputation for fruit bombs. The 1998 vintage in Australia was hot and a number of new "cult" producers made the biggest, jammiest wines ever to come to America. Robert Parker gave them some of the highest scores of his career.

At first people were impressed by Parker's scores and the sheer hedonism of the wines. But the wines, frankly, were totally unbalanced. And it didn't take long for American consumers to figure it out.

Here again we have a parallel: at around the same time that Australian Shiraz was going off the deep end, California was also churning out bigger and bigger fruit bombs. A new set of cult wines, rooted in oak flavors and high alcohol levels, was ascendant. Some folks—particularly those new to wine—were impressed. The wines, after all, didn’t require much (if any) cellaring and were full of tasty flavors that were easy to appreciate without thinking about things like food pairings or terroir.

Others, like me, my colleagues, and many of the collectors I drink with, were left scratching our heads. We found the wines unbalanced, difficult to drink with the food we like to eat, and disconnected from the traditions and lands that had made them. We continued to focus more on the traditional wines of Europe, especially from its cooler climes. And with time, it seems the market had the same response: the huge surge in interest that we saw in the Northern Rhone, the Mosel, Loire, Burgundy and Piedmont continues to this day.

It must be said that Australia really went quite a bit further than California. Even at the lowest moments of California's fruit-bomb moment the wines were still better than Australia's hedon-bombs. And Australia had another problem: the masses of cheap Shiraz, especially Yellow Tail, that invaded America. Here, the problem was more Beaujolais than CA: a poor-quality product (Beaujolais Nouveau and industrial wines flavored with banana yeast) flooded the market, bringing down a great region's reputation as a whole. 

The story of how California fought back is now familiar. It is the rise of New California and the great producers that emphasize freshness and balance. It is the story of In Pursuit of Balance spreading the word on what the great terroirs of California can produce when Pinot and Chardonnay are made in this style. It is the rise of organic and biodynamic farming. But it is also the story of rediscovery: collectors seeking out and drinking wines from California's pre-1990 "Golden Era," when the State had many quality-conscious producers making balanced wines, like Ridge, Montelena, and Stony Hill. 

Awakening to The New Australia

We are just starting to learn in America about this Australian awakening. Zach wrote about Jauma and Lucci back in July, two producers that are seeking out the cooler slopes of Australia's hills to make wines of lower alcohol and higher acidity. The wines are great, and some of our friends and customers took notice.

As Zach described, biodynamic farming and non-manipulative winemaking are on the rise across the continent. The emphasis is expanding from Shiraz-focused to embrace other grapes like Pinot Noir and Riesling. The process of rediscovering Australia's Golden Era past is also underway, with renewed interest in producers who never succumbed to the “hedonistic” trends, like Henschke, Tyrell, and Petaluma. 

It’s all very exciting. An entire continent waiting to be discovered. Importers are starting to take note and a trickle of fine wine is on its way in. And we look forward to sharing all our discoveries and thoughts Australian on this, blog, in our Newsletter and, of course, in the shop.

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